Sunday, November 23, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #325: The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 1 by Gillen & McKelvie

Style can take you a long way. A glossy, attractive sheen combined with prickly dialogue, a few intriguing concepts, and loads of attitude is more than most comics series have, so looking for substance a half-dozen issues in may just be expecting too much.

The Wicked + The Divine is a comics series with style to burn, courtesy equally to writer Kieron Gillen's concepts and brittle dialogue and to artist Jamie McKelvie's gorgeous people standing exactly so and placed perfectly in their frames. The first story arc of that comic is being collected as The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 1: The Faust Act, arriving in comics shops this week, and it provides a lot of joys and eyeball kicks even as it may make a few readers wonder what's beneath it all.

Like so many other comics, Wicked + Divine is based on a high concept, and that concept is yet another remix of superheroes. Every ninety years, you see, there are twelve "gods" incarnated in human forms -- the essence of those gods (not necessarily the same ones each time) imprinted on ordinary young people, who then take on some semblance of that god's aims and concerns and powers. Those gods are all utterly compelling to normal humans, all but irresistible, and so they become very famous very quickly, for doing whatever is most trendy in that particular time. And, two years after they incarnate, all of these gods die, and leave no trace on human society.

It's a metaphor for fame, clearly: live fast, die young. But it's a nihilistic metaphor, because the past gods left nothing -- Gillen isn't claiming that the great artists of the past were all these gods, but that whatever artistic or other works the gods of the past did have been utterly forgotten. The current batch of gods are all pop stars, in the most disposable British style imaginable, and there's no sign anyone will remember any of them ten years from now, after they're gone and a dozen more generations of pop stars have had their own turns. And this current group of gods, at least, is very parochial: all of them are in London and all of them seem to be Londoners. The names of the gods may be drawn from the mythologies of the whole world, but the people touched by those gods are all within easy mass-transit distance of each other. It's all very pop music: all of world mythology and history dumbed down into a three-minute single from a bunch of mostly white kids from Brixton.

Our viewpoint character is the starstruck teenager Laura, who passes out at a concert of the goddess Ameratsu and for plot-sufficient reasons then wakes up in the VIP room afterward with several of the gods -- Lucifer (incarnated as a blonde woman dressed all in white) has taken a particular interest in her. The rest of this arc follows the repercussions of an action Lucifer takes that evening, which draws Laura deeper into the society of the gods and begins to show her some of their rules.

(I've seen some reviews of this series reveling in things like the vast powers of these gods and the lack of rules, but I have to disagree on both counts. All major activities of these gods seem to require a drummer-esque 1-2-3-4 countdown and finger snap -- seen in the 1923 prologue as well as the main story, so it's inherent rather than a 2014 aspect to underline the pop-star metaphor. And they clearly each have specific abilities and powers based on the god they incarnate; we just haven't learned all of that yet. And, finally, the very vague rule of not messing with humans is shown to have serious teeth in it at the end of this book.)

I respect Wicked + Divine, and like a lot of the things it's doing, but I can't entirely connect with it. Both the brief candle pop star and the superhero-as-pop-icon things have been done many times before, so they're not particularly new or exciting as concepts. And there seems to be a huge mass of buried rules and assumptions in this world, surrounding Ananke (the old woman in a silly mask who makes the gods each time around and rules them in a loose way) and her history.

Wicked + Divine can go either of two ways, I think: either Ananke has some secret plan or aim that she's stage-managing each generation of gods towards, or it all is pretty much as it seems, a flourishing of the supernatural once a century to blow off mankind's accumulated magical steam. The secret plan is more typical for comics, so I hope that's not the way Gillen and McKelvie go. But this is described as an ongoing series -- despite the ticking-clock aspect to the premise; the storyline would be difficult to extend beyond the end of 2015 -- so I expect many and varied things will happen as long as it's popular, and that all of those things will be stylish and gorgeous. And, just maybe, some of those things will be more than that.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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