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 casts an eye over the series’ approach to love, romance and relationships, while Tim examines how Matt Wilson’s superb colours help enhance the pace and tone of the the latest issue.

Spoilers all the way up to issue #37 after the cut.

(Don’t Believe in) Modern Love

Alex: If you had to pick a single topic which dominates pop music more than any other… it’d be ‘love’, right? Elvis, the Beatles, the Shirelles, Motown, boy bands, Swift, Sheeran – down through the decades, love has always been the primary concern of pop. The physical kind, the painful kind, the big romantic all-you-need kind, whatever.

But in The Wicked + The Divine, a comic which is at least in part about pop music and at least partly an attempt to do a pop song as a comic, love has been strangely absent.

Issue #37 marked the end of WicDiv’s central romantic relationship, as the Morrigan & Baphomet came to a fiery end. They were the couple that took the spotlight, that variant-cover artists jumped at the chance to draw together, that got given their own dedicated issue. But it’s become increasingly apparent that this was never a love story, but a story about abuse.

After #37, there’s been a lot of criticism of how that storyline was handled. I’d point you towards Pomegranate Salad’s essay on the topic, and the various people sharing their own perspectives in response. They’re all much better placed to comment on this subject than I am, but there’s one thing I’d add, that I think goes some way to explaining why people found this conclusion problematic: issue #37’s ending kind of reframes Baphomet/Morrigan as a love story, which it hasn’t been for a while.

That climactic sequence takes something grounded and relatable – a simple meet-cute that doesn’t require a single word to understand – and contrasts it with imagery that is neither of those things – combat between two gods, one transmogrified into a hideous bird-thing, the other armed with a flaming pole – to show how far their love has twisted from what it originally was. Then, just as their battle threatens to engulf the memories, we get these final quiet moments – first from Baphomet, then from Morrigan – which come back around to those roots.

The sequence turns this into a story of tainted love, and on its own terms, does an exceptional job of that. The problem is that between meeting the pair as a dysfunctional couple and here, we’ve had 33 issues, during which their story became one about abuse – and again I refer you to the more informed voices on this topic.

This reframing made me think about love stories in WicDiv, and the sequence is fairly consistent with how the series handles relationships – not Baphomet and Morrigan’s, but more broadly. Romance in WicDiv is something that we mostly see in retrospect, through the regrets.

Let’s take the other pairings which have been given most space: Baal & Inanna, Laura & Baal, and Laura & Sakhmet.

The course of Baal & Inanna’s relationship certainly doesn’t run smooth, but in many ways it’s the most straightforward love story in the series. Naturally, by the time we meet either character, their story is already over. Baal’s affection only really becomes apparent after Inanna dies, as he mourns him and says: “I loved him”. Note the past tense.

It’s a line that’s picked up by Laura in #35, talking about Baal. The two are the series’ most notable romantic lacuna – we get a slow build-up over the first two arcs, but when do they finally get together, we skip over almost their entire relationship. It takes place in the time between Rising Action and Imperial Phase. We get a single glimpse of the two of them together in #25, forming a little surrogate family unit with Minerva, one issue before their – fairly muted – break-up.

At which point, her pairing with Sakhmet – which had been running alongside the open relationship with Baal – becomes the book’s primary romance. Except, again, we only get the odd panel of them together, and we don’t really know what their relationship is until it’s over. It initially seems like a strictly physical arrangement, and is presented as part of an unhealthy period for Persephone. It’s only after it’s too late – after Sakhmet commits mass murder – that Persephone says she was her “girlfriend”. It’s treated as a reveal, to the character herself as much as anyone.

Persephone positions the two of them as “doomed together”. It’s a line that Baphomet echoes an issue later: “One geek dooms another geek in gothic live-roleplay”. Tragic doomed romances are a grand tradition, and they’re certainly the main variety that WicDiv is interested in – and not just in the modern day. In the 1923 Special, we get the forbidden love of sacramental siblings Amaterasu and Susanoo, their love triangle with Amon-Ra, and Lucifer’s unrequited love for Set.

The focus on heartbreak rather than happiness makes sense given the tone of the series, but I’m not sure how much we feel either. When it comes to romance, it doesn’t really seem like WicDiv’s heart is in it.

And so, for the most part, we get love that’s visible only by its afterglow. Like Inanna/Baal/Laura/Sakhmet in the main series. Like 455’s Lucifer & Dionysus, the latter already dead by the time we pick up their story. Like 1831’s Morrigan protesting that his wife Woden is “cold”, that the “golden child I fell in love with” is absent.

It’s not that Gillen can’t write this stuff, or McKelvie draw it. Young Avengers and Phonogram’s Singles Club are both packed with romantic drama. (Which, heh, Gillen answered a Tumblr Ask about as I was writing this.) That suggests the absence is an intentional choice.

As for why… I find myself thinking of Phonogram, and especially Immaterial Girl, which is in part a cautionary tale about what happens if you value art above human connections. I go to the central mantra of Summer Camp’s “Pink Summer”, first track on the WicDiv playlist: “It’s not how much you love/It’s how much you are loved.”

That’s a deeply unhealthy sentiment, as I read it. The idea that it’s worth giving up caring about the people around you, as long as you can make things that will cause other people to love you.

Maybe it’s not the case that Gillen and McKelvie can’t find the room for romance in their story. It’s that the characters, wrapped up in the importance of their sacred work, can’t find the room for it in their own lives.

Tonal Clash

Tim: It’s an overstated truism that colouring in comic books helps establish the tone of any given page, but an issue like #37 really makes you slow down and appreciate the Eisner Award-winning work of Matt Wilson. This issue is a tour de force when it comes to using shifting, sometimes clashing, palettes to emphasise the conflict on the page.

This issue is obviously dominated by the clash between the Morrigan and Baphomet, but by going through the issue a scene at a time, we can see how the colours help sell the impact of that fight when it arrives.

Our first, short scene with Minerva in Egypt, 3127BC, is a mix of the warm light of the torches, heavy shadows and the pink-purple of the ritual energies. Those energies stay relatively ethereal, not dominating the tone of the page until the final panel, when we get a brief shock of power that ratchets up to WicDiv’s trademark level of pop-art distortion. It’s a well-executed shock, but it’s over as soon as we turn the page.

Then, of course, we have 10 pages of darkness, a slow march through the void of non-existence that also serves as a pretty effective palette cleanser, resetting our eye after the burn of the ritual. When Minerva once again awakens in Crete, 3037BC, it is to the soft, golden-hour glow of a beach at dawn, and while the red of her self-inflicted injuries stands out, the palette is mostly muted. It’s an odd choice of tone coming after a long stretch of existential horror, but it helps to take us a literal lifetime away from the burn of that final image, and the calm atmosphere helps sell her isolation.

Our journey down into Highbury & Islington tube station is the most ‘realistic’ colouring of the issue, but look how carefully Wilson controls what that means – muted colours that avoid bold primaries, harsh whites or dominating blacks. Everyone is wearing pastel or earth tones, and even the grey of the station’s walls is tempered with a slightly warmer shade upstairs, and, as we descend, a cooler one below.

The sections spent in The Underground (as opposed to just the underground) mix the standard Hollywood lighting trick of colouring everything slightly turquoise with the deep, all-consuming blacks that comics can provide. In a book that spends so much time in the dark, it goes without saying that Wilson is an expert at conveying colour even when the hues are tempered by heavy shade, whether it’s Persephone’s make-up, Babd’s shock of red hair or Baphomet’s shining pearly whites.

Our short interlude in Minerva’s ritual space evokes the first page without directly copying it. Again, we have the warm glow of open flames and some inky darkness, but with Mini still one head shy of a full set and unwilling to risk another 90 years of oblivion, there’s none of the unnatural pink of the ritual energy – just the white glow of a smartphone.

It’s a different palette, a different energy, but consistent enough that it doesn’t break the flow, and instead builds the rhythm of the issue. Minor details, like the abundance of shadows and Mini’s blue hoodie, not a million miles from the turquoise shades of The Underground, help anchor the moment and maintain the mood as we return to Baphomet and Persephone.

And then all hell breaks loose, and Matt Wilson’s paintbox with it. The most obvious story told by the colours here is the ghostly green of The Morrigan’s crows against Baphomet’s fire. Remove the words and the lineart, and you could still read the flow of their battle simply by following how each combatant’s signature colour dominates the panel.

But that’s not the only work the colour is doing. We also have the stony purplish-grey of Badb’s war-form, especially unnatural here. It isn’t rendered like the flowing energy of the fire or the misty green ravens – it’s hard-lined, physical, a solid manifestation of The Morrigan at her most monstrous. And as we move onto the fourth and fifth pages of the fight, we see more of the environment, the dull grey of steel and concrete taking up visual territory.

This isn’t just a sign of the fight coming to a close, as the two gods tire, or pause to reflect on their actions, but also helps the reality hit home. Colours from our initial journey down into the station return, but cast in supernatural lighting. This isn’t just a swirl of energy. It’s real, with shattering glass and broken tiles. It has impact.

Finally, there are the flashback panels, if we can call them that. Told in faded monochrome, like it’s etched into stone, we see Marian and Cameron’s first meeting. The colour tells us that this was long ago, far away, but the way the page is formatted, with the present-day images laid over the flashback in jagged-edged red, tells us that these two are closely linked (by the way, see how those edges shift from ravens to fire as fight progresses, and note where it flatlines). The flashback is both the idealised past that causes Baphomet to hesitate, and the same story that plays out in the present, the same destructive cycle. Attraction, rejection, passion, intimacy.

Then, in the final burst of violence, the two colours mix. The Morrigan’s green curdles into a sickly yellow, and Baphomet’s fire becomes the red of blood as he is torn asunder. And in the aftermath, the cyan tones of The Underground spill out into the real world, colouring everything a slightly otherworldly, mournful blue.

One final shift in colour remains: to a background of pure light green, a shade we rarely see, for a miracle with a heavy cost. We return briefly to haunting blue, and finally, back to that all-consuming black for the title page, another skull added to the tally.

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