Monday, 1 September 2014

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #1.2: Sex, Icons, God is a DJ

Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each. In two years, they'll probably still be doing this.

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.

Luci's Tongue

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.


Icona Pop

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.

Morrigan 2

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.


Tim + Alex will return in November to discuss issues #4-6 of The Wicked + The Divine. Missing them already?

Alex's ramblings can be found here at 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, 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, 27 August 2014

Tim + Alex Get TWATD #1.1: Death, Parents, Needle Dicks

This is the high concept behind The Wicked + The Divine, the latest Image comic from Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson.
Every ninety(ish) days, two handsome young writers return to this blog. They read the last three issues of The Wicked + The Divine, and they write three essays each.
Welcome to Tim + Alex Get TWATD. Each set of essays will be broken into two posts, to save our wrists and your eyes. We might be doing close readings of particular scenes or panels, picking out a theme or character that's caught our attention, or just speculating wildly. Spoilers will be everywhere, so if you haven't read the comics yet, avert your eyes or, better yet, grab them and come back later.
In two years, they'll probably still be doing this. The idiots.


“But not yet.”

You know, given that its very first page is dominated by a skull, and the majority of its cast's lives have a guaranteed expiration date of two years' time, The Wicked + The Divine has actually shown a remarkably light touch when it comes to mortality.

In the opening pages of #1, which take us back to 1923 and the era's own set of deities, we get a preview of the gods' inevitable fate. Eight have already been reduced to the aforementioned skulls, and a couple of pages later, we see the explosive murder-suicide of the remaining four. But their demises don't weigh too heavily on us – they're not characters we've had time to get invested in, despite their wonderful Jazz Age designs – nor, it seems, on their 21st Century counterparts.

Over in 2014, Amaterasu (aka 17-year-old Hazel Greenaway) is asked about her imminent demise by the comic's resident cynic, Cassandra. There is a regretful pause, a moment of wonderfully-drawn sadness in Ammy's big brown eyes, before she pretty much shrugs it off:

There are a few possible reasons for all this:
  1. They're teenagers. Do you remember being 17? The threat of dying before 20 feels more like a promise. Amaterasu's reaction is pretty much this.
  2. They're also kind of immortal. After all, that elegant set up makes two promises: You will die. But, in some sense, you'll be back, long after everyone else here is gone. It's just like pop music – I can just about conceive that Prince Rogers Nelson will one day die. But Prince, the artist previously known as an unpronounceable symbol? He's not going anywhere.
  3. They're too busy making the most of being not-dead. Creation is these gods' main business, both in the artistic being-popstars sense and the procreational one. Based on Luci's accounting in issue #3, pretty much the whole pantheon has touched pelvises. (More on that from Tim in our next set of essays.)
  4. Simple dramatic license. If The Wicked + The Divine was wall-to-wall moping about the gaping abyss (and not the kind Badb is taking about), it'd be about as much fun as hanging out in a funeral home. Besides, with a promised run of 30-40 issues, the comic has plenty of time to reach that point yet.
In fact, the one time so far that the comic has really pushed the issue – with a pure black page, lit only by the refrain “We're all going to die” – it came from the gods' music. (The two-page sequence being, as far as I can tell, a particularly abstract way of depicting the trance-like state of a perfect gig.)

It's a performance, and it's the message Baphomet and the Morrigan choose to send to the outside world. So it's probably telling that the sequence ends with three more words, lighting the darkness and breaking the rhythm: “But not yet.”

Won’t Somebody Think of the Grown-Ups?

The Wicked + The Divine is a series with its eye fixed firmly on the young.

Laura, our entry point into the story, is 17. The gods and goddesses are, at most, in their early 20s. Apart from the elderly and possibly immortal Ananke, the only major character that could rent a car in the US is Cassandra, who is old enough to have a Masters degree, but young enough to still be annoyed about her student loans. That said, one group of adults is very conspicuous in their absence – the parents.

Laura’s parents are both seen and heard, and her interactions with them root her as a 'normal' figure caught up in the supernatural events of the Recurrence. In issue #2 we are presented with a portrait of their normality, as the family sits around the television watching Baal’s interview. Laura’s father gently prods at his daughter’s affection for the gods, her mother prevents it escalating beyond good-natured familial banter. In issue #3, we see the consequences of Laura being caught (quite literally) at the Morrigan’s gig, and the ensuing row, again a picture of normal teenage life.

In contrast, we have the parents of the gods. Amaterasu is 17, Lucifer maybe a couple of years older. Minerva is only 12. It’s common knowledge that the gods live for a maximum of two years after they are awoken. Where are their mortal parents, lamenting their childrens’ inevitable early deaths? Or, given that we’re also dealing with pop stars and the modern cults of celebrity, where are the parents desperately trying to edge their way into their child’s spotlight, barely acknowledging their foretold doom? Granted, we’ve only had three issues, and the plot has been moving at a fair tick, but we've already had our attention drawn to the empty seats at the family table.

Lucifer’s parents (or rather the parents of the girl who became Lucifer) are twice referenced. First in Cassandra’s interview, where she conjures a picture of Luci discovering Bowie in her parents’ “embarrassingly retro record collection”, and then again when Luci regales Laura with the tale of her transformation into a god, while her parents “were out at some awful Britpop covers band”. If her parents are at the court hearing in issue #1, they never make their presence known, even when Luci is being tackled by bailiffs. Where are they, and what do they make of their young daughter suddenly declaring herself the Lord of Flies?

Of course, there’s another way to look at this. If anyone would have an absent parent who remains caught in the past, reliving their faded glories, oblivious to the damage their child is causing, it should probably be Lucifer...


The Baphomet Problem

Our gods so far: Luci(fer). A gender-flipped Bowie/Satan figure, dropping acidic soundbites like they were carpet bombs. Love her. Amaterasu. A young, even-more-divine Kate Bush who makes her fans leak from the trousers at gigs. Love her. Sakhmet. S&M-era Rihanna turned literal sex kitten. How could I not love her? The Morrigan. Three-in-one none-more-goth queen. Love her.

And Baphomet. Hmmmmm.

Maybe it's the look. Leather jacket, chains, mirrored aviators, animal skulls... Baphomet is the rare Jamie McKelvie costume design I wouldn't want to cosplay as. Even those exposed abs, against the dirtier crosshatching-in-every-corner world McKelvie and colourist Matt Wilson have conjured up, come off a bit Ken-doll.

Look at the texture of the first two panels below, the visual noise obscuring and framing Baphomet. Then he clicks his fingers, reveals himself – and everything goes a bit shiny.

Baphomet 2

Or maybe it's that I'm just not a fan of the musical archetypes Baphomet draws from. There's the swagger of a thousand cock-rock frontmen in his hips, some Sisters of Mercy, the hyperbole of early Manics, Nick Cave at his murder-horniest. None of them are really my thing.

Baphomet certainly falls into a character archetype I'm fond of, though: the kind of arrogant male Kieron Gillen writes so well. In his Uncanny X-Men, Namor is Kanye West's Power incarnate (I guess every superhero needs his theme music). Phonogram's David Kohl is a swinging dick of a human being who introduces himself with the Afghan Whigs' Be Sweet.

You get the impression that going to bed with Kohl or Namor, as much as you might regret it the next day, would be worth it. To quote the Atlantean king himself: “Only Namor has the ability to make the Earth move. And he reserves that privilege for one woman at a time.” David Kohl was recently named 'Babe of the Month'. Baphomet, on the other hand, is apparently blessed with a “needle dick”.

And then it struck me. It doesn't actually seem like the comic has much love for Baphomet either. Maybe this is the correct response. After all, he's introduced in a final-page splash – which, in the language of superhero comics (like Gillen/McKelvie/Wilson's last collaboration, Marvel's Young Avengers), tends to mean the reveal of our villain.

Like the real-life Top 40, The Wicked + The Divine is populated by charismatic problematic people. Luci's apparent desire to have sex with underage groupies is quickly forgiven amongst all the crowd-pleasing one liners and the humanising moment of her framing at the end of issue #1.

There's no real attempt to redeem Baphomet. When we first mee him, he's clutching the apparently severed head of a much-anticipated female character. Soon afterwards, he sets fire to a policeman and makes a speedy exit, leaving Laura and the Morrigan to face the consequences.

Given the brilliantly seductive dicks Gillen has written in the past, it's probably worth paying attention to the fact that Baphomet is the first male god we've been introduced to. In fact, he's the first male character in this series to get more than a couple of lines, and not shot/exploded/set on fire, and he's a total prick.


Next time on Tim + Alex Get TWATD: 
Laura, she's more than a superstar. Let's talk about sex, Badb. They're right and crazy pretentious!

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.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

What I'm Playing: XCOM

So far in our journey through mobile gaming, we've shuffled tiles with  Threes, murdered demons with Hoplite and explored wordy galaxies with Out There.

Throughout, I've been trying to work out what makes a good mobile game. What is the right balance between complexity and simplicity? What length of game works best? How important is randomisation? Should you be able to abandon a game and come back to it days later?

Or does none of that actually matter?


Originally a PC game, with very little changed en route, XCOM is in many ways a terrible fit for mobile. It requires your full attention, revolves around drawn-out battle sequences that are a little fiddly to control and impossible to drop and pick back up without disastrous consequences. The app annihilates battery, and if you play for too long my phone, at least, burns the tips of my fingers. One particularly heavy session left my right hand a rigid arthritic claw for days afterwards, something I haven't experienced since my mid-teens.

Luckily, while XCOM might be a bit rubbish as a mobile game, that doesn't really matter on account of it being just a fucking great game.

It's probably my favourite of the past however-long-it's-been-since-Spelunky-first-came-out, and in spite of all those problems, XCOM actually feels pleasantly incongruous on the tiny screen. It's a blockbuster miniaturised and bottled like the city of Kandor. The screenshots peppered throughout this blog don't do it justice, but in motion the game is Aliens and Independence Day and Starship Troopers squashed down into something you can play on the bus.
If you pull at XCOM's edges, and tease it carefully apart, you'll find it divides into neat halves: a resource-management base building game and a turn-based strategy game.

The turn-based battles are the star here. Half a dozen soldiers are dropped into an invaded city, or UFO crash site, tasked with hunting down every alien in the area and welcoming them to Earth in the fashion of a young Will Smith. You have to keep as many of them alive as possible.

It's taut, tense stuff. Especially if you plug in headphones – another way that XCOM is out of sync with most mobile games – and take in the soundtrack. Ambient birdsong and the odd chirrup of alien tech gives way to an electronic score, building agonisingly as the soldiers push back the fog of war, praying they're not about to uncover a nest of Mutons. Occasionally, screeches suggest the position of nearby enemies, then suddenly the soundtrack explodes into action-movie techno as an entirely new species steps out of the darkness.
Make it through all that, and any remaining squad members get to fly back to HQ, to treat their wounds, collect their promotions and pick out a special ability. This is the other half of XCOM and, though it might be possible to prise them apart, you soon realise that the two halves describe a perfect yin-yang, feeding endlessly into one another.

Each mission gathers you resources which you can use to build equipment for the next foray into alien territory, or artefacts you can study to unlock new technology. Which can be used, in one instance, to take aliens prisoner and bring them back to base for autopsy. Which unlocks...

Each long-running game of XCOM is its own clockwork construction. Appropriately, it's also one that runs on time: in the battles, with each soldier granted two actions per turn, and also back at the base. The latest discovery might take a few days to research, building and launch a satellite a whole fortnight. This adds up to a compelling list of interlocking tasks. Three days until the new recruits arrive, five until your latest superweapon is ready.

It's here that other mobile games might take the opportunity to squeeze in buy-with-real-money gems to speed up progress, but there's no forced grind. You can fast-forward as much as you want, racing towards that next unlock – but lean on that button too heavily and you'll be accelerating your own demise.

Every few days, there's a new city being invaded for your soldiers to rescue – or, worse, two or three simultaneously, of which you can only attempt to save one. Constantly ticking away beneath all this is a monthly timebomb, in the form of the end-of-term reports issued by the shadowy council of nations behind the XCOM project. Fail to protect a country and it might abandon the project, taking precious income with it. Lose enough countries and it's game over.

Ignore Hamburg because London is under threat? Expect panic to spread in Germany, and a highly unfreundlich call from Merkel. So, that satellite I mentioned? You're going to need it to stop Germany tipping over the brink. You sell all the unusued alien tech you can on the grey market to raise funds, then realise you need to build an uplink facility in the base before you can launch it. Then, as you skip through the agonising weeks, it hits you. Council report: 10 days. Building completion date: 11 days. Auf wiedersehn.

Countries and cash are big abstract resources to threaten the player with, but speeding ahead has another cost. Every squad you send out on a rescue mission is made up of a half-dozen fragile human beings. With their own speciality – there are four different classes: sniper, assault, heavy, support, plus some added psychic business later in the game. Their own rank – awarded for successful missions and kills, giving each character access to a class-specific tree of special skills. And most cruelly of all, their own name.
XCOM 2 Jeffy
Meet Jeff Jefferson. Nowadays, that's Colonel Jeff Jefferson, Support Division, but he's been with me since the very first mission, when the game automatically generated his hilarious name and Canadian origin. I have a Canadian friend called Geoff, so naturally I tweaked Jeff's appearance to match, posted a screenshot on Facebook, laughed when he was assigned the nickname 'Rogue'. And then I started to catch myself pulling Jefferson back from the action. To safety.

Each mission is an opportunity to lose your best men and women. If Jefferson gets blown to hell, as he inevitably will, eventually, that's the end of his story. His name will be engraved on the 'Memorial' menu in the base's barracks, with a brief history (how many missions, how many kills, the ridiculous codename for the mission that finally claimed him), and that's it. All his experience and personality will be lost, like tears in rain.

Somehow they're not just jumbles of stats or resources with arms and leg, they're little people. Contrast with the 'SHIV' robotic gun platforms which can fill the role of a soldier in a battle. I'll happily let these anonymous droids perish, despite the adorable way they skim across the landscape, but the humans gather stories and identities too quickly to ever be disposable.

Meet 'Papa Bear' Muthambi, who was always up front ready to take his lumps from those alien bastards. Deceased. 15 missions, 42 kills, KIA: Operation Brutal Gaze. Or Tiffany Spencer, who I was already predisposed to like even before she earned the nickname 'Shotsy' and took a whole squad of Mutons with a shotgun. Deceased. Or 'Doomsday' Liu, who once had to blow up a civilian to take out a Chryssalid that would have torn through the entire squad – the right decision, but she was never the same again. Deceased.
A confession: some of these people have died more than once. I've let myself cheat a couple of times, purposely crash the game or just boot up an earlier save. That's something I never did on PC, but this is my unreliable smartphone, and these poor bastards shouldn't have to suffer because of a clumsy thumb or hungover commute.

Still, even knowing I can reload at any time, XCOM is terrifying. Ridiculously so, for something that's playing out on the five inches of plastic burning my hands as I miss a vital tube stop. For all its complexity, the beating heart of XCOM is simply this: sending beloved characters forward into the unknown, over and over again.

That can hurt, but when one system exhausts you, another pulls you back in. A battle ends, disastrously, but there's that fast-forward button. Inviting you to research the piece of alien tech your one surviving soldier dragged back to base. To build that new plasma rifle that's going to avenge your fallen comrades. But then you hit an alien encounter, and it's all go again, and the combat draws you back in.
This alternating loop pulls you through the story being told by your game: which countries you save, which you let burn, who makes corporal and who dies alone on a battlefield. Because at its best, XCOM is the equivalent of a cracking pageturner. The game engages your attention on a moment-to-moment basis but what's really compelling is the constant question: what happens next?

Which brings us to the reason that XCOM is actually, secretly, a fucking excellent mobile game too. Like that thick wad of paperback you're addicted to, it can go everywhere, fill any gap, become an intrinsic part of your life for months.

Unlike a book, though, this story belongs entirely to you. There's never going to be another Jeff 'Rogue' Jefferson. That's why I have to hold onto this one.

Other games what I've been playing:

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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.