Once more, we return. Once more, we have changed formats. It’s for a good reason, though – we managed to hit the first stretch goal on our brand new Patreon, which means Tim + Alex will be writing one essay each, every time a new issue of WicDiv drops. With a bit of luck, this will remain our format for the rest of the series – but you know what we’re like.
(Warning: Below the cut are lots and lots of spoilers for everything up to issue #34. Also, much wankery.)
Journey into Mysteries
Alex: Reading issue #34’s opening flashback sequence, set nearly 6,000 years in the past, I experienced a flashback of my own. One that goes back nearly as far – to the mid-‘00s. When the ongoing obsession I would’ve bugged Tim to start a Tumblr about, if only I’d known how, was Lost.
Y’know, the longform serialised story with the diverse sprawling cast, who are constantly gathering together into factions and then breaking apart. Set in the modern day, but constantly jumping back in time to hint at the foundations of its tightly interwoven mysteries. Set apparently in our world, but with occasional moments of the fantastical breaking through to prove otherwise.
Y’know… Preoccupied with history and mythology, especially Ancient Roman and Egyptian. Great at establishing its own iconography, including numbers, eyes and, of course, a strong light/dark motif. Like the embodiment of evil as a mysterious dark cloud-shaped presence, and a recurring sequence which turned the whole screen black, with only the title picked out in white.
Y’know… the story which increasingly, as it approached its end, revealed the influence of a single immortal person and their sibling, steering events which led to the beginning of the series.
See where I’m going with this?
It’s hard not to think about WicDiv’s relationship with mysteries and reveals after reading #34. The issue is split between providing the reader with partial answers to some of the series’ foundational mysteries, and showing characters working through some of the questions we already have answers to.
As with a few other recent examples of this kind of storytelling – The Good Place, The Force Awakens – my mind wanders straight goes to Lost. When it was on TV, I was in my mid-teens, and that helped it become one of my formative texts. It was my first exposure to mystery-led serialised fantasy fiction, an itch that I’ve spent the intervening decade pretty thoroughly scratching.
I’ve avoided mentioning the single thing that I suspect Lost is most remembered for, though: the way it ended. Which is to say, badly. The main mysteries set up at the beginning of the show were mostly brushed aside, or given unsatisfying answers. The biggest reveal of the finale was that the writers never really knew where they were headed.
Obviously, WicDiv hasn’t reached that point yet, but I feel confident that it won’t fall into the same trap. Let’s try and unpack why:
The series so far has been very consistent in paying off plot threads, with tiny details awaiting careful readers who return to earlier issues. Its scope is smaller, both in terms of the questions currently awaiting answers, and the number of involved creators. And vitally, those creators have made it very clear that there’s a concrete plan, of the kind that was evidently missing from Lost.
The other important thing, though, is that WicDiv’s setting wasn’t sold as a mystery from the outset. Where Lost encouraged you to puzzle over what The Island was, the early issues of WicDiv encouraged you to accept its fantasy premise on face value. Twelve gods reincarnated, every ninety years, doomed to die after two – these were presented as the rules, the same way you don’t wonder why Harry Potter can do magic or where all these vampires that Buffy’s slaying came from.
For anyone who did wonder, the series even offered a reasonable answer early on, in Ananke’s interview with Cassandra. In another story, this could well have been case closed.
Looking back, though, mystery has been one of the engines driving WicDiv’s plot from the very beginning. It’s just that it was a different kind of mystery – a whodunnit, handed to us in issue #1 – or different kinds, plural. The series has cycled through just about every variety of mystery and reveal that fiction has to offer. Secret identities, unknown motives, unreliable narratives, a more classical murder mystery in the 1923 Special…
Slowly, though, the big question that has pushed through is: where did these rules come from?
This development hasn’t felt forced. Maybe because we had that first gateway mystery, seeding the idea that we should be asking questions. Maybe because there have been plenty of other plot threads, driven by a well-realised cast, to focus on too.
But most importantly, because uncovering secrets feels like a neat thematic fit with the series as a whole. I’m increasingly convinced that WicDiv is a story about breaking free of the established patterns that have been set for you. Recognising the underlying systems and structures that can hold back characters like WicDiv’s cast – overwhelmingly young, queer, people of colour – as, to borrow a line from #34, “the cages you’ve placed them in”.
Tim: The Wicked + The Divine is often a series about truth, or the lack of it. On the most basic level, a lot of the characters lie. A lot. It’s about performance, which is a state that walks the line between truth and lie like a trapeze artist. Characters conceal their true identity or their true nature. We are shown moments, only to later realise we only saw a certain angle, or a snippet of what we thought was a whole scene. Even the powers of the Pantheon are often concerned with truth, either in a literal but metaphysical sense (Urðr’s outburst at Ragnarock, Inanna’s divination) or metaphorical but visceral way (you are a bag of wet meat and sharp things will make you not alive). It ties in perfectly with the book’s other themes. After all, Picasso said that art is the lie that enables us to see the truth.
Issue #34 sees the return of a formal element in the series that Gillen and McKelvie had very cleverly disposed of for over 20 issues. With little fanfare beyond a well-concealed bit of metafiction, Laura’s captions have returned, and suddenly a whole world that had been closed off to us opens up again.
It’s a masterwork of misdirection on the creators’ part. After all, Laura had been the only internal voice we’d been exposed to in the comic at the point of her “death”, so it only made sense that the captions would vanish with her. With Commercial Suicide, we got one of our few glimpses inside the head of another character with issue #14, but the remix nature of Woden’s comic marked it as an outlier, so we didn’t get used to the idea of being let into a god’s head.
When Persephone returned, the captions didn’t, but unless you were really paying attention to the formal conventions of the series, wouldn’t be blamed for not really noticing (I certainly didn’t). It didn’t hurt that the arc was so focused on action, giving us relatively little time for quiet introspection. Apart from a few exceptions, we were closed off from Persephone and the other gods, locked out of their minds. One of the few sources of unvarnished truth had been closed off to us, and everything got a lot murkier.
That lack of access played in directly to Rising Action and Imperial Phase, as motivations became harder to read and alliances shifted. For Persephone especially, this lack of insight into her own internal processes meant that her actions could easily be read in various ways. Was she a traumatised girl locked into a self-destructive cycle, or a malicious god working towards some grander agenda. Was she even the same Laura that we had followed for the first dozen issues? That question of identity, of how the gods change when they ascend and what remains of their original personality, was more important than ever, and Persephone, with her locked-off monosyllabic responses, was given us almost no information to work with.
Now, we’ve been provided with an answer – Laura was processing her grief and survivor’s guilt, retreating into a mask of divine vengeance and attempting to close off the feelings that boiled underneath. I’m sure if we’d had captions during this period, they’d be a swirl of second-guessing, self-loathing and recrimination.
But that answer, as with so many of the answers we get in WicDiv, raises questions. Because when the captions return in issue #34, we also learn that these aren’t just Laura’s own thoughts – they’re a story that she’s telling someone. There is a “you” to be addressed, even if it’s just us, the audience. And that means that the captions we’ve been seeing aren’t simply a substitute for thought bubbles, which went out of style in the late 90s, but narration. Narration can be unreliable. Narration can be telling a story the narrator wants you to hear, not just the unvarnished truth.
For an example of this in The Wicked + The Divine, look no further than Woden’s issue, mentioned above. Even though he is telling the story to his own son, who is more than aware of his machinations, he carefully elides certain facts to create a version of the truth that he wants. A remix that paints him as, if not sympathetic, then at least understandable.
So what does this mean for Laura’s narration? In truth, only time will tell. There are almost certainly bombs left to drop when it comes to Persephone’s role in the Pantheon and the Recurrence, but how much Laura understands about her place in all of it is still unclear. I’m guessing that this arc will unveil some of this, but I suspect we won’t learn exactly who it is Laura is talking to, even if it directly to us, until the story is almost over.
But just because doubt has crept into the one area of The Wicked + The Divine that we used to be able to treat as gospel, doesn’t mean that it’s somehow useless. After all, to once again paraphrase Picasso, art is a lie that lets us see the truth. Knowing this is a story that is being told means we get to analyse what it is that Laura thinks is important. What are the facts she wants us (or this mysterious other) to know. How does she want to present the other characters? If she is an unreliable narrator, the ways in which she is unreliable give us just as much insight into her character and motivations as unfiltered accuracy would.
Finally, when talking about the return of captions, it would be remiss to not mention the stellar work of letterer Clayton Cowles. Laura’s lowercase script has always added a level of vulnerability to her caption boxes, a sense of a teenage girl writing in her journal as she tries to make sense of the extraordinary situation she finds herself in. Cowles’ work allows us to slip right back into the mode, helping us to reconnect with a character who, for so long, has held everyone, including the readers, at arm’s length.
It’s worth noting that while Woden and Dio’s captions retained both the upper-case font and their divine styling, Laura’s are still that same old pre-ascension voice. Perhaps this is a formalist hint that Laura hasn’t really been changed by the process of becoming Persephone, just by the traumas she’s endured, and that we really can trust her narration to give us an honest view into her thoughts. But I’m still not convinced. After all, The Wicked + The Divine is a series about truth, or the lack of it.
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