Once more, we return with two essays on the latest issue of The Wicked + The Divine. Issue #43 brought us another step closer to the series’ conclusion, with a number of the final plot points falling into place. Tim takes a look at how these revelations fit in with the themes we’ve previously explored, while Alex has a big ol’ think about WicDiv’s succession of villains.

Spoilers all the way up to the end of issue #43, after the cut.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Tim: Issue #43 pulls off another subversion of our assumptions, a narrative trick that has almost become one of Kieron Gillen’s signature moves. At the end of the last arc, a question hovered over Laura – if she was no longer a god, what was she? The answer, of course, is that she never was a god, and nor were any of the Pantheon.

While I wouldn’t put it past Gillen to try and fit one last twist in, I think the remaining two issues will focus on emotional resolution, rather than plotting. Working on that assumption, we can probably accept that the series of flashbacks in the middle of the issue are the unvarnished truth. Some elements of what we’ve always been told seem to be true; there are 12 special individuals born every 90 years. But that’s about the limit of it.

They are not gods. They do not need to be awoken by Ananke. There is no need for them to die within two years.

Godhood is nothing but a story that these individuals have been convinced to live within. It provides them with access to greater power – Ananke calls it a “shortcut” – but it comes at a price. If you believe the story, and live as if it is true, it burns you out.

That initial bargain we were told about is still accurate – enormous power in return for a lifespan of two years – but there is nothing divine about it. The Pantheon are not reincarnated gods, they have simply been sold the same story as previous iterations. The names may change, but Ananke works from the same archetypes, and taps into common themes and weaknesses in order to convince the new generation that they are divine.

At the end of the day, it works on the same principles as every classic con-artist trick: it’s easy to convince people of a lie if they want it to be true. Every member of the ‘Pantheon’ wanted to be special, and along comes Ananke with a very convincing story telling them that they are. If I lived in the world of WicDiv, I’m sure I’d fall for it too.

Now that the mechanic behind the Pantheon’s power has been made clear, we can dig into what it means. Back when WicDiv was first announced, Gillen called it “a superhero comic for anyone who loves Bowie as much as Batman”. The revelation that our cast of characters have powers even without their ‘godhood’ certainly begs a comparison to things like Marvel’s mutants and Inhumans or DC’s metahuman population, a similarity that wasn’t there before. But in other, more crucial ways, WicDiv inverts the traditional pattern of superhero comics and turns metatext into text.

When writers are developing superheroic characters, they will often work from existing archetypes, ones that have developed over time as the genre has evolved. The classic hero. The dark antihero. The relatable teenager. The fish-out-of-water. The cunning rogue. While not every hero fits neatly into a simple trope, it’s worth noting that many of the more successful ones do, having been purposefully constructed to fill a role, adapted over time to work better or – for particularly successful characters – having built a new archetype around themselves that is then imitated.

This process is sometimes even acknowledged in the text – when working on the Justice League in the late 90s, Grant Morrison deliberately styled them as a ‘modern pantheon’, with Superman as a sun god, Batman as a nocturnal underworld figure, etc. However, WicDiv goes one step further and actually pulls this process into the fictional world of the book. It is only when they embrace an archetype that the characters gain their greater power. They draw their strength and ability from the cultural heft of their iconography, and lose that ‘divinity’ when they acknowledge that they are less (and more) than a symbol.

We can take this inversion even further when we consider Watchmen and other stories that examine the impact of superpowers on the human psyche. In these types of story, it’s frequently the case that having access to extraordinary power leads to characters becoming distant and detached from humanity. In WicDiv, that very act of detaching, of considering yourself apart, is what leads to the power.

It’s a theme that Gillen and McKelvie have included in their work before. In the second and third volumes of Phonogram Emily Aster details how, in order to gain power and cast off the misery of her adolescence, she had to create a new identity, one that was simpler and more archetypal. By becoming less of a person, she becomes a stronger Phonomancer. Unlike the characters in WicDiv (Ananke aside), she makes this choice knowingly and willingly – a sacrifice in return for power and success.

Of course, even though we’re quoting one of its creators, describing WicDiv purely as a commentary upon superhero comics is selling it short, and the metaphor of Ananke’s trick has more than one interpretation. WicDiv is also about art, performance and creation, and we’ve written numerous times before about how those themes relate to the identities that the Pantheon choose to inhabit. Persephone mentions that the alternative to embracing the story and ‘godhood’ is “a lifetime of work to learn what you can”, and as a metaphor for the cult of celebrity and artists buying into their own self-mythologising, it certainly works.

Every member of the Pantheon has pretended to be something they aren’t, or taken on a role they feel obligated to fill. Their divinity is just another variation of that, a story about themselves they chose to believe. Rather than simply a person who can do something that others can’t, they have separated themselves off as a different class, a higher being worthy of worship. Even Tara, who strained against her ‘divinity’, still believed she belonged up on a stage, believed that she had something that set her apart.

Go back to the very first issue of WicDiv – Laura wasn’t content to simply be in the crowd. She had to craft her own godly identity, marking herself as separate from the rest of the audience and as a peer to the ‘divine’ Amaterasu.

If we apply this lens to the world of pop music, then Ananke becomes the predatory agent, producer or record company, convincing those with talent that they are a star, molding them to fit a simpler, more marketable role. She pampers the ego of her charges, and has them compete with each other so they do not band together against her. Of course, this path leads to self-destruction, and when the talent is exhausted and gone, only Ananke remains, having secured everything she needs to carry on and search out the next wave of talent.

This final twist in the nature of the Pantheon brings together almost all of the themes that The Wicked + The Divine has examined over its run. It’s a beautifully elegant bow on the narrative, synthesising the ideas of identity, performance, humility, power, youth and more. It re-asserts the humanity of the characters over everything else, declaring that they are not just simple symbols, but complex and contradictory people.

There’s a Terry Pratchett quote about how most immoral actions can be boiled down to treating people like they aren’t people. Convincing people that they aren’t people is an even crueler trick, and seeing our cast break free from that thinking is immensely satisfying.

In issue #39, Persephone states that there’s only one way to end a story, and #43 shows it isn’t with death, or new life, or victory. It’s by deciding not to tell it anymore.

The Devil You Know

Issue #43 makes explicit a theme that’s been slowly creeping in at The Wicked + The Divine’s edges for a while now: that stories, and the way they simplify and add meaning to our realities, can be a cage.

But after the cast finally reject the story they’ve been sold – or in Ananke’s case, been selling – the very end of #43 seems to collapse all that back into another simple narrative. Meet the new baddie, same as the old baddie.

Because if you’re going to have a villain, why not go with the devil herself?

As adversaries go, you can’t get much more old-school than Lucifer – both culturally speaking, and for WicDiv specifically. She was our first potential antagonist and so, with that last page reveal, Luci closes a loop that’s been running since the series began. Lucifer to Baphomet to Ananke, until she’s killed. Then to the Great Darkness, to Woden, back to Ananke (now in the guise of Minerva) and finally, Lucifer again. WicDiv always has been fond of a nice circle.

But between the body of the this and its ending, there’s a bit of a weird contradiction. WicDiv, it’s become clear, is a story about exploding the simplifying binaries of stories. But also, we’ve rarely gone a full arc without some baddie to rail against. (The question of who exactly constitutes the forces of good in this equation has generally been a little less clear.)

Without getting too New-York-Times-writer-interviewing-a-Nazi about it, naming someone as the villain is probably the most brutal example of how a story can simplify away our humanity. It’s something we repeatedly see Ananke, the storyteller, use as a tool of manipulation.

Of course, we don’t know yet how the Lucifer situation will resolve. And I’ll confess that I’m playing devil’s advocate a little here – it seemed appropriate, given the subject.

All the names I’ve mentioned are characters who are set up as a villain. Who do villainous things – an incredible quantity of them, in Ananke’s case. But they don’t necessarily get a villain’s arc.

Generally, there are two ways that these stories resolve. The hero overcomes the villain’s seemingly superior power to win the day, or the villain has a dramatic moment of redemption. Darth Vader in New Hope gets the first kind. Darth Vader in the trilogy as a whole gets the second. Sometimes you get a mix of the two, but roughly speaking, this is the palette which good guy/bad guy stories are working in.

WicDiv prefers to deflate its villains. Woden’s story gets suddenly cut off. So does Luci’s, the first time round. The Great Darkness’ defeat doesn’t even happen on the page: it just sort of dissipates under the spotlight of close scrutiny.

You could argue that Ananke (old & wrinkly edition) gets the first kind of ending in “Rising Action”, but Gillen + McKelvie work hard to make sure it doesn’t feel like a victory for our assumed good guys.

It’s not clear yet where Ananke (young & tiny edition) stands, but she certainly seems to be stepping out of her Big Bad role. So she could conceivably get the other kind of ending, the redemption arc, but her face turn this issue – if that’s what it is – feels pointedly undramatic.

 

The thing about Lucifer stepping into this role – and she literally does, strolling through the background of Ananke’s big moment and into her own page-turn, is that she’s consciously choosing to play the villain.

Lucifer is savvy enough to see the end-credits approaching, and makes a conscious attempt to wrench it back into something story-shaped. It’s a counter-attack on the assertion, by Inanna and WicDiv as a whole, that “we’re just people, and that’s enough”. Instead, Luci chooses to stay inside the cage, to live out the artificially flattened version of her identity.

And, hey, I can maybe even see that decision. Between acknowledging your existence as meaningless, or becoming the villain?

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