Sunday, 26 April 2015

Disassembled – Avengers: Age of Ultron

The below is my initial thoughts on Avengers: Age of Ultron, pulled together into some vague order. Warning: It's pretty damn' spoilerific.
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Let's start with the kind of brash prediction I have absolutely no business making: Age of Ultron will not break the same box office records as its predecessor.

As I understand it, the only way a film makes as much money as The Avengers did is from people going more than once, more than twice, to get another hit of whatever emotional reaction seeing it elicited in the first place. Age of Ultron just isn't that kind of film. In fact, much like Thor and Loki, the film is more or less the opposite of its older brother.

Back in 2012, I wrote about my search for meaning in the original Avengers. My feeling then was that while the movie was a remarkable achievement of craftsmanship – bringing together at least four disparate universes and styles and transforming the rote last-half-hour punch-up of the Marvel formula into one my all-time favourite action scenes, the dopamine hit I reckon brought people back to the scene over and over gain – it wasn't the piece of art I was hoping for.

Age of Ultron, on the other hand, is full of meaning and metaphor and all that good stuff, but (at least on a first viewing – and let's get two disclaimers out of the way here: 1, that the first Avengers only really came together for me on the second watch, though frankly that's not something to commend it for, and 2, that the cinema screen we watched the film in had the house lights on throughout, and horribly muddled sound, so thanks for that Streatham Odeon) the plot is borderline incomprehensible.

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I often found myself adrift, lost among the mass of plots and characters. The origin of the Vision, whatever the hell Thor was up to for the majority of the film's running time, Ultron's evil plan – each of these seemed to require its own synopsis. Worse, there aren't as many jokes.

Much of Age of Ultron is leaden in this way, like the film hasn't yet completed the alchemical process of editing, like it has been presented to us still halfway through transmuting into gold. But there are still plenty of nuggets which shine through.

I often found myself with mouth open and eyes wide, drinking in the sheer childhood-fantasy-realised spectacle. The moments of superheroes leaping into action, the emotional arcs that the film manages to find for an impressive (though not total) number of its gigantic cast, Ultron's philosophising soliloquies – each of these landed perfectly. There still aren't enough jokes, though.

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These two halves can co-exist in a single scene. I remember a point during the climactic brawl, my internal monologue (rarely a welcome presence in the dark of the cinema) still trying to work out how exactly we'd gotten to this point, while in the other half of my cerebellum, something was shifting.

The shape of the entire film fell into place. Not the plot, unfortunately, but the patterns of everything we'd been shown, how the stories of various characters cast shadow and light on one another – what I would call, if I wasn't trying to convince you this was actually a fun read about a blockbuster superhero movie, the subtext.

This is the stuff I really love about the film, and so with all the caveats already mentioned, I'd like to talk about the ways Age of Ultron tickled my brain, and the shape I saw in that moment. Which, to borrow the pithy tweet-sized thought that popped into my head then, is:
Age of Ultron is the biggest-budget movie about how hard it is to make a big-budget movie I've ever seen.
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Let's start with Hawkeye.

After a difficult first film (mind-controlled, bed-bound) that had Jeremy Renner reportedly threatening to quit, this time round he gets a role that you could argue makes Hawkeye not only the primary protagonist of  Age of Ultron, but an author surrogate for Joss Whedon himself.

Let's grab a quote from the recent Buzzfeed profile of Whedon, which I read a few days before sitting down in the cinema and, honestly, heavily influenced my thinking on the film:
By March, as he sat down to dinner near Disney’s Burbank, California, studio lot, where he had been living as he worked with two editors to finish Age of Ultron, that guilt was weighing especially on his mind. “I didn’t feel it was right to spend that time away from family, even before I had kids,” Whedon said. “I felt like if it wasn’t the headline experience, that I was being self-indulgent in being there, and it was frustrating.”
Around halfway through Age of Ultron, Hawkeye takes his teammates to a safe house, where it's revealed that there is a Mrs Hawkeye, and two baby Hawkeyes, and a third on the way. A family that live, in secret, away from the kinds of cities where those big super-hero/villain battles tend to take place. A family that, Black Widow excepted, none of his work friends know anything about. A family that he rarely sees because he's so busy Avenging.

Those dots aren't exactly hard to connect. But if Age of Ultron was entirely a autobiographical story about how hard it is to be a writer, it would have failed its audience dramatically. Luckily, I think the film stretches itself much wider than that, reaching for something we can pretty much all relate to.

See, for Hawkeye at least – and this is something he explicitly references a few times in dialogue – being an Avenger is a job. (And this is part of the difference between the character's solo films, where they combat problems that threaten them personally, and their appearances in the Avengers.) It's an unusual job, for sure, but one with a familiar challenge: balancing it with the rest of your life.

The revelation that Hawkeye has a family raises the stakes for the character, making every bullet headed in his direction a genuine, wince-inducing threat. As the film goes out of its way to point out, though, he isn't the only one with a reason to get home safely at the end of the day.
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Like, for example, the other character vying for the title of Age of Ultron's main protagonist: Tony Stark. The whole film is about Stark's attempt to retire, to make the world safe enough that he can leave behind the business of being Iron Man.

Whether retroactively or by design, this creates a perfect arc for the character across the five films. While he first wore the armour like a thrill-seeker, Stark has worked from remove himself. Iron Man 3 is filled with moments that separate Tony and the armour, and Age of Ultron builds on that with a legions of Iron Man drones driven by Jarvis, and the gigantic 'Hulkbuster' armour, able to lose and replace an entire arm without the man inside being harmed.

Part of this transition is practical, as both Stark and Downey Jr are getting too old for this shit, but it also seems to be personal. Tony has a seemingly stable relationship with Pepper Potts, who never appears in Age of Ultron except by name, in an adorable 'my girlfriend does...' brag-off with Thor, which also serves us to remind us she is CEO of Stark Industries – representing an alternative way for Tony to keep on saving the world, while also holding onto his own life.

It's a similar story for Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner – we'll get back to them later – and for Thor. As mentioned earlier, Thor's role in Age of Ultron is one of its biggest weaknesses, but the characterisation we do get hits similar beats as every other core Avenger. In fact, he's torn between three lives: 1, being with Jane Foster, the aforementioned girlfriend who Thor wants to make absolutely sure you know is a Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist; 2, being in Asgard to fulfil his duties to his family; and 3, being the best movie Avenger most underserved by the films he has actually appeared in.

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There is one major exception. The man who, by the proclamation of his own movie's subtitle, was the first Avenger, and the boss of a team with abilities that put his own firmly to the left of the bell curve: Captain America. What makes Steve Rogers such a perfect Avenger is the lack of any real life to compete with his work. Thanks to Rogers being put on ice for the best part of a century, his best gal is now in her nineties, and his former best pal (and potential love-interest, if you buy into that reading of Winter Soldier) is an on-the-run cyborg assassin.

Unlike Iron Man or Thor, Cap's only real relationships are with his work friends, and it's even hinted in his telepath-induced nightmare sequences that, even if he hadn't been frozen, Rogers would have struggled to find a life after the war was over.

If you don't think there's someone in your office that fits that description, you're probably the Captain America of your workplace – or, if you'd prefer, the Black Widow.

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In her previous appearances – and unlike most of the boys she has only ever appeared in other people's stories, forever on the job – Natasha 'Black Widow' Romanoff has been characterised that fits everything I said about Cap above. But Age of Ultron introduces a new wrinkle to her life, in the form of a budding relationship with Bruce Banner. It's an office romance but, vitally, Natasha wants to escape the world she and Bruce work in.

This relationship is the aspect of the film I'm most unsure about. A little because the softer scenes with the Hulk evoke Peter Jackson's eternally rubbish King Kong, but mostly because of what it means for Black Widow as the team's lone female. Romanoff is left to stand in for the story's attitudes to women in general, so it's a little problematic that she becomes a default love object. (Ignoring Scarlet Witch, who may provide a point of contrast in future but – as with all the film's new recruits – never quite finds her place.)

Eventually, though, my sheer affection for the two characters won me over on the issue, which meant that when the two characters are forced in two opposite directions at the end of the film, it stung.
This leaves Romanoff with no one again – but as Cap's pep talk reminds her, that just means she's ready to throw herself into the job again and have all-new adventures. Are we meant to pity her, or envy her?

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Age of Ultron isn't the 'dark' installment of the MCU saga, except chromatically speaking. Thank Odin. Tonally, I'd say it's more... downbeat.

The film it reminds me of most is Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's The World's End – a writer/director and cast that I love, stepping away from what they've been doing for the last decade and working out all the difficulties of that in the process. Age of Ultron is Whedon's final word on the MCU – despite this only being the second Marvel films Whedon has directed, he's had his finger in a whole bakery's worth of pies both televisual and cinematic during his tenure as Marvel Studios' creative consultant.

In both cases, the resulting film is a bit of a bummer. This is the story of someone walking away from a job he loves because it's eating his life, both on the screen and on the set, and for that reason I don't see people wanting to rush back into the cinema to see Age of Ultron all over again.

Personally, though, I'm eager to see it again, mostly because I still have no idea whether I like it or not. If I was pushed to give Age of Ultron a rating, I'm not sure which end of the spectrum it would fall on. Maybe that will change with a rewatch, maybe not.

...And that's about as neat a resolution as we're going to get, I'm afraid. This blog has been an attempt to process how I feel about stuff, and trying to be entertaining along the way. Much like Age of Ultron itself, I think.

Monday, 13 April 2015

XCOM: Enemy Within


In retrospect, waiting nearly a full year between getting my copy of XCOM: Enemy Within and actually playing it feels rather silly. I do think I know why I held out so long, though.

The challenges of vanilla XCOM are well mapped, its enemies not so unknown any more – but the game is still about as difficult as reading a Thomas Pynchon novel translated into Latin. So the idea of an expansion introducing more moving parts, parts that I don't know how to deal with, was frankly intimidating.

But I shouldn't have waited, because XCOM with all of Enemy Within's additions is pretty much a perfect game. Yeah. Stick that on the front of your game box, Firaxis-of-18-months-ago.

XCOM Enemy Within (5)

As an expansion, Enemy Within does everything right. Every new addition pushes and pulls at what was already there in the base game, and at the other new features. So, the introduction of collectible Meld capsules scattered across most levels, each of which expires after a set number of turns, encourages you to push forward and explore. But on the flip side, the squid-like 'Seekers' – with their ability to sneak up to your soldiers unseen, then reappear and strangle them with their horrifying mecha-tentacles – punish you for letting a single member of your squad get too far from their teammates.

The missions themselves are a little more varied than the standard bug hunts of the original – including one memorable effort to stop a zombie-spawning infection at a boatyard that ended with the last survivor calling down an air strike on his own head.

The smaller details get a little extra colour too, right down to the tiny posters on the walls of mission location, which help sell the idea that these are real, lived-in places torn apart by XCOM's cast of ETs. There are new customisation options for your individual soldiers too, including stat-boosting medals you can award for valiant conduct, plus some cosmetic tweaks. The latter is just a cupboard's worth of helmet designs, some paint jobs for their armour and a handful of foreign languages, but it's more than enough to cement each character's personality.

The big back-of-the-box selling point, though, is augmentation, which comes in two affront-to-God flavours. Cybernetics lets you saw off the arms and legs of your infantry to create hulking MECs, while Gene Mods use alien technology to transform them into super soldiers.

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Like the the Meld canisters and Seekers, MECs help to re-shape movement around XCOM's battlefield. You can push them out in front to draw fire, while your infantry stays in the rear, but they can't be relied on to soak up bullets without exploding. They're basically tanks in any given WWII game, but with tiny yelling faces.

There's a nice mirror to the MEC in the aliens' 'Mechtoid' unit, almost identical but for the swollen head of a Sectoid popping out, the Area 51-style greys that traditionally filled the role of early cannon fodder. Even non-iron-clad Sectoids can now lend a psychic hand to a Mechtoid pal, transforming it from healthpoint-endowed nuisance to a wall of utter mechanical bastardry, in a relationship reminiscent of TF2's classic Heavy/Medic romance.

None of your units fill such an explicit support role, but having to pick off the vulnerable Sectoids hiding in the distance before you can make any dent in the Mechtoid barrelling through your squad is likely to give you some tactical ideas of your own.

It probably wouldn't be a revelation to anyone who hadn't avoided Total War-style strategy games their whole life, but manoeuvring MECs into position then withdrawing when it gets too hot, with the cover of less iron-clad infantry? That leaves me feeling like the General Patton of alien invasions, the Sun Tzu of plasma rifles.

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Genetic modification, meanwhile, offer yet another way to further tweak and personalise that infantry.

The original XCOM featured a bonsai tech tree of special abilities afforded by a character's class. As a sniper rises through the ranks, for example, she can take a perk to expand her view of the battlefield, or to target and disable enemies' weapons. The Gene Mods allow you hang extra baubles from that tree. So that same sniper might have the muscles in her legs modified so she can leap entire buildings in search of a good vantage point, or get her eyes augmented to improve her aim once she's up there.

Along with the medals and the languages and the paint jobs, GMs are another way to encourage you to build an attachment to individual soldiers. While these Captain America-a-likes are capable of superhuman feats on the battlefield, they're still as fragile as the rest of their fleshy comrades – and they're more of an investment. So, fair warning: when your favourite modded-up-to-the-literal-eyeballs Assault unit ceases to be, it's going to sting.

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Holding up a dark mirror to these GM soldiers is EXALT, the terrorist cell which introduces human enemies to XCOM for the first time. Made up of alien sympathisers, EXALT is toying with a more the same gene tech as you but, based on their scaly skin and sickly glow, on a considerably more DIY basis.

It's a reminder of the dangers of playing with alien genes, and of the humanity being sacrificed on both figurative and chopping-off-your-men's-limbs levels. In all senses, EXALT embody the 'enemy within' of the title.

Unfortunately, EXALT don't slot into the game's mechanics quite as neatly as they do thematically.
There's no real explanation of how to deal with the gene-altering bastards, or what the repercussions of their attacks are, until a new menu pops up to further obfuscate XCOM's base management game.

When the time comes to deploy your squad against EXALT, though, it's thrilling. The missions provide a chance to throw down with a mirror image of your own squad which evolves throughout the game, like a genetically-modified version of Gary/Red/Blue/That Nob-end From Primary School You Named Your Rival in Pokémon After.

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Enemy Within might have been gathering dust on my shelf for the best part of two years, but I've more than made up for that lost time over the last few weeks. I won't share my Steam stats here, for fear of dislocating your jaw, but suffice to say I'm now deep into my third game, having seen the world end twice, once with a bang and once with a whimper.

There are no two ways around it, XCOM is a timesink. I've written before about how the game's interlocking systems work to keep you constantly hooked, and I've neglected other games, and commitments, and loved ones to keep playing Enemy Within.

Maybe that's the real reason I waited to unlock the shrink-wrapped Pandora's Box – the knowledge that, the second it was open, I was committing dozens of hours of my life. But I don't regret any of the time I've spent exploring the curves and dips of Enemy Within. It's never a grind, or a meaningless number-chase. Perfect game, remember?

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #3.2: Disco Fudge, Prince of Hearts, SJWarfare

...Belatedly, we return. Only one month after the first half of this edition (and without addressing anything that's in issue #9 – rest easy, spoiler-heads), Tim and I are back with three essays on The Wicked + The Divine.  

We'll be back in 90 days. Well, probably more like 60 now. Who ever said recurrences had to be nice and regular? Oh.

Throwing Shapes in the Church of Dance Even before it was name-checked in Gillen’s writer's notes on the issue, I’d been planning on writing about issue #8 and how it compared to the sixth episode of the first season of the UK sitcom Spaced.

While there have been numerous films, TV shows, books and comics that have captured the magic of music in general, it’s the rare piece of pop culture that manages to get the joys of clubbing right, and so tracking the lines between two that do seems like a natural fit.

While they are born from two distinct scenes, the '90s acid rave/ecstasy boom and the modern day wave of EDM/Molly, the experience has barely changed since the late '90s – and issue #8 even nods towards the former with Dionysus’ “acciiiieeed” smiley face badge. When Spaced first aired, the rave scene was in its dying days, having truly peaked in the early '90s, but it had bent the world of clubbing into a shape that’s still recognisable today.
“Terribly sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt, I just wondered if you two ‘friends’ would like to come join the collective?”
Both now and then, one of the common things that clubbing meant, especially portrayals of clubbing in the media, was drugs (hell, I fell into this very trap above and you probably just nodded along). Trainspotting’s success in 1996 led to a wave of films centred around druggy, rave-filled weekends like Twin Town, Human Traffic and Go, most of which lacked the insight or pathos that Trainspotting was shot through with, while nowadays the likes of Skins, Glue, Misfits and a wealth of MTV shows will happily pump its teen cast full of substances and throw them onto the dancefloor to self-destruct and Learn Life Lessons.
“Don’t pull your post-feminist art school bollocks with me, sunflower, if that’s your real friggin’ name, alright? I work for a living, what do you do?” “I write, actually.” “Oh really? In other words you’re on the dole.”
Both Spaced and The Wicked + The Divine manage to elevate themselves by side-stepping the issue of drugs, instead focusing on the experience which, speaking as someone who doesn’t really dabble with these things, is perfectly potent without giving your brain chemistry a poke. They centre on the dancefloor as a unifying force, something that brings people together even when earlier in the day they’ve been at each other’s throats.

“I’ve Got To Dance! LET’S WEAVE!”
In both, we witness the transition from arrival to participation. In The Wicked + The Divine, it’s the appearance of the eight-panel grid and Laura’s shuddering entry as the beat starts to overlay and a take control, and that sudden moment of clarity at the end. In Spaced, we have two markers. Mike, the least familiar with clubbing, slowly gains more and more accessories as he becomes comfortable, to the point where he is able to lead the dancefloor. Meanwhile, when the characters embrace the music and, more importantly, leave their previous drama and worries behind, a caption flashes up with their new identity. They are rechristened on the dancefloor, transformed into a version of themselves freed from baggage and focused on joy and dance.
“That’s a well-fitted body-warmer, Mike.”
Both pieces also feature someone to guide the main characters into the new experience. In Spaced, it’s Tyres, a drug-fiend bike messenger so in tune with music that he finds beats in ticking clocks, boiling kettles and traffic lights, and who attempts to disappear at the end of the night into a bank of smoke with a “My work here is done.” In The Wicked + The Divine, we have our newest god, Dionysus, the Dancefloor that Walks like a Man, who binds the attendees together in an experience so pure that they don’t actually need music. And while Tyres may have a short attention span and occasionally get stuck at pedestrian crossings, Dionysus no longer sleeps; has a constant club's worth of people inside his head; and, like the other gods, will be dead in less than two years.
“Last night? Last night was an A1, tip top clubbing jam fair; it was a sandwich of fun on Ecstasy bread, all wrapped up in a big bag like disco fudge; in doesn’t get much better than that, I just wish sometimes I could control these FUCKING MOODSWINGS.”
“Last night? Last night was an A1, tip-top clubbing jam fair; it was a sandwich of fun on ecstasy bread, all wrapped up in a big bag like disco fudge; it doesn’t get much better than that. I just wish sometimes I could control these FUCKING MOODSWINGS.”
Sound + Vision
I hadn't fallen for any of The Wicked + The Divine's gods the way the story's fans do – until the introduction of Inanna.

Dressed like he's stepped off the cover of a Prince album, the literal purple rain falling around him, just a touch of androgyny in the way he's drawn, those big purple eyes full of a sympathy and humanity we haven't seen in any of the gods yet – it was love at first page turn.

His relationship with Laura is pretty much the fantasy of being BFFs with Prince, the kind of thing you imagine when you're a teenager and way too deep into your pop idol of choice. (What do you think he's like? Oh, I bet she's always... Smash Hits says their favourite food is...) But skipping straight ahead to that all-access fantasy means we don't get to see why Laura's actually a fan.

We know that she's literally been there (“When Inanna did that whole week in Camden, I was in the front row crying every night”) and got the t-shirt (which, Team WicDiv, please make into a purchasable product ASAP so I can throw money at you). But with other gods, Laura's inner monologue has acted as a quick critique on the kind of pop star they are and the real-ones they're referring to. “I love Baal. That probably says bad things about me” lays out the character in a single caption, and strikes a chord with my own feelings about Kanye.

The closest we get from her is on Inanna's anonymous call: “The voice is what silk wishes it felt like. I feel it undressing me. I like it.” Which, to be fair, is pretty much exactly the way that breathy falsetto on I Wanna Be Your Lover makes me feel after three gin & tonics.

What's interesting about Inanna is that he actually performs this function himself. In a flashback, we see the person he was before his secret origin, dressed in drab colourless clothes that go beyond functional and towards camouflage – “my go-to cosplay was wallpaper,” as Inanna puts it. After his transformation, his clothes are the most attention-grabbing of the whole Pantheon, garish purples and leopard skin. That buttoned-up shirt is ripped open to the navel, showing off his chest hair. Because when you're a god and you're only going to live two years anyway, why the hell not?

Inanna Transformation

It's the most resonant moment in the comic so far, for me. “I can be whoever I want to be. I can be whoever I am.” It could be read as a powerful statement of coming out, but I'm considerably shallower than that. For me, those words are a mission statement for the dancefloor, with got the aforementioned G&Ts inside you and the DJ has just put exactly the right song on. Be who you want. Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.


Talkin' 'Bout My (New Power) Generation

The Wicked + The Divine is most notably About Death, but it’s also about a lot of other things, one of which is music, fandom and the relationship between the art, the artist and the audience.

In issues #6 and 7, we get to explore an aspect to this theme that the first five hadn’t really touched on: the larger institutions of the Pantheon’s fandom, as opposed to the individual relationship that Laura has with the gods. We get to see cons, we get to meet other fans (as opposed to Cassandra, the critic) and we also get the revelation that Luci’s would-be assassins from issue one weren’t Christian fanatics trying to strike down the great adversary, but  fans whose love had been twisted into hate.

While the massive Fantheon (hurrah for portmanteaus!) that forms the centre of #7’s action is intriguing in its own right, especially with that gorgeous floorplan to pick apart, I want to turn the spotlight on the Ragnarock from the previous year we glimpse in flashback in issue#6 , in particular the attitude of David Blake, who is leading the talk we see Laura attend.

If you’re at all plugged into ‘comics culture’, it’s hard to ignore the seismic (and long-overdue) shifts much of it is undergoing. Publishers and audiences are finally coming to terms with the fact that people other than straight white men want to read comics, and that maybe the comics themselves should reflect that.

Video games are undergoing a similar transition, although theirs is far more violent, in every sense of the word. In both subcultures, as more diverse voices demand to be heard, those with a vested interest in hanging onto the past become louder, in what are hopefully the death throes of their grip on their respective industries.

This resistance to change has existed for a long while, and manifests in a wide variety of ways, but we can see many of them in David Blake. He is a gatekeeper, using the knowledge that he has acquired to dismiss those he disagrees with. “You’ve learned so little that our opinion is pretty much void,” he tells Laura when challenged on his assertion that the modern generation doesn’t deserve a Pantheon. His dedication has curdled into ownership; it’s not an uncommon phenomena, but just because you can understand the psychology of it, doesn’t make it right.

There are a lot of similarities between Blake and The Inventor, the first villain faced by Kamala Khan, star of the current Ms Marvel comic, one of the very titles that has got the real-life Blakes so angry. Blake says that “this generation is fundamentally lazy and entitled” and because he will not be part of the new wave of innovation brought about by the Pantheon, think they don’t deserve it.

In issue #10 of Ms Marvel, The Inventor has managed to convince a group of young people that their generation is so toxic that they are only worth to serve as human batteries for his technology. Laura and Kamala are both young women of colour who have taken the step from fandom into active participation (in Kamala’s case, she was a huge fan of superheroes who gained powers and decided to follow their lead) and both strike back against this viewpoint.

Ms Marvel plus Blake

Kamala rallies The Inventor’s prisoners, telling them that “the media hates us because we read on our smartphones. The economists hate us because we trade things instead of buying them … Just because they’re old doesn’t make them right.” Meanwhile, Laura stands up to Blake at the time and goes on to prove him wrong, not only bearing witness to a Pantheon manifesting in England, but becoming deeply entangled with it.

It’s worth noting that gods introduced over the course of the three issues we’re covering are themselves “ascended fanboys” – Inanna was present at Laura and Blake’s argument at the previous Ragnarock, and Dionysus was in the mosh pit at The Morrigan/Baphomet’s tumultuous underground gig. Even Luci was deeply rooted in the musical culture of Britain, even if that was largely down to her parents’ influence. All three of the gods whose lives we have glimpsed pre-awakening have been engaged with music as fans to some extent, and I doubt they have much patience for gatekeepers. They’re here to tear the whole damn doorway down and let everyone in.

Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: It'll be June! When the sun is out and the nights are long. Probably another god will be dead. See you there!

You can find Tim's blog at, 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.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #3.1: Eyes, Mascara, A/V

It's 2015! The world is still awful! Tim and I are still writing three essays apiece on The Wicked + The Divine every 90 days. Here's the first set, with the usual mix of puns, chin-stroking, and pushing the blog format to its limits. Nothing has changed. Everything is awesome.

The Eyes Have It

In Phonogram, Gillen and McKelvie's first series together, the eyes of each Phonomancer transform when they work their magic, in a way that reflects their personality or what they're summoning. When Penny manipulates others in issue #1 of The Singles Club, for example, her eyes are a sparkling black star-field; when she dances for herself, they light up purest white.

In Gillen's alternate history WWII comic Uber, the super-powered panzermensch shoot glowing orbs of disembowelling energy from their eyes (which, interestingly, are also their exhaust-port-on-the-Death-Star weak spot).

Once again, this motif returns in The Wicked + The Divine. From our very first glimpse of the Pantheon, at Amaterasu's gig in #1, the focus is on her solar-eclipse eyes, framed in a widescreen panel. It's something we see again at the end of the arc, when the Pantheon briefly flip from modern pop stars into ancient warring gods. Luci's sharp blue eyes flip to infernal red as she burns everything around her. When Baal lays the smackdown upon her, lightning leaks from his eyes in a way that is particularly reminiscent of Uber.

Like one of those ridiculous Super-Saiyan hairdos, these effects only switch on when the gods are being godly – when they are performing or fighting or, possibly, just being iconic. Each chat's particular eye effect is showcased on their cover, which presents them in a style halfway between a modern promo poster and a Renaissance religious painting.
WicDiv eyes
The eyes are the centre point of each cover's design, placed in the negative space of the title, with a big old '+' placed dead between the eyes. Most of the character designs similarly point to the eyes – Amaterasu's colourful sunrise eye make-up, ​Tara's block of blue facepaint – or, like Baphomet's mirrored aviators and Minera's Lennon shades, obscure them.

(A quick pause here to note that Woden is the only member of the Pantheon whose eyes are fully hidden, and he's also the only one without his own powers.)

Like the Phonomancers, the designs of each god's eyes and the surrounding area tell us a little about their personality – the Morrigan's eyes remain a dilated pale green in each of her aspects, but her eye make-up switches from the neutral dash of Macha to the sharp angry wedges of Badb to the chaotic asymmetry of Annie. Or they refer back to their mythic origins – Amaterasu's eyes reminding us that she is a sun goddess, or the flat dashes of Baal's pupils recalling those of a goat, one of his common avatars. Or they tell us about the nature of their powers – the star tattooed over Inanna's left eye, and the big white-on-black pupils of his eyes, reflect his constellation-divining abilities.
Dionysus I Don't Get No Sleep

Or, actually, they tend to do all three at once. Look at the star of the most recent issue, Dionysus. His pupils are a dilated until they fill his entire eyes, like someone who has licked a psychoactive toad (at least, based on what The Simpsons has taught me ). All the dancers on his 'floor have the same effect, showing how they're linked together in a single grooving hive mind.

When the comic slips into hallucinatory colours, all of the black ink seems to been absorbed into Dionysus' eyes. It makes sense – he's taking on everyone's burdens so they can have one night's happiness – and it sets up the kicker at the end of the issue, where the curtain pulls back and we see his nightmarishly bloodshot eyes. It's a quick, powerful way of expressing how much of a burden being a god is.

But most of all these eye effects just look incredibly cool. That may be the only explanation you need, but that wouldn't be very us, so instead I'm going to ask: Isn't it a bit strange that characters whose divinity is tied to music have that manifest through their eyes rather than, say, their mouths?

More on that later.

A Guest Post from the Tim of Another Universe
Baphomet Gig Report

Sound + Vision

Music creates a world from sounds,” said Jamie McKelvie in a recent Wondering Sound interview. “Comics create a world from everything but sound, from the absence of sound. We’ve spent our careers trying to do something incredibly difficult and perhaps impossible, trying to translate music into comics.”

That's undeniably true but, given its cast of deified pop stars, The Wicked + The Divine has so far not shown much interest in directly capturing the feel of music on the comics page.

There's a reason for this: being at a Pantheon gig doesn't seem to be the same as listening to music. During the Amaterasu performance which opens the book, Laura tells us “I don't understand a word she's saying. Nobody does.”

By comparison, when we see The Morrigan doing karaoke in #7, the emphasis is very much on the sound: “like meat being peeled from bone”, as Laura puts it. Badb screams the lyrics of a My Chemical Romance song straight at us in bold, scratchy letters.

Issue #8 is where this potentially all falls down. The entire comic moves to an explicit four-on-the-floor beat, and is the most accurate representation of an alive dancefloor I've encountered in any media since The Singles Club.

But what the issue's experimental presentation really takes from rave is the trappings – fluorescent colours, strobing lights, smiley faces, psychoactive drugs. The imagery, not the sound, which is underlined when non-believer Cass shouts at the packed dancefloor: “There's no music! I repeat! No music! What are you all fucking dancing to?!”

Sound + Vision Flip

Or, as Gillen said in an interview with Multiversity Comics: “They’re not even songs. It looks like music to us. It’s an art form all our art evolved from so when they do it you can’t record it.”

There's almost no sound for Team WicDiv to try and capture, and so they play with the other stuff. When we compare Inanna to Prince or Baal to Kanye or whoever, we're not talking about their sound, but their style, on posters and album covers and in music videos. The way they communicate through, and are presented, in the media.

Similarly, Laura's experiences are probably familiar to members of any fandom. Bending the way you dress; finding friends who share your obsessions; idly fantasising about what your favourite would be like as a person; maybe even reshaping the way you think about yourself. These are just as valid and integral a part of being a music fan as the experience of actually listening to the songs but, while they're particularly applicable to pop music, they're certainly not unique to it.

I'm not arguing that this is an abandonment of Gillen & McKelvie's familiar theme, but a broadening.

As Gillen points out, what The Wicked + The Divine's gods do isn't necessarily music specifically but art. You could substitute any art form into The Wicked + The Divine – videogames, ballet, the work of Zinedine Zidane, comic books, whatever – and its portrayal of fandom would still ring true.


Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: Partying like it's 1999, assorted japes.

You can find Tim's blog at, 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.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.