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, Tim looks at how Baal’s decisions play into the central themes of the series, and Alex explores how this arc and others have manipulated the passage of time for dramatic and emotional impact.
Spoilers all the way up to issue #36 below the cut.
Alex: We’re three issues deep into “Mothering Invention” now, and less than six hours has passed. Maybe that’s a little misleading – after all, in one sense the arc has spanned nearly six thousand years – but all the present-day action is taking place on 9 March 2015. And I’m not sure we’ll ever reach tomorrow.
Since the beginning, The Wicked + The Divine has been very concerned with exactness of time – those interstitial pages almost always come stamped with a specific date – but I’m not sure the passing of minutes, rather than days and years, has ever been foregrounded quite this much before.
Issue #34 gave us three short scenes in the present day, with a clear temporal relationship to one another: “20 minutes ago”, “10 minutes earlier”. These time captions are a rarity in WicDiv, putting a firm emphasis on the importance of exactly when ‘now’ is.
These captions are dropped in the subsequent issues, but we’re still given precise times, thanks to characters’ phone screens. (On that note, I think WicDiv is the first comic I’ve seen really tap into the potential of the smartphone as an incredibly efficient visual storytelling device – but that’s an essay for another time.) The timestamps on Urdr and Minerva’s text chat tell us that the sunrise showdown with Woden took place before 6am. Laura checking her phone after her own face-off with Baal informs us it’s gone 9 o’clock – finally, a reasonable hour for all this drama.
The compression is especially obvious due to the structure of “Mothering Invention”. One half of each issue tumbles through millennia of Pantheon history. In the other, we crawl forward, minute by minute. It’s a stark contrast, and one that makes perfect sense thematically, because the entire cast is rapidly approaching its expiry date.
However, this split structure also means that the new pacing is a practical consideration. After all, the page space available to tell the present-day story is essentially halved. This hasn’t stopped Team WicDiv from packing in the plot revelations, but they mostly have to be confined to single scenes. There’s no room for transitions, or quieter scenes which just restate character or theme.
As a result, the reading experience can be a little frustrating. That final black-page title always feels like it’s arrived too soon, even though the cold-open sequences are lengthy and satisfying in their own right. This is structural necessity, sure, but it’s also a common storytelling device – slowing readers down as the climax approaches, teasing them just when they’re most desperate to see what happens next.
I say slowing down, because that’s how it feels to us as readers – relativity or something at work, probably – but really what’s happening here is acceleration.
Looking at my timeline of previous arcs, “Mothering Invention” certainly isn’t the first to take place over a very confined period of time. The events of “Rising Action” all took place between 23-24 September 2014 – but, vitally, that arc was followed by a three-month gap, before catching up with the Pantheon on New Year’s Day 2015. The last three arcs, meanwhile – each taking place over a shorter period than the last – have picked up directly after the previous one finished. There’s no breathing room any more.
That sense of relativity, of time slowing down as events accelerate, puts us right in the doomed shoes of Persephone and co. In Baal’s flashback, entire months can pass in two words and a single red page, but every moment counts considerably more when you’ve only got a handful of them left.
The 1923 Special recently namechecked ‘Memento Mori’, the art term translated by Baal with characteristic bluntness as “remember that you have to die”. Its most prominent symbol, the skull, has always been front and centre in WicDiv, but Memento Mori paintings also commonly feature blown-out candles, ripened fruit and, vitally, timepieces.
Clocks aren’t a common image in WicDiv – one of the few Watchmen riffs it hasn’t indulged in – but these last few issues have been a reminder that series itself has always been a ticking countdown.
Tim: Back when Gillen raised the spectre of a ‘third theme’ in WicDiv that hadn’t been as discussed as the two central pillars of ‘art’ and ‘mortality’, we attempted to sift through the various strands we’d been offered and one of the possibilities we offered up was ‘sacrifice’. As time goes on, that’s looking more and more likely, particularly when it comes to the ground covered by the second half of #36.
The grisly nature of the child sacrifices Baal has been carrying out is now fully revealed, as is his reasoning behind them: each one buys the Pantheon, and in particular him, four months of protection from the Great Darkness, which will otherwise attack and kill them and their families. Baal initially dismisses the ideas of the sacrifice out of hand, but when the reality of his situation hits and his father is killed, he relents. So far, he’s killed five children.
I’m not here to try and defend the morality of Baal’s choices, nor would I want to. Smarter commenters than I have pointed out that, whether it’s the dispassionate, repetitive, clockwork-like killings that Ananke carries out in the first half of the issue or Baal’s sacrifices, so unspeakable that they fill an entire page with red, murder is murder. The “Monster” title page that separates the two halves applies equally to both. Instead, I want to examine the choice he’s offered.
Biographical readings of art are, largely, the most boring lens you can apply to studying a piece of culture, whether it’s trying to decode which ex-boyfriend a Taylor Swift song is about or examining whether Orson Welles saw himself in Charles Foster Kane. That’s especially true for collaborative mediums like comics, where it erases the contributions of the artist, colourist, letterer and everyone else working on the title. That said, Gillen has been pretty upfront that the death of his father was one of the major prompts for writing The Wicked + The Divine, a series that tackles death and mortality from page one.
I’m not suggesting that Gillen was offered the opportunity to save his father and rejected it, or that he’s secretly sacrificing children to, I dunno, keep himself flush with Warhammer models and puns, but I certainly don’t think it’s a coincidence that it is Baal’s father that dies. Along with all the other things this plot development brings into play, I think part of it is Gillen tackling the question of “What would you be willing to do to save the person you love?”
I’ve never faced the unimaginable anguish of a parent dying, but I can imagine that in the weeks, months and years afterwards, it’s a question you ask yourself over and over again, a tiny prayer offered up to time and fate. The choice Baal is offered does what good fantasy is meant to, and allows that idle thought to play out. Baal can’t bring his father back, but he can save his remaining family, and he has decided that innocent lives are worth it.
That mix of desperation and guilt doesn’t excuse his actions. He is still, to quote Captain America “trading lives”, a fundamentally selfish and monstrous act that places the value of his sister, his brother and his mother at higher than those of the children he sacrifices.
But from the very start, Baal told us that “When I speak, people know that in my gut, I’m bad. They feel better about being bad in their guts.” Baal, especially in his true form as Baal Hammon, is about accepting your darkest impulses and letting them become your shield and your power. It makes sense that he would be the avenue through which Gillen, as a writer, and we, as an audience, can be allowed to consider that, yeah, in our most desperate moments, maybe we’d take that deal too.
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