Once more, we return with two essays on the latest issue of The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a big one, as Alex wrestles with his feelings on Baphomet + Tim talks about characters finally facing up to the consequences of their hubris.

Spoilers all the way up to the end of issue #42, after the cut.

Baphomet, revisited

Alex: One of the very first things I wrote under the TWATD umbrella, back in August 2014, with only three issues of The Wicked + The Divine in existence, was a piece entitled ‘The Baphomet Problem’. It was essentially a diss track aimed straight at his None-More-Gothness, he of (p)unholy worship, the self-appointed King of the Underground.

Now, with both WicDiv and TWATD nearing their end, it seemed like a good time for… not quite an apology. Just… a letter, maybe.

Baphomet,
Nergal,
Cameron,

I had you all wrong. Did I?

You turned up in a bluster of flame and bad jokes, the sneer and the tacky jewellery and the leather jacket on bare abs reminding me of kids in bands I used to get drunk with but was never necessarily friends with. You seemed to represent all the worst excesses of music I’d turned my back on – al that rock’n’roll swagger and guitar-as-expensive-penis-substitute stuff. And then you tried to kill Urðr and Inanna.

What was it you said? “Some people deserve to be annoyed”? Well, then, I must have really deserved it.

But, look: it’s possible I mistook the mask for the man.

All of the Pantheon wear masks, in one way or another. But yours was especially ugly. Like one of those masks that look like someone melted Richard Nixon’s face, that people in movies wear to rob banks in. That ugly.

What else was it you said? “Being a man is lying. I’m lying about everything”.

Issue #16 started to show what was underneath the mask. The wounded kid, drawn so beautifully by Leila del Duca – but it was still hard to like someone who fucked around on Marian, and who again stole the stage that was supposed to be hers. (She might get the covers, but you’re always there, aren’t you, ready to step into her limelight?)

I began to understand that all the swagger wasn’t actually you – it was a defence mechanism.

(I’m not going to lie, it helped a lot finding out you didn’t actually kill Inanna. Although, again with the fucking around.)

And it turned out there was something else you were hiding, behind the mask of those mirrored shades. A relationship we’d always known was toxic, but… I’d kind of suspected you were the source of the poison. I’m sorry.

Looking back now, I realise you’ve probably had the closest thing to a traditional character arc in all of WicDiv. Slowly working through the flaws you were introduced with, as we increasingly understand where they come from. Making mistakes and learning from them, until you were capable of doing something truly selfless. That’s the journey of a hero.

The last few times we’ve seen you, there’s been no mask at all. You were presented in the nine-panel grid, close-up enough that we could see every thought and hesitation, rendered with career-best clarity by Jamie McKelvie.

There’s a real honesty to these final soliloquies (they’re monologues, really, even the one where Laura was present). Not just in the words – in the way McKelvie allows you to be ugly, capturing the moments between his usual perfect polaroid expressions. There’s no hiding behind shades – where the mirrors used to be, there’s direct eye contact – or empty one-liners.

And in the interests of honesty: your final sacrifice is something I might’ve expected to celebrate. One of my favourite characters, traded off for… well, for you. But, no, it felt so raw, so real – I mean, I’ve spent the last 500 words addressing you like someone I know – that it actually hurt.

What was it you said? You weren’t good company, but you were good bad company?

I’m sorry,
Thank you,
Alex

The Hubris + The Humility

There is a moment, as the enormity of what he has done and how he has been deceived sinks in, that Baal looks, frankly, a little stupid. A panel of hesitation where he stares, bug-eyed, into nothingness, and you can almost see the wave of nausea pass over him. It’s an awkward expression, and notable in that Jamie McKelvie is so precise in the moments that he chooses to capture.

In our initial discussion of the issue, Alex described it as a moment between the shutter clicks of a camera; an awkward expression from when you’re not quite ready for it. It stands in dramatic contrast to both how McKelvie typically draws characters, and how Baal presents himself, always so self-assured. It is, I think, an expression of humility, as Baal – ever confident in his own knowledge – realises how much of a fool he has been.

Humility and hubris are always going to be rich seams to mine when you have a story about people proclaiming themselves gods, and this issue feels like a real turning point in that regard for three of our characters.

First, we have Baal, confronted with the truth of Ananke’s manipulations. From the rage we see on the first page, he is almost immediately forced to step back and to start, finally, asking questions.

 

We see Baal more unsure than he has ever been, willing at last to listen to others and, as a result, Laura is able to steer him, turn his pain and confusion in a useful direction. For a large chunk of his remaining panel-time in the issue, he is silent, his dialogue delivered second-hand, as the Pantheon’s most bombastic, assertive member finally takes a back seat. It’s only upon his reunion with Inanna that his voice returns, and we see the flames of Baal Hammon ignite once again.

Our second humbled character is Woden, the Pantheon’s most detestable member. It’s worth noting that all three of the characters who face their own shortcomings in this issue are the series’ ‘alpha males’, but while Baal and Nergal have thrown aside some of their performed masculinity, Woden is still trying to bully and (literally) dominate others, right up until the end. He also gets the series’ most poetic death so far, torn apart by the very women whose will he had stolen.

So many of the Pantheon have done awful things, but the focus that WicDiv overall and this issue in particular place on facial expressions forces us to engage in empathy as they explain their actions. When a character is staring straight out of the page at you, and you can see the anguish and conflict play out across their face, you are more inclined to listen.

While the Baal and Nergal sections are showcases for McKelvie’s stellar facial acting, Woden’s face remains masked, even as his helmet is finally shattered. First covered in shards of glass, and then obscured by blood, David Blake never regains his face, or his humanity. His humility doesn’t arrive through choice or realisation – it’s forced upon him in his final moments, and he resists at every step, right up until he is torn asunder.

(By the way, let’s take this moment to praise Matt Wilson’s colouring on this issue. He is absolutely on fire throughout, from the Great Darkness’ cave to the antiseptic dawn of Dio’s hospital room – but this section, as the neon of the Valkyries’ costumes are splattered with the blood of their creator, is a real showcase of his talents.)

Finally, we have Cameron. Alex has already provided a wonderful eulogy for the character, and frankly his journey to humility has been longer and deeper than the lightning-bolt realisations that Baal and Woden undergo this issue. His decision to sacrifice his life for Dio is the culmination of a journey from selfishness to selflessness, and in his final moments, it only feels right to call him by his real name, the character having cast aside the identities that he’s constructed for himself.

As fantastic and heart-rending as the sequence in Dio’s hospital room is, what leaps out to me is the moment before, in the Underground, as Cameron realises that he’s the only one left who can resurrect Dio, always the Pantheon’s most innocent member.

The panel where Laura, not knowing what he’s contemplating, cajoles him to action, telling him that there’s just “one last step” to take, is one that absolutely breaks me on a re-read. His final hesitation, where we are reminded that he is still a young man, haunted by tragedy, committing the ultimate act of sacrifice, finishes the job. In the end, it’s not Cameron who is humbled – it’s all of us.

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