Welcome back to Tim + Alex Get TWATD.
The Monarchs of Fuck
For a series whose core theme is the inevitability of death (as we discussed last time), The Wicked + The Divine spends a lot of time concerned with art’s other great motivator: sex.
The gods, as befits their largely pre-Christian origins, seem like they can’t get enough of it. While Inanna and Sakhmet (with her lifeless, drained entourage) are highlighted by Cassandra as the most prolific of the gods in this sense, we also have Woden’s “army of ethnic mono-cultured valkyrie fuck buddies”; Baphomet and The Morrigan’s Sid-and-Nancy-esque relationship; and Luci, who seems to have tangled with most of the pantheon, and flirts relentlessly with Laura. Even Amaterasu, relative paragon of purity and wholesomeness, causes fans to orgasm with joy at her concerts.
And then we have Laura, our window on the world, Virgil to our Dante. Laura is presented as neither virginally pure (she knows her way around an orgasm, it seems) nor particularly sexually experienced (she’s blindsided by Luci’s flirting). She is, in other words, your typical teen, surrounded by images of sex but not truly engaged with it yet. The gods are both her peers (in terms of age) and her idols, and are hyper-sexual in the way the world is when you are just 17.
However, while the gods may talk the talk, we’re yet to see them walk the walk. The book isn’t exactly rated T for Teen (exploding heads, c-bombs, etc), but has so far shied away from any direct depictions of sex, graphic or otherwise. The sexuality of the gods is both everywhere and nowhere, inescapable yet entirely abstract. We can infer the kind of kinky hijinx Luci’s been up to or The Morrigan and Baphomet’s room-trashing passion, but so far it’s all been kept behind closed doors.
Sidenote: it’s worth pointing out that while Laura has been in close proximity to five different gods (or seven, depending on how you view The Morrigan) so far, her only moment of flesh-on-flesh contact with one is giving her hand to Lucifer when they first meet (and if that doesn’t strike you as ominous, you’re not paying enough attention).
The sexual nature of the gods is, at least in these first three issues, for our own interest, rather than theirs. It may be graphically detailed, but it’s there to fuel our speculation and our fantasy. The only hint of an actual stable relationship (Baal’s boyfriend) is noted as being “off-brand”. Just like real pop stars, the sexuality of the gods is there to tease, just another product for our consumption.
The last work from 'Team Phonogram' (Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson) was 2013's Young Avengers, a superhero comic for Marvel which attempted a whole bunch of things and succeeded at most of them. But my single favourite thing about the series was undoubtedly the promise of a double-page spread every issue. Fight scenes were rendered as diagrams or montages or some new eye-popping idea, every month, guaranteed. Comics as a Michel Gondry pop video.
So I was disappointed to hear they wouldn't be bringing the same approach to The Wicked + The Divine. Three issues in, though, it's pretty clear that these visual experiments haven't been abandoned .
I could point to the introduction of The Morrigan, probably the nearest direct relative to YA's visual setpieces. Two circular panels, at opposite corners of a double-page spread, are linked by a black flurry of crow shapes, thick enough to become an abstract shape. All other panels are knocked off their axis or even pushed off the page as reality is bent.
But I reckon The Wicked + The Divine's real visual achievement lies in a repeating set of much simpler elements.
Look at those covers. The portraits overlaid with text are reminiscent of the trend for movie posters that looked like the Social Network's, but here the concept is pared back as far as it will go. The covers are supremely confident – of how compelling a McKelvie-drawn face can be, and of the mystery of the pop-gods' identities. That confidence is not unfounded.
The covers are comfortably iconic enough that The Wicked + The Divine's interiors start playing with them from the very first page, echoing the face of Luci or Laura (depending on which version you picked up) with a big ol' skull in the exact same proportions – a trick issue #3 repeated with The Morrigan's head.
Look at the use of black. For four pages, as Laura takes a journey into London's underground, issue #2 almost turns into an illustrated prose story, each page featuring a single quarter-size piece of art and a smattering of words carefully on a sheer black canvas. In issue #3, they push it even further, beginning with black panel borders which eventually overwhelm the whole page. There's one entirely image-free page with just ten words on it, and I've stared at it probably longer than any other.
Like sensory deprivation, these sections highlight what's great about each element of the creative team in isolation – the rhythm of Gillen's narration emphasised by the room it's given, Clayton Cowles' ever-so-slightly-organic letterforms bringing Laura's chatty diarist voice to life, McKelvie's compositions toying with negative space to create a believable sense of place, Matt Wilson lighting these sets moodily to lead us down from the pinkish surface to the deep blues of the underworld – before bringing the band triumphantly back together for the end of the issue.
Look at those diagrammatic scene breaks. Iconic in the simplest sense of the word, the symbols on these pages act like a wordless 'Previously on...'. They tell us that there are 10 gods who have recurred, and that this leaves two spots to be filled, they imply a connection between factions of gods, they even encourage the readers to deduce who's who. Taken individually, each symbol is its own invitation to pick a favourite, doodle their sigil in class, get a tattoo.
If Young Avengers' spreads were superhero comics as pop videos, The Wicked + The Divine's design elements lean closer to the album cover – the kind of image that people might want on a t-shirt or a poster, even if they're not into the source material.
In a way, I needn't have written this piece. Look around the rest of the page, and you'll find our response to the unique look of The Wicked + The Divine. It feels ready-made for fandom, a DIY borrow-if-you-like visual language, and that's exactly what we've done. We haven't found a way to incorporate the black yet but we will. Oh, we will.
Woden’t It Be Nice
As someone who spent a large chunk of his boyhood cultivating an interest in classical myth, it’s been fascinating watching Gillen, McKelvie et al reimagine the gods of The Recurrence for the 21st Century and weave the connective tissue between their ancient exploits and the pop archetypes they are made to inhabit. The teasing insights we’ve been offered into the gods we have yet to encounter have got my speculation engines working at maximum capacity, and none more so than Woden, AKA Wotan, AKA Odin, the Allfather, king of the Æsir, patriarch of the Norse gods.
Reinterpreted as a modern music icon, the most obvious genre for Woden is, of course, heavy metal. Between Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, Scandinavia’s clutch of church-burning, Norse-iconography-appropriating black metal groups and the fury and bombast associated with the Norse pantheon, Woden seems like the easiest god to assign to an archetype. However, I want to offer an alternative interpretation, based on what we’ve seen in the issues so far – Woden as the superstar DJ.
One of the first mentions we get of Woden is in issue #2, when Cassandra brings up that many of the gods are planning to socialise at his 'Valhalla', which she doesn’t seem too fond of. So far, he’s the only god who seems to have a close association with a fixed location – a home base, so to speak. Given that all the gods are manifesting as musical acts, it seems only logical that Valhalla is a venue, and while there are of course exceptions to the rule, nowadays the most likely acts to have strong ties to a particular place are DJs. Bands and artists have to tour, but a DJ can cultivate a following just by spinning at the same club every Friday night.
Issue #3 also mentions Woden that permanently wears a mask of some kind, and not the metaphorical kind. This could of course be in the Slipknot/Lordi/Gwar vein, but ask most young people today to name a musical star who wears a mask, and the most common answer is likely to be Daft Punk or Deadmau5.
And then we have Woden’s 'valkyries', who are implied to have somehow been transformed into something beyond human by Woden, and whom Laura has seen in concert on multiple occasions. There’s DNA from Phil Spector’s various girl groups there, but a more contemporary comparison would be a DJ with a rotating cast of guest vocalists, each one elevated to stardom for a single track before they’re thrown aside.
There are mythological arguments to be made too – the Æsir were a pretty hard-partying bunch, and Woden, perhaps more than any other gods we’ve met so far, needs a kingdom to rule over like a DJ commands the floor. Woden is often torn between his nature as a frenzied warrior (read: hardcore partier) and his role as a wise master of spells (detached overseer of the dancefloor).
Plus, in myth, Valhalla was the home of the ‘glorious dead’, and if there’s a better term for a gang of club kids staggering home at 5am, I haven’t heard it.
Alex's ramblings can be found here at Alex-Spencer.co.uk. If you'd like him a little more succinct, his 'Words in Pictures' Tumblr features mini-essays on chunks of prose and comics. Want even more brevity? Catch him on Twitter @AlexJaySpencer.
Find Tim's blog at trivia-lad.blogspot.co.uk, where his piece on the semiotics of TW+TD's finger snaps first gave us the idea for this whole thing, on Twitter @trivia_lad, and even, if you think you can handle the sexiness, on Tumblr.