Once more we return, with the now-regular format of two monthly essays focusing on the most recent issue of The Wicked + The Divine. This time out, Alex takes a close look at the issue’s return to a familiar scene, and Tim delves into the latest revelations about Baal, and how they play into the series’ themes of identity, divinity and performance.

Spoilers right up to issue #35 below the cut.

History Repeating

Alex: When The Wicked + The Divine’s first issue opened with the words “And once again, we return to this”, it was fairly inevitable that, eventually, we’d be back. And 34 issues later, here we are. Issue #35 opens with those same words, that same striking full-page image of a skull, and is followed a three-page sequence that’s nearly identical in both issues.

I say ‘nearly’ because McKelvie has gone back and redrawn some elements of each page. It’s most obvious in the close-ups, and especially Minerva’s face. To my eye, she looks a little older – more in line with the modern-day Mini, in her early teens, rather than an out-and-out child – and like she’s doing a worse job of hiding her excitement about what’s about to happen.

I spoke to Jamie directly, and he confirmed that this was just a case of not wanting to use four-year-old work. In Minerva’s case, he doesn’t believe he quite had her design down yet. I can only imagine how tiny mistakes – the kind that are only visible to the person who made them – eat away at you, when something is out there as prominently and for as long as WicDiv’s opening sequence.

This isn’t the first time WicDiv has revisited an old scene to show us what really happened. I’m thinking of issue #20’s return to the apparent murder of Persephone in #11. But the reused art in that sequence was drenched in stylised pinks and blues, a variation on the sampling effect seen in Woden’s retelling of events in #14 – the first time the series played with reusing old art in a new context.

With this revisiting of the 1920s, the visuals are played completely straight. Matt Wilson appears to have reworked his colours a little – the shadows are little deeper, and there’s an added blown-out glow to the highlights – but at first glance, the overall effect is the same.

The effect is fascinating. By being presented with something so close to identical – and, at least in my case, so burned into my brain – the tiny differences immediately tickle at your brain. But when you get to the fifth page and the differences get significantly larger, it’s enough to blow those brains out your ears. (Not literally, thankfully – that fate is saved for poor sweet Susanoo.)

We see what really happened inside that summer house, and get a reverse of that final shot of Ananke, clutching herself and repeating “Once again, we return”. This new information changes the images we’ve seen before. Ananke’s seemingly genuine sorrow when the ‘20s gods blow themselves up, which was for a long while the red herring that led me away from believing she was a bad ‘un, now seems to be grief for her own imminent demise.

That’s a brilliant detail, which makes sense both times, in different ways. But I’m also interested in the broader logistics – knowing, four years ago, how to divide a page to leave space for a future revisit. In this respect, the #1/#35 sequence uses a similar trick to the #11/#20 one, splitting a single image into multiple widescreen panels.

Some of these panels, which get reused, contain key details – like Ananke’s face, in both of the examples above – while others show things that, looking back, seem like extraneous filler – rubble and smoke. These kind of empty ‘mood’ panels are a fairly rare occurrence in WicDiv, which is fairly committed to using its space as efficiently as possible, suggesting they were drawn with the retellings in mind.

I’ve written before – all the way back in 2015, following issue #11’s release – about WicDiv’s love of circle motifs. Back then, I read it as a sign that this was a comic about breaking free from a cycle, and with the cage currently tightening around the Pantheon, it’s hard to disagree with that.

But on the page, the effect isn’t oppressive. It’s beautiful. Like a song returning to its chorus, like a 1-2-3-4 beat looping over and over, symmetry and repetition are building blocks of the art that WicDiv celebrates, even as it shows us the increasingly dark side of the people who create that art.

The Masks We Wear

Tim: So, it looks like we can add Baal to the list of characters who weren’t who we thought they were. Of the remaining Pantheon, the deceivers are starting to outnumber the honest ones, with Woden stealing his son’s divinity, Baphomet hiding his true nature due to embarrassment and Minerva…well, we’re still working out what her deal is, aren’t we?

Add in Persephone, who is clearly tied into the Minerva/Ananke cycle somehow, and Tara, who we never got a clear explanation for, and that’s an awful lot of gods who were existing under some form of disguise. Of course, there are precedents for this.

Take a look back at mythology and you can barely move for gods disguised as humans, gods disguised as animals, and even gods disguised as inanimate objects. Whether they’re trying to gain an upper hand on their rivals, prove a point to a disbelieving follower or (most frequently) fuck someone/thing they’re not supposed to, the gods can’t seem to help playing dress up.

Interestingly though, there are relatively few instances (at least that I was able to track down) of gods disguising themselves as other gods. Aside from a few notable exceptions (Somnus disguised as Phorbas killing Palinurus in The Aeneid, various shenanigans in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca, Loki pretending to be Odin in Thor: Ragnarok), it seems as though there are some lines that even deities don’t cross.

The blurring of divine identities is much more common when you look at how religions, mythology and folklore spread. As the classical Greeks spread around the Mediterranean and beyond, gods and other supernatural figures from local folklore would often be integrated into the myths of the Greek pantheon, usually through being killed or married off to an existing god, but sometimes by being folded in to the identity of another deity. This obviously happened on a much larger scale when the Roman empire picked up the baton of the Greek pantheon, dusted it off and renamed them all. But again – not exactly the kind of divine disguises that we’re looking for.

In fact, if we want a better comparison, we have to look at the flip side of The Wicked + The Divine’s vision board, and consider how musicians play with identity. From Bowie’s rotating cast of personas to Gene Simmons’ makeup and Garth Brooks transforming himself into Chris Gaines, musicians have always been willing to play with identity as part of their performance. And it’s here that we return, once again, to that key term that Alex raised in his excellent piece from a couple of months back.

Alex brought up the idea of “performed identity” in his essay, and it’s a concept we can come back to here, but from a different angle. In Alex’s case, it was about how a character’s actions were influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by the labels applied to them, but what about the reverse of that? Do the labels we put on ourselves really matter, or is our actions that are truly important? And would those have actions been any different if our gods were operating under their true names?

It can certainly be argued that the Pantheon’s divine identities give them licence to act in ways they might not have before (see Inanna’s line “I was terrified of so many things before. So many things about myself…I can be whoever I want to be.”) but, as Alex mentioned, it seems increasingly like those supernatural roles have little actual influence on their behaviour. Beyond his initial embarrassment, would Cameron have acted any different as Nergal than as Baphomet? Would calling himself Mimir rather than Woden have changed how David Blake treated his son? If Eleanor had been told she was Kali rather than Lucifer, would that have stopped her from dying?

I suspect that when all is said and done, who the gods are and who they pretended to be won’t actually matter as much as the fact that they felt the need to conceal their identity, the actions they took as part of that deception, and the motivation behind their desire to disguise themselves. For Baphomet, that decision seems to be rooted in his own sense of identity and his wish to escape his past into a mask of outrageous masculinity. For Baal, the decision seems to have come from a more desperate, and potentially much darker place.

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