Is it a coincidence that so many of these non-superheroic books are published by Image? Probably not. Image has made a name for themselves as the place for creator-owned comics; that is, for comics where the writers and artists own the characters and the universe outright, eliminating many creative stumbling blocks.
Y’all know I love superheroes comics, but sometimes it’s just nice to read something self-contained, where truly crazy shit can happen without the need to coordinate the event across multiple books written and drawn by fifteen different people.
Plus, creator-owned comics tend to feature nudity and profanity, because realism.
(What, like you’re not up for the occasional profane nude?)
Gillen and McKelvie's YOUNG AVENGERS gave me my latest push to explore the great, wide world of creator-owned books. I got off to a rocky start with the creators' vision of the young superhero team, but they quickly hooked me but good1. I needed to read more of their work, so I turned to their current ongoing series: THE WICKED + THE DIVINE.
The premise is as follows: every 90 years, twelve gods possess twelve humans. For the next two years, they make a huge splash as pop stars and soak up all the worship. After that, they die.
17-year-old Laura is a devout worshipper (except not of Tara) (fucking Tara). She goes to as many gigs as she possibly can, and when you’re willing to ditch school, that’s quite a lot.
Much to Laura’s delight, her devotion draws Lucifer’s attention. Laura is more than happy to start rushing around on Luci’s business, even before Luci asks her to, because hey! A god noticed her! When Luci is framed (?) for murder, Laura takes it upon herself to find the real culprit and clear her god’s name. To this end, she teams up with Cassandra, a journalist/academic/sceptic who studies the gods’ return, and descends into the dark underbelly of divinity.
And it's awesome.
Gillen and McKelvie, together with master colour artist Matt Wilson, set out to tell the sort of twisty, raw, hopeful, tragic story I eat straight from the jar. THE WICKED + THE DIVINE has everything: a complicated plot; unreliable characters; a surface mystery; a deeper mystery; magic; people who argue with the general premise; people who accept and do fabulous things with the general premise; diversity; and generally complex, realistic characters.
Let’s touch on the diversity first, since THE WICKED + THE DIVINE is far from the hetero white boys’ club one so often finds in comics and that’s a mighty important thing to celebrate.
All the major characters are female. Laura does brush up against the occasional male deity on her quest to get Luci released, but for the most part she seeks help from, and clashes with, women. Cassandra, her sorta-investigative-partner; Ananke, the woman who calls the gods down into their hosts; the Morrigan, goddess of death and stuff; Luci herself. This is a book in which women do things for women with other women’s help--or in spite of their hindrance.
The majority of the gods we’ve seen so far are white, but Laura is a WOC with a white mother and a black father. (British media so trumps North American media when it comes to interracial relationships.) Cassandra, Laura's sorta-investigative-partner, is of Japanese descent.
So far as quiltbag-related diversity goes, most of the gods appear to be bi or pan. Laura herself entertains crushes on both Luci and male Baal. And we have yet to learn Cassandra’s sexuality (unless I missed something), but she’s explicitly trans2.
Basically, the core of the book is female, non-white, and queer. More like this, please.
On the plot front, everything is satisfyingly complex. In the foreground, we have the mystery of who performed the murder of which Luci stands accused. Laura's quest to discover the truth leads her into all sorts of interesting spheres of influence, and it serves as both a hook and a How Stuff Works lesson for the reader. Over the course of Laura and Cassandra's investigation, we learn everything we need to know about the series' basic premise.
In the background, but never long out of sight, is the mystery of what exactly is going on with the gods. Cassandra drives this portion of the proceedings with her scepticism surrounding their presence, and the text itself raises tons of fascinating questions about how and why this all goes down. THE WICKED + THE DIVINE is basically a puzzle book. It’s enjoyable in large part because it encourages the reader to sift through evidence, form theories, and ask questions.
Like, what’s up with the whole every-90-years thing? Why is the gods’ time on earth so short? How many possible incarnations of each god are there, and how do they decide which version incarnates during each resurgence? What’s the deal with the mortals they possess?
So far, we’ve seen evidence the gods absorb their mortal hosts’ memories and emotions, but it remains to be seen how much of the mortal actually lingers in the god when you add divine abilities to the mix. Does the god completely take over, or does the god’s presence merely give the mortal an excuse to collect worshippers and engage in less-than-laudable behavior? Amaterasu, the god whose gig Laura attends in the first chapter, makes it sound as though she’s still at least partly who she used to be, but she’s sloughed it off in favour of her Ameratsu persona. We still don’t know whether this is the same for all the gods, but that seems like a logical conclusion to jump to.
This, in turn, leads us to wonder what Ananke’s real role in all this is. She’s supposedly the one in charge of calling the gods down into their young hosts’ bodies, but is that really all--or even what--she’s done? Gillen and McKelvie leave plenty of scope for more sinister dealings on that front.
And I mean, bodily possession that results in a death sentence two years on is already pretty sinister.
Oh, friends. This is just such great stuff. It’s engaging storytelling, it displays a commitment to diversity, and it’s willing to ask potentially uncomfortable questions. I can’t wait for volume 2.
And that’s the end of the review proper. From here on out, we’re getting personal and potentially uncomfortable because we’re gonna talk about religion.
It's kind of tough to avoid when you bring gods into things, yeah?
Thus far, we've seen gods like Odin and Baal and the Morrigan; deities who are still worshipped on a relatively small scale, but who no longer feature prominently in most people's non-mythological life. At the same time, though, we have gods like Amaterasu, who is a major Shinto deity--and Shinto is far from in decline. And Tara, the object of Luci and Laura’s loathing, might very well be my own beloved bodhisattva.
When Tara first cropped up, I assumed she had something to do with Ireland because the series takes place in the UK and Scarlett O’Hara’s home made a weirdly large impression on young me. I didn’t make the potential connection between my god3 and Tara until someone (I want to say it was Cassandra) mentioned that many of the gods have multiple incarnations, and no one is sure whether the Tara currently playing gigs around London is connected to Buddhism or Hinduism or whatever.
It was an uncomfortable moment for me. All at once, I was faced with a dilemma the Christians among you probably encounter all the time. How did I feel about (potentially) seeing my own god ridiculed or represented as a less than exemplary figure?
Not only is this something I’ve never had to deal with before, it’s something I never expected I’d have to deal with. My Tara, Green Tara (there are lots of different coloured Taras, plus Hindu Tara), oversees compassion, perfect wisdom, healing, and long life. Who’d think she could be mocked or cast as a villain?
But hey, if it can happen to Jesus...
And I mean, the logical side of me recognizes that Lucifer hates Tara. We’re set up to empathize with Luci because Laura empathizes her and we (meaning I) like Laura, but that doesn’t mean she’s on the up-and-up. Even Laura’s established dislike of Tara doesn’t necessarily mean Tara is an actual villain, because Laura, much as we like her, feels an immediate connection with Luci and hopes her god will turn her into a demon.
That says a lot about a person, you know?
I recently skimmed4 an interview with Gillen and McKelvie in which they talked about how one of their goals for this comic was to write about problematic people, and a problematic character’s hatred for someone doesn’t necessarily mean the object of their hatred deserves it.
Even if Tara is all-out bad in the reader’s eyes as well as in the characters’... well, how much does it really matter? I’ve always figured it's fine for people to mock, say, the Buddha, because the Buddha doesn’t give a damn what you say about him. He's achieved enlightenment. He's past all that. Tara’s probably the same, what with her compassion schtick and all.
Still. It gave me quite a turn until I sat down and thought about it for a while.
And now, back to regularly scheduled review stuff.
While I always advocate your local library as the absolute best source for books, I recognize this may not be an option for everyone where every book is concerned. If you're in search of another way to read THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, you can try:
- The Book Depository (paperback; for purchase; free shipping worldwide)
- Amazon (paperback; for purchase)
- comiXology (digital; for purchase; single issues and collected editions)
I receive a small percentage of the purchase price if you buy the book through The Book Depository or Amazon.
- Gillen and McKelvie's YOUNG AVENGERS has become one of those things I autorec to anyone who tweets about how much they love THE WICKED + THE DIVINE's art. Do you like Jamie McKelvie's style? Then read YOUNG AVENGERS, please and thanks. His layouts are especially noteworthy.
- This is confirmed quite late in the first volume, but I feel it’s important not to treat it as a spoiler because of the cultural weight that goes along with "shock reveals" and suchlike. You shouldn't have to think Cassandra is cis in order to empathize with her.
- A bodhisattva isn't exactly a god, but we’re gonna use "god" as shorthand, okay?
- I'd have read it in detail but I was worried about spoilers. Please don't tell me about anything that happens after #5.