By Kieron Gillen, Leigh Alexander, Dorian Lynskey, Laurie Penny, May HK Choi, Ezekiel Kweku, Kevin Wada, Jamie McKelvie & Matthew Wilson
From the beginning, The Wicked + The Divine has demonstrated a willingness to continually alter its shape. The scope of the series is large, not only in terms of character and plot, but thematically as well. At the outset, writer Kieron Gillen established a narrative which would tackle issues of fame, creativity, popular culture, identity, legacy, youth and mortality. Such rich material naturally allows Gillen the freedom to spin his story off in different directions adjusting the tone along the way. Recently #22 brought to close the Rising Action arc with dynamic action set pieces and wrenching character moments. What followed was an interlude of a more reflective sort, the 1831 Special. Set amongst the 19th Century Romantic Pantheon, it cultivated a more atmospheric, quieter vibe. Tonally quite different, yet, each outstanding in their own way. On Wednesday, Wicked + Divine took another experimental left turn. The result is a fascinating, stunning comic.
The concept of #23 is that it takes the form of a glossy magazine. Gillen has long been an author with a bit of fondness for meta devices and here he casts himself as the editor of Pantheon Monthly. This detail is simply one example of how the Wicked + Divine team commit fully to the idea. Others would have appended the usual letter column/back matter section in order to contextualize what fans just read. Not here. From inside front cover fake ad to back cover fake ad, everything fits the form. The interior pages resemble periodical layout to a tee. The only thing lacking is that actually size/paper quality of magazine, which, in retrospect is a little surprising.
Surface details are neat, of course, but simple superficial mimicking would have been cloying. What makes #23 truly shine is how well the creative team uses the opportunity to deepen the characters and advance the plot. The issue consists of interviews with select Pantheon members. Granting these individuals a spotlight away from the hustle and bustle of the larger narrative allows for the characters to come alive in new ways. Prose comics can sometimes be a chore to read, yet here the writing flows smoothly. A large part of the credit for this goes to the contributions of professional journalists. Each of the pieces is crafted by a prose writer based on an interview with Gillen playing the part of the deity. Like much of the issue, this idea could have been arch but is applied flawlessly. The choice allows for not only an “authentic” vibe but also a diversity of voices amongst the journalists. Wicked + Divine has always celebrated collaboration and #23 is one of the strongest examples of this trend to date.
For his piece on Baal, Dorian Lynskey adopts the tenor of a journalist trying not to be intimidated by his subject’s persona and not entirely succeeding. For his part, Baal continues to reveal new layers to his personality, such as when he speaks of the burden of being the oldest (and in the beginning solitary) member of the Pantheon. This status leaves Baal feeling responsible for his fellow gods; the recent events surrounding Ananke’s betrayal/death have left their mark on him. Despite these hints of guilt, however, he remains a symbol of strength. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Laurie Penny’s profile of Woden presents a god weakened by guilt. Whereas Baal’s confessions sound brave, Woden’s ring more self-serving. Attempts to impress Penny are depicted as desperate pleas for sympathy. At the same, there is an authenticity to his denial of nobility. Long the least likable of the Pantheon, Woden may also be the least deluded. The more he talks of engineering the musical success of others whilst surrounded by female protégés with whom he has complicated relations, the more he sounds like a certain influential American music producer currently serving time for second degree murder. How is it Woden bids his interviewer farewell? “Game of Thrones. Huge fan . . . It’s deeply problematic . . . But who isn’t?”
The most poignant interview is the first, in which Leigh Alexanders speaks with The Morrigan. Morrigan is one of the Pantheon members who has a habit of almost slipping into focus before melting back into the shadows once more. Alexander brings her to life by evoking her, Alexander’s, own life experience. She relates how Morrigan’s power is tied to an ability to create safe spaces for her fans. Morrigan grants them the opportunity to escape, whether by accepting what is inevitable or by striving against it. Both are classic tropes of the adolescent mind which continually ping pongs between idealism (“we shall inherit the Earth”) to despondent (“why bother, though, it’s all been ****** beyond repair”). A through line of the article is how Morrigan conjures memories of Alexander’s own teenage years smoking cigarettes and stealing cheap cosmetics with other likeminded young women. This ability to evoke a spirit of community is the essence of Morrigan’s eternal appeal, the consideration of which haunts Alexander. “[E]choes of generations of moon-women, druid wives and bathroom smoking covens. I can’t sleep for days remembering my own sad scratching in that guestbook, the hearts I ground into the page with endless black ink.” This beautiful piece of prose is one of the most powerful expressions to date of the Pantheon’s allure.
As stated above, Wicked + Divine has always emphasized collaboration; few other series have made their colorist or letterer, Matthew Wilson & Clayton Cowles, so prominently as members of the ensemble. While Jamie McKelvie and Wilson’s imaginative, dynamic art defines the overall aesthetic of the series, McKelvie has occasionally stepped aside for other talents. Key to the success of the 1831 Special was the gorgeous illustrations of Stephanie Hans. Equally vital to #23 is the art of Kevin Wada. Wada has made a name for himself recently as a popular cover and sketch artist. His work often draws on classic and contemporary fashion, clothing characters in iconic styles. These interests make him a natural fit for the task for reimagining the Pantheon as the subjects of celebrity portraits.
Once again the highlight is The Morrigan piece. There are three “photos” which accompany the text, each lusher than the one before it. In the first Morrigan sits before a dressing room as hands from off camera assistants primp her. The image captures so well that subset of publicity photos which claim to be “natural” while appearing entirely stage-managed. In the second, Morrigan is in full Goth mode. Eyes sunk in dark makeup, she holds a skull before her breasts. Instead of black, though, she wears a stunning dress covered in geometric patterns which suggests that the photographer has Gustav Klimt’s portrait masterpieces on their mind. The third is the one which feels the most relaxed, suggesting a sense of intimacy which could simply be another pose. Standing before a red rose motif (more Art Novena cribbing?), Morrigan’s eyes are downcast, an old-fashioned masquerade mask dangling ever so slightly in her grip. Her hair delicately billows in the wind. Her arms are draped with a sumptuous peacock blue feather wrap. There is a slight hint of a grin about her lips. Is this the Morrigan which beckoned Alexander with reveries of generations past? Or is that the Goth maiden presenting the skull? Or is it the first figure, the young woman ready to conquer the world with the support of her friends (represented here through the snapshots of fellow deities taped to the dressing room mirror). Are they all the same, blending into some pagan Trinity? Wada invests his art with all these questions, while crafting something absolutely stunning in the process.
This issue could have been a cheeky gag mimicking the tropes of glossy celebrity profiles. Which is not to say that it does not contain those elements, as it surely does. Yet, what Gillen and his collaborates do so well is dive deep below the surface for something much more meaningful. In the end, they produce an installment of The Wicked + The Divine which can stand alongside #22 and 1831 Special as one of the very best single issues any series has produced this year.
And remember, The Imperial Phase has only just begun . . .