By Kieron Gillen & Stephanie Hans
To the ears of your typical angsty teenager, there is little difference between pop music and poetry. Their very nature requires a fair amount of heart worn on sleeve accompanied by the belief that these personal emotions are compelling to others, even if the writer is convinced that no one is interested in giving more than a cursory glance at their pain. Martyrs they all be. Thus, it is only natural that Kieron Gillen would set his sights on the Romantics for his first tale of a Pantheon set outside the present day. After all, it only makes sense that the same culture which nurtured a Percy Shelley would later also produce Morrissey and Robert Smith. In fact, Gillen would be far from the first to make this observation; viewing the Romantics as the rock stars of their day has long passed into cliché. What makes the 1831 special so rewarding is how Gillen digs deeper into the archetypes, crafting a compelling mediation on eternal questions of creativity, death and legacy. His script is in turn stunningly illustrated by Stephanie Hans. With 1831 Gillen and Hans accomplish what all great historical writing aims for: using the past as a means to better understand the present. In such a way, The Wicked + The Divine continues to prove itself one of the best books on the racks.
The concept behind The Wicked + The Divine is that every ninety years a select group of twelve gods are reincarnated in the bodies of young people. For two years they wield vast power, influencing culture and help humanity develop. Then at the end of those two years, all the gods are dead. As its title states, 1831 is set the late season of Romanticism. It opens in suitably dramatic fashion with the deathbed ravings of the god Hades. He speaks of a dark vision, describing an ominous black figure approaching. In actuality, his ending is more mundane as the immortal Ananke prepares to plunge a dagger into his breast. Initially introduced as the caretaker of Pantheons, Ananke has taken on an increasingly sinister presence in the series, especially in the course of the recently concluded Rising Action arc. Her role in 1831 is brief (she makes another ill-starred appearance at the end), yet reinforces the idea that there is more to Ananke’s agenda than originally believed.
From this opening scene in Rome, the narrative settles into a lakeside villa in Geneva which is the setting for the remainder of the issue. Here are gathered the four remaining members of the current Pantheon: Lucifer, Inanna, Woden & Morrigan. While they have not entirely given over to despondency it is clear that the care-free thrill of divinity is behind them. Inanna and Lucifer may still wrap themselves in sensual delights, yet for Inanna there is a desperation to it. “This is what I wanted,” she repeatedly tells herself as if a mantra which will somehow charm her heart back to contentment. She is drawn to Lucifer still, while also hating him. A similar tension exists between Woden and Morrigan. Morrigan cannot understand how his love is no longer satisfied with the pleasures of Valhalla. Morrigan speaks of how divinity should be eternal celebration, but lacks the conviction of Lucifer’s sinister smirk. His is a dour complexion well-matched by his partner’s detached reason. It would seem that Woden is eternally icy and Morrigan perpetually broody. Or perhaps it is simply inevitable that the gloss of godhood must eventually fade.
For Woden, her divinity resembles more of a curse than it does a blessing. When called upon to tell a horror story, she speaks of bareness. Woden suggests that she could find peace with encroaching mortality if she could give birth to a child that would follow her. An offspring is a legacy after all, an offering of themselves parents send out into the world with hope for the next generation. Woden finds herself denied that solace. Thrice she gives birth and each time she is left with “a corpse in a crib.” Gillen scripts Woden’s story with the overtones of a fable right down to familiar sound of three attempts at a task. Yet Woden has no success at hers. She is left without progeny, without legacy and without emotion. A “cold” “dead” woman she views herself. Where now is the joy of divinity?
Lucifer being Lucifer has no time for self-pity, instead executing a mystical gamble to resurrect the dead Hades. Naturally it does not go as planned unleashing something quite different. A type of creature, a monster in the eyes of some. Either way, a force outside of its creator’s control. Up to this point, Gillen has so strongly drawn his portraits of this Pantheon that the reader is instantly concerned for each members’ survival (even that ne’er-do-well Lucifer). It is a powerful sequence, which also hints at something deeper. Gillen is exploring how artists can never be sure of what their legacies will be. They spin their tales, sing their songs, yet once they are in the ears of an audience, they are outside their influence. At the same time, their work can overwhelm them, and in this case, literally kill them.
All of this is beautifully illustrated by Stephanie Hans. Ever since first gaining prominence with her covers for Gillen’s run on Journey into Mystery, Hans has proven herself one of the most striking artists currently working in comics. Her work for 1831 may be her single greatest achievement yet. From the picture perfect last gasps of Hades to the brimstone reds glowing about Lucifer, Hans’ lush art conveys the romantic pull of these gods’ doomed decadent lives. At the same time, there is a softness which suggests the growing disenchantment of Inanna. The initial view of the Geneva villa is obscured by fog, rendering the entire scene in a hazy mist. This distorted filter carries over to the next page, where the reader first glimpses through a window the vague shape of Inanna. Later, when Lucifer’s gambit goes south, Hans fills the pages with a sudden explosion of color. Brilliant bluish light bathes the scene with a fiery warmth much different than that offered by Lucifer. For a moment, brightness returns before the fog descends once again. In Hans’ rendering the creature’s appearance is more than a threat; it is also a vision. It is masterful work on her part.
As with the present day Pantheon, the 19th Century one mirrors contemporary figures. In 1816 Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, his wife Mary and her step-sister Clair Clairmont resided in a Geneva villa. If there is a single iconic myth of 19th Century English literature it is this gathering, which has been endlessly revisited in popular culture. One reason is the associated decadence which has long passed from shocking to chic. Another is the source of Mary Shelley’s first inspiration for her novel Frankenstein. Frankenstein is another tale of good-intentions gone wrong, as a brilliant mind wishes to solve the curse of mortality, yet ends up with something he can neither understand nor control. As with the various literary allusions scattered throughout the issue, Gillen handles these callbacks to Victor Frankenstein and his Creature naturally without ever overplaying his argument. In the end, Woden may not give birth to a human child, yet she shapes an idea that continues to have a profound influence two hundred years later. It is the clearest illustration readers have had so far the starkness of the tradeoff is each member of the Pantheon. If one could produce something as long-living and malleable as Frankenstein would it be worth the early death?
Finally, Gillen uses legend to seed new elements into the mythology of the Pantheon. One of the pleasures of this issue is how well integrated the Pantheon is into 19th Century literary history. (Fans of the period be warned, you will be left wanting more than brief teasers for other Pantheon members. This reviewer would love to see more of that haunted parsonage in Yorkshire). After Percy Shelley died, it was rumored that his heart was snatched from his funeral pyre and preserved as a keepsake by his widow. All very nice and melancholy. Naturally it gets referenced in 1831. However, not simply in regards to the Percy counterpart. Another member of their Pantheon is said to have had his heart stolen away as well. Coincidence? And while on the subject of dismembering bodies, was it not Ananke who brought Lucifer the raw material for his play at reanimation? If so, was she hoping for inspiration, devastation or both?
The plot, as they say, thickens.