Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing The Wicked + The Divine 23, originally released November 2nd, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: The epistolary novel — a novel told as a series of documents (letters, newspaper clippings, etc) — presents an intriguing contradiction of allure. The thought of holding “real” evidence of a story brings it closer to us, while their existence distances us from the immediacy of the events they describe. That tradeoff can be mitigated when only a portion of the narrative is epistolary; in presenting both a traditional narrative and physical evidence of that narrative, storytellers can have their cake and eat it too. This is a tactic that is remarkably common in comics, where text and image already freely mix to create illusions of reality in a way that simply isn’t true of prose. Watchmen is obviously the most well-known example of augmenting a traditional comic with epistolary documents, but countless series have employed the technique since. I would argue, however, that none of those examples — including Watchmen — justify the existence of those documents quite as elegantly as The Wicked + The Divine 23.
That’s quite the claim, so before I get to the issue at hand, I want to explain exactly what I mean. In Watchmen, the epistolary documents come at the end of each issue, often accompanied by a note explaining that the documents are “reprinted from” a book or article by or about one of the characters. Those notes beg the question of who reprinted them and why (and for whom). Other times, we don’t get any note, but are simply presented with pages from Sally Jupiter’s scrapbook or letters from Veidt’s marketing team without comment. Where did these come from? How do we have access to them? The obvious answer is that we see them through the same omnipotent eye that carries us through the narrative, allowing us to see events as they unfold, read Rorschach’s journal, or understand Doctor Manhattan’s experience of time. For me, that knowledge robs the epistolary texts of their documentary charm. I no longer feel like I’m sifting through the documents of a world unfolding around me, but instead feel the push of that omnipotent eye as it directs my attention — I appreciate that that direction is always there, but I think one of the strengths of epistolary narratives is minimizing our awareness of it. For that reason, epistolary narratives that have a coherent justification for what is included (the complete journal of a 13th century teenager for example) tend to carry a bit more appeal for me, facilitating the suspension of disbelief simply and elegantly.
Which is only part of the reason The Wicked + The Divine 23 works so well for me. The conceit — that this is an issue of a Pantheon fan magazine — is beautifully self-contained, but it’s also masterfully carried through. Writer Kieron Gillen by and large hands over the writing reigns to actual magazine writers, bringing in the likes of Leigh Alexander, Dorian Lynksey, Laurie Penny, Mary H.K. Choi, and Ezekiel Kweku to flesh out the fandom universe of this series with distinctive journalistic voices. Artist Jamie McKelvie similarly hands the reigns over to frequent magazine (and comic) cover artist Kevin Wada for the bulk of the issue. The results are unlike any epistolary text I’ve ever seen before.
Indeed, the verisimilitude is uncanny. This truly feels like a real fan magazine, which to me feels like an indictment of real fan magazines. That is, the language of celebrity worship is already so florid and over-the-top, it can’t help but feel inadequate when talking about real gods. Interviews with actual deities shouldn’t feel familiar, but it’s difficult to outdo the way we already talk about pop idols and movie stars.
But I realize that may be my baggage. This series has always intrigued me most with the way it elides religious worship with celebrity worship — two subjects that make me profoundly uncomfortable. For me, the self-involvement of these characters speaks to the futility of fixating on them — posing for spreads like the one above when there is real suffering in the world feels decadent when Rihanna does it, but is downright despicable when it’s a literal god ignoring those problems. That is, it’s hard for me to see this issue as anything other than a condemnation of celebrity culture and religion, but I suspect I may be profoundly missing the point.
Spencer, it’s a good thing you’re here to counterbalance my pessimism. I hate to make you defend fan culture yet again, but I know you’re up to the task (you know, if you want to). Did you feel any tension at how much these pieces felt like regular celebrity interviews, or am I just sucking all of the fun out of a clever and well-put-together issue? Also, I spent so much time focusing on the form of this issue that I addressed basically none of its content. This issue caught us up on the state of the world in the wake of Ananke’s death, but mostly through the eyes of mortals. Are there any juicy tidbits we shouldn’t leave unmentioned?
Spencer: “Fan culture” is important to me, Drew, but there’s only so much of it I can, or even should, defend. I’m actually with you when it comes to the idea of celebrity worship and idolization — there’s quite a few celebrities I love, but I also think it’s important to think of them as people first and foremost. Putting people on a pedestal can only lead to trouble. That’s part of why I love social media — such as Twitter — so much. For all their faults, those platforms allow us to interact with many celebrities like real people instead of untouchable gods (that so many people choose to use this opportunity to lob insults and death threats is another, far darker matter entirely).
Interestingly enough, I think The Wicked + The Divine 23 is actually its own greatest critic when it comes to the idea of fan worship. In her interview with Lucifer, Mary H.K. Choi grows tired of the deity’s “brand,” outright states that she pities her at one point, and is skeptical about the entire concept of the Pantheon — which likewise leads Choi to criticize how hundreds of talented employees’ work is being attributed to the divine if Lucifer’s divinity is indeed just a cleverly constructed gimmick.
Lucifer’s interview was “conducted” before her death, and I think that actually adds to the issue’s condemnation of her celebrity — in the end, it did nothing but bring her a gruesome, untimely death. Even Kevin Wada’s elegant “photoshoots” take on a touch of tragedy when they detail Lucifer; unlike the other gods, Wada frames both of her portraits in grey, as if just to drive home the fact that Lucifer was a victim of her own celebrity.
The rest of the articles automatically take on a more awed tone simply because they’re written at a point where the Pantheon’s divinity is a proven fact, but they still have their skeptics. Laurie Penny is openly dismissive of Woden throughout her entire study of him, for example; she leaves her readers to decide for themselves whether they can feel any pity for Woden, instead approaching each new revelation from him with nothing but derision. Even Gillen’s choice (in-character as the fictional editor of Pantheon Monthly) to assign Penny — who he knows despises Woden — to profile the god in the first place shows how little he’s worried about any of Woden’s fans being offended.
Does Woden even have fans? That a god as despicable as Woden can be openly and widely called out for his sins is heartening, yet that calling out is still publicity — and what’s that old saying about bad publicity? Much like Trump, giving Woden this sort of public outlet at all is just exposing him to like-minded individuals and emboldening them. So is this article a condemnation of Woden, or a condemnation of giving creeps like Woden a voice in the first place?
Drew, one of your points I do want to touch on specifically is the idea that the Pantheon posing for photoshoots instead of tackling real problems head-on is despicable. Amaterasu mentioned way back in the first issue that the Pantheon “live to inspire,” and indeed, it seems that their purpose for existing isn’t to solve mankind’s issues personally, but to inspire humanity to better themselves instead. That’s an idea Baal touches upon while being interviewed by Dorian Lynskey, implying, in a way, that even with all their power the Pantheon can’t change the structures that promote corruption, inequality, and poverty all on their own.
As the new leader of the Pantheon, it’s also Baal’s responsibility to keep his fellow gods all on the same page, or at least on a similar path. Baal implies that, together, they have a plan to save the world, but Lynskey sounds skeptical. Either way, it’s hard to know how much good the Pantheon could really do for the world. I mean, as much as we want celebrities to use their wealth and influence for good, we also tend to balk when they stick their noses in global politics, and I highly doubt much of the Pantheon (outside of possibly Baal or Cassandra/Urdr) have the kind of political and social understanding necessary to bring about real change. And that’s just the responsible gods — imagine Woden, Baphomet, or Sahkmet trying to change the world unchecked. Does that sound like a good thing?
That attitude also undersells the kind of good celebrities/gods can do just by inspiring others. Stars don’t become stars just because they’re attractive or talented, after all — they become stars because they make people feel something, help them fill a need in one way or another.
In the passage above Leigh Alexander explains the appeal The Morrigan holds to her fans, the kids who are looking for catharsis over slick pop-star appeal. Even Alexander finds herself moved by the Morrigan in her own way, though for her that comes more in the form of haunting nostalgia. Either way, anything or anybody who makes people feel that intensely has value.
That kind of power is something Amaterasu desperately wants, but as her profiler Ezekiel Kweku points out, while Amaterasu believes wholeheartedly in her mission, much of her zeal comes from her desire to affirm her own identity to the world. Ammy doesn’t just want to change the world, she wants the world to believe that she can. Kweku uses the word hubris in his article, and one really must fear if that’s exactly what lies at the heart of the Pantheon’s endeavors.
The Wicked + The Divine 23, then, highlights both the power and the necessity of celebrities and fan culture while also laying their faults and contradictions bare for the world to see. That Gillen, McKelvie, and their collaborators can do so in such a novel way, while also setting up the concepts the rest of this arc will be exploring, is nothing less than astounding. The Wicked + The Divine has been one of my top 5 favorite comics since its inception, but I’ll admit that I’ve missed some of the fearless inventiveness of Gillen and McKelvie’s previous ventures from time to time. This issue combines the best of Young Avengers‘ experimental nature with The Wicked + The Divine‘s strongest themes, and filters them through the perspective of the greatest talents of several different mediums and industries. God, this is a great issue.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?