Guess who’s back with a brand new site? Yup, it’s the internet’s leading source of Wicked + Divine nonsense, Tim + Alex Get TWATD. Before we took to Tumblr (which will remain our primary home), TWATD ran as three-essays-at-a-time collections on Alex’s personal blog.
Once more, we return to that format. Except bigger, because Imperial Phase.
(Warning: Below the cut are lots and lots of spoilers for WicDiv issues #29-33. Also, much wankery.)
i. The Pain or the Hangover?
Alex: Gillen has repeatedly described “Imperial Phase” as a double album. Now we’ve slid the first record back into its sleeve, and issue #29 has put the needle in the groove of Part II, I’m stuck on that comparison. Not least because the double album is normally the bit in a band’s career where I turn off.
But if I was picking a musical analogy for how issue #29 feels, it wouldn’t be a double album. It would be The Weeknd’s 2011 album/EP/mixtape House of Balloons.
I’ve kind of fallen out of love with The Weeknd these days (yes, I have become an ‘I liked his early stuff’ snob), so to explain what I mean, I’m going to steal some words from 2011-Alex.
“House of Balloons sounds like a world where it is constantly the early hours of the morning, where it’s cold and smoky outside, where the party is always just ending. A world with the colours turned down slightly, viewed through a lens smeared with vaseline … or are your eyes just bleary?”
That’s the music I hear when I read this issue. I mean, it literally opens, the morning after the party, with Persephone saying “I feel so sick”, and later gives over a full page to the words “Is the High Worth the Price?”.
The shared feeling is more than just a hangover or a comedown, though the issue does capture the associated emotional brittleness and mental lag perfectly. It’s not even the shame and regret that comes from a half-remembered night, suspecting you did things you shouldn’t have (friends don’t let friends eat friends).
The thing that The Weeknd captured so beautifully was the anhedonia of hedonism. And that’s all over issue #29.
That sense of pointlessness that can come from overdoing it, and deciding that the solution is just do it all over again, except a little harder.
This is pretty much Persephone’s journey through the issue. She starts the issue bleary-eyed, is faced with the consequences of last night, and heads straight for another bleak night out.
As Singles Club, the Dionysus issue and the climax of Young Avengers illustrate, Gillen and McKelvie know how to throw a fictional party. Issue #29 turns that inside out, giving us all the signifiers – beautiful McKelvie dance moves; Matt Wilson strobe lights; just enough detail in the string of toilet/bar/dancefloor/DJ booth to evoke real clubs you’ve been to – but transforming them into a horror film.
It’s not necessarily all about excess. It’s more a case of the old things not bringing you the joy they used to. That’s as true of a song as a drug as a comic as whatever you rely on for a little hit of pleasure. As Phonogram has always made excruciatingly clear, it’s terrifying to turn to those things – especially when they’re something you’ve dedicated your life to – and to discover they do nothing for you.
It’s a feeling I’m familiar with, enough that I didn’t need to Google how to spell ‘anhedonia’ even when Tumblr threw one of those squiggly red lines under it.
Just to underline all this, Issue #29 does give us a taste of the party before the hangover, but it only serves to make the pain sharper. Not least because the night before that it flashes back to, the crystal-clear pleasure of Baal and Sakhmet’s first performances, was 18 months earlier.
It’s a reminder that, in the modern day, we’ve seen less and less of the gods performing since Persephone’s gig at the beginning of “Rising Action”. There were two performances in #27, but they were squeezed into a few tight panels, not even the main attraction on those pages.
This isn’t really a comic about pop stars anymore. As Laura goes from a fan in the front row, overjoyed to be sharing a room with these people, to a superstar sharing a bed with them, the ‘god’ half of the equation has taken over pretty much entirely.
This is a shift that I know some readers have been uncomfortable with. But the truth is, it couldn’t still be that comic of a fan standing in a crowd, blissfully watching her idols. Not only is that dramatically inert, it’s just not accurate.
The thrill naturally wears off with time. That’s true of me and House of Balloons, and it’s true here. For the thing you love to keep being effective, without changing, it needs to deliver in higher and higher doses – and even then, sometimes it doesn’t work.
Issue #29 is one of the most accurate portrayals of it not working that I’ve ever seen. As I tried to communicate in my CBR review, that doesn’t necessarily make for a very satisfying reading experience. It’s certainly less appealing than the beautiful glamour that The Weeknd lent to these same feelings, but it’s more true.
Is that worth the price?
ii. Cover Versions
Tim: The front covers of The Wicked and The Divine have always told a story. Whether it’s the first two arcs, a ten-issue build up to a blood-spattered punchline, or the gradually darkening backgrounds of the trades, taking us from pure white to stygian black as our cast of characters grows more tangled in darkness, deceit and despair, Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson have done an astonishing job blending iconic designs inspired by high-end fashion magazines with the narrative demands of the comic.
For Imperial Phase (Part I), we had yet another shift in design, with each cover featuring a medium shot of a god, positioned in the bottom left corner and taking up roughly half the page. Meanwhile, the top right quadrant is dominated by the book’s title, framed in a rectangle that represents the god’s powers and domain, from Baal’s lightning to Baphomet’s fire to the Norns’ interweaving threads.
As we enter the second part of Imperial Phase, that design has persisted, but the powers of the gods have started to stray beyond the strict borders of the rectangle. On issue #29’s cover, the fiery cat of Sakhmet begins to stray over the edges, like a returning feline pushing its head through the cat flap. With #30, the rectangle becomes a window, with The Morrigan’s ravens flying through, invading the cover. The solicitations for #31 and #32 show this pattern continuing, with the white space that has served as a background for this arc’s covers almost completely gone by issue #32, and the power starting to envelop not just the backdrop, but the god too.
The pattern is a wonderful visual metaphor for the way the characters are losing themselves to the divine nature. As time goes on, they are growing more distant from their humanity, channelling their abilities at larger scales than ever before, surrendering to the temptation of power and excess in their search for meaning and purpose.
While the out-of-control power is the main narrative we can pull from Imperial Phase’s covers, I think there is a more subtle one at work to, one that is expressed through the portrayal of the gods. This arc started with the Pantheon Monthly issue, an in-universe publication dedicated to covering the exploits of our cast of deities. As such, it brought up the idea of how the wider world perceives the characters, and more importantly, how they are trying to control that perception through PR and the media.
The characters, as we see them portrayed on the covers, are how they wish the world to see them. Baal is confident, serious, mature and powerful. Amaterasu is a spiralling dancer, carefree and bathed in the warm glow of the sun. Baphomet is a moonlit smirking demon with abs carved from marble and a giant phallic symbol jutting out from his waist. This is the face they present to the world, the platonic ideal of their godhood.
But inside the issues, we find things are not that simple. Each of the characters are now torn by criss-crossing loyalties and contradictory impulses. The pantheon is split into factions, hunting and hurting its own. The gods are indulging their basest appetites, building up monuments to themselves or retreating into self-destruction. And no matter how much they exercise their power, the ticking clock of their own short lives still edges forward towards a literal deadline.
As Imperial Phase has clicked over into Part II, we’ve seen the gods lose the tight control that they’ve tried to maintain over their public image (a mass murder will do that). The people that once adored them now fear them, and when their current masterplan relies on good vibes at a big party, that’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s no coincidence that the switch in public perception happened as we moved from Part I to Part II, and as the covers also began to show the gods’ powers slipping out from the regulated rectangle and swamping the entire cover. The question that we’ll soon have to ask is: as the adoration they have received curdles into distrust and anger, what will the gods do to maintain their position? How willing are they to let their power run rampant, and what other boundaries are they willing to cross?
iii. Fear the Reaper?
Alex: It’s always been fairly clear that death is, thematically speaking, the (un)beating heart of The Wicked + The Divine. So much so that it was the topic of the very first instalment of Tim + Alex Get TWATD, three long years ago.The book is dedicated to examining what death means, both for those sentenced to it and for those left behind. The latter I’ll save for another time – it’s a big topic, given half the cast are grieving the loss of a loved someone.
The former was what interested the Alex of 2014, back when the gods’ deaths were a hypothetical. At the time, our guide to mortality and what it meant to the gods was Amaterasu. With issue #31, that’s cast in a very different light.
Because Amaterasu is no longer talking in the abstract about one day being dead – she’s living the reality. Or, rather, she isn’t.
A quick note on the death scene itself, which has a different feel to the many that have come before. In WicDiv, death is sudden. In #31, the act itself – the slashing of a throat – certainly is unexpected, and so quick that we never actually see it, as the moment happens on a page turn, between panels.
But Amaterasu’s actual death? Unlike the exploded heads we’ve gotten used to as the book’s main way of dispatching its cast, it isn’t instantaneous. The way that she’s killed means we get to see her reaction. Lucky us.
In that first extreme close-up, McKelvie fills Amaterasu’s eyes with surprise, fear, and sudden understanding. The moment is even more horrific than the gore which follows, a panel later. The idea of understanding that you are about to blink out of existence? However well you think you’ve come to terms with your own mortality, that’s terrifying.
For me, it also functioned as a kind of flashback – not on the page, but inside my own head – to that first Amaterasu talked about her death sentence as part of the Pantheon.
Cassandra, still sceptical that it’s all a hoax, asks Amaterasu how she can be so calm, given she’ll be dead before she turns twenty. There’s a painful pause, and then McKelvie pushes in, closer and closer, to Amaterasu’s eyes, not in the total-eclipse-of-the-heart god mode we first saw but back to their natural hazel – a decision he repeats, hence the flashback, at the moment of her death.
Over the past thirty issues, we’ve seen more or less all of the gods’ answers to this same question. For Baphomet, it’s a curse. For Woden, it’s license to behave as he wilt. For Sahkmet, it’s another feeling to lock away. For Dionysus, it’s a time limit to make as much of as he can. For Amaterasu, at least as she tells it in this first scene, it’s just part of the deal. Hazel’s extreme short-term mortality is worth it, in exchange for Amaterasu’s immortality.
There’s another part of this deal, that seems to help comfort some of the gods about their impending dooms. As Amaterasu puts it, in characteristic childlike fashion, in that first interview: “We go away for a while.”
For the gods, unlike for you or me, death isn’t permanent. Each new recurrence is a chance for resurrection. Maybe they won’t be picked this time, maybe Susanoo will get a turn in the spotlight instead, but they’ve at least got a chance of coming back in ninety years’ time – which is a lot more than we get.
Or at least, that’s the promise. The evidence given by our brief glimpses of past pantheons suggests otherwise.
Take Lucifer, for example. Between the 2015, 1831 and 455 recurrences, we’ve met three Lucifers. They have shared traits, but you’d struggle to describe them as the same character. Or, for a starker contrast, look at the Woden of the 1830s – one of the few gods we’ve met who seems to have their shit together – and her modern counterpart.
Look at it the other way. We’ve seen gods change their divine identity – from Nergal to Baphomet, Lucifer to Julius – without changing their personality. In the latter case, even, we’ve specifically seen that assuming a new identity doesn’t free a god from the two-year cycle.
And the other, other way round, too. For, say, Amaterasu to be a consistent identity across centuries, they’d have to be possessing their human host, totally erasing the person they were before. In that case, we should be grieving their moment of ascension, Amaterasu having murdered Hazel before the two-year countdown even began.
This evidently isn’t true. The Morrigan and Baphomet have the same relationship and issues they did as Marian and Cameron. Meanwhile, Cassandra insists on sticking with her pre-godhood name, and is clearly the same character we met back in #1.
This isn’t reincarnation in any meaningful sense, it’s just recycled branding.
It’s interesting to note that this idea of a next life most often comes up when the gods are mourning another member of the Pantheon. Amaterasu, again, after Luci dies: “The only comfort is that I know I’ll be seeing her again soon.” Baal, grieving for Inanna: “There’s a next life. That’s what I keep telling myself.” It feels like the thing we tell each other at funerals – they’ve gone to a better place. Even if you don’t believe in an afterlife, it’s an easy lie to fall back on.
Amaterasu clearly believed. But looking again into her eyes in that final moment, I have to ask: What kind of succour did it provide as she breathed her sticky last?
The only way for the gods to achieve immortality, as far as I can tell, is the same one we have in this world – creating something that outlives us. This is pretty much the stated purpose of the Pantheon, but it seems that, by the time of their next recurrence, their miracles are all but forgotten. For his attempt to live past the allotted two years, Ananke explicitly makes sure that the Roman Lucifer isn’t remembered.
In the 1831 special, we see two attempts to break free of this loop. On one hand, the pregnant Inanna; on the other, Woden, who gave life to that story’s creature. Inanna’s attempt isn’t successful. Woden’s is more ambiguous. Two centuries on, we haven’t seen any references to her creation, but Inanna more or less closes the story by telling us: “my sister’s great is out there, somewhere. The creature lives…”
Woden’s creature is an allegory for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which famously originated out of the Villa Diodati trip being retold, with a WicDiv twist, in the special. Frankenstein’s legacy has endured, far beyond Shelley’s lifetime – not just in terms of the titular character, or all the ‘um actually’ arguments about the monster not actually being the titular character, but as the launch pad for basically the entire genre of science fiction.
That feels particularly telling, having seen Gillen mention on Twitter recently that in the event of his death, WicDiv could now be finished by someone else, and that he had similar contingency plans for the first two volumes of Phonogram. This is WicDiv’s approach to mortality, and seemingly his too – rejecting the fiction of an afterlife, in favour of the afterlife offered by creating fiction.
iv. I Never Can Say Goodbye
Tim: I’m aware there are all sorts of conspiracy theories pinballing around the blogosphere (boy, it’s been a while since anyone used that word, huh?) about Dionysus’ final fate, but assuming the icons in the title page are any kind of reliable narrator, it looks like we lost two members of the pantheon in issue #32. The storm that has been threatening to break throughout Imperial Phase has finally broken, and we’ve got the bodycount to prove it.
There’s an odd kind of symmetry to the departures in this issue, not least because they see my favourite and least favourite members of the Pantheon shuffled off this immortal coil.
Uncomplicated and kind-hearted jelly doughnut that I am, I was immediately drawn to Dio following his introduction; the nicest, most outwardly selfless member of the Pantheon with a profound connection to the dancefloor and a troubled relationship with sleep? How could I not love Dio?
As for Sakhmet, I’ve written before about how she’s a character I’ve really struggled to get on board with. I understand the reasons for her emotional distance, her apathy and her cold-heartedness, but that doesn’t stop me from instinctively bouncing off them when it comes to liking the character. Plus, even with the layers of trauma she’s living with, you can’t really say she’s not in control of her actions, which makes her a pretty unrepentant killer of many, many people, all the way up to her death.
Their opposing places in my heart and more-or-less simultaneous departures aren’t the only thing that connect their deaths. Up until the end of Rising Action, all of gods departed in the same way: a quick snap from Ananke and off comes their head in a ball of light, gory and somehow clean at the same time. If we discount Ananke, who stood apart from the Pantheon anyway, that was true all the way up to issue #31.
Now, with Sakhmet’s murder of Amaterasu and Woden’s ill-advised attempt at supervillainy, the gloves are off when it comes to god-on-god violence, and with the gods adopting “No quarter given, and none asked!” as their new motto, it’s given rise to some more varied and, in a way, poetic, deaths.
Dio, who never stopped moving, can’t quite close the distance he needs to. Dio, who lived for the crowd, is beaten and broken by a horde of strangers and a gang of heavies. Dio, who spread his essence out between anyone who asked, ends up trapped, braindead in his own body.
As for Sakhmet, after so long treating sex as a disposable pleasure, she is undone by the one relationship that actually seemed to matter to her. After so long as the ultimate threat among the Pantheon, she’s taken down by the member all the others have worked to protect. And after so long glorifying in her own capacity for flawless violence, she is killed in brutal, clumsy fashion.
In some ways, issue #32 serves as a little Greatest Hits package for both departing gods. Sakhmet once again reminds us of her ferocity and her agility, that while she doesn’t care about anything, we should be extremely wary of her. Meanwhile, Dio is there, dancing among the crowd, the 1-2-3-4 beat driving him, as he sacrifices everything so that normal people can be free.
Dionysus and Sakhmet, two very different characters, dying as they lived.
v. The Third Theme
Alex: From the backmatter of issue #33:
Look, Kieron, we know a direct challenge when we see one.
So what could that third theme be?
My immediate reaction is that, if it’s as integral as ‘art’ and ‘mortality’, it’s probably something the WicDiv Tumblr community have picked out before. But Gillen sells here it as a big reveal. That implies it’s not something as general as ‘identity’ or ‘youth’.
He also says this theme becomes clearer on the last page. Naturally, I’ve spent ages studying that image, trying to understand not only what the hell it means for the story, but also what it could be nudging at thematically.
So, yeah, obviously, it’s ‘heads’. Everyone in WicDiv has heads, right, up until the moment that they don’t. There, cracked it. Another successful solve by the Tim + Alex Get TWATD Literary Detective Agency.
But, considering the possibility – unlikely as it might seem – that I haven’t cracked it, let’s consider some other possibilities.
If these decapitated heads really are what they seem, the supposedly-dead gods given a (really crappy) afterlife, that seems to undermine the stated theme of ‘mortality’. Especially when you place it next to Minerva’s apparent Ananke-resurrecting heel turn this issue, and the return of Laura as Persephone after she seemingly died.
Presumably that’s by design, so maybe WicDiv’s third theme is a direct contrast to its second one: ‘immortality’. After all, David Bowie might be dead but – at least if you follow the people I do on Twitter – we still talk about him more than many human beings who are alive.
Or, more generally, you could sum the whole thing up as ‘cycles’. Nothing ever really goes away: not storytelling motifs like the two-page tumble into godhood, not long-forgotten plot points, not even characters we thought were dead 30 issues ago. This is certainly something that has recurred throughout WicDiv, from the very first “once again, we return”, but it’s hardly a secret – we were writing about all the circles and cycles back in June 2015 – and, as we said then, it’s more of a motif than a theme.
All the above is extrapolating from a single image. Striking and confusing as that image is, themes are emphasised by repetition and variation – so what if we take in the rest of this issue too?
There are three main strands in #33: the reveal of Woden and Mimir’s identities, Persephone talking through her survivor’s guilt with Cassandra, and the Minerva/Ananke/talking heads business.
The first two strands in particular are concerned with parent-child relationships. It’s strongest in David Blake’s awfulness to his son, but Persephone reveals that she feels responsible for her parents’ deaths at the hands of Ananke. These both chime with Minerva as the focus of the final pages, who was so mistreated by her own parents, and who also saw them killed by Ananke, the identity she’s now claiming to have assumed for herself. Parents are a presence in almost all of the gods’ backstories, as highlighted in Amaterasu’s British Museum showdown with Sakhmet in #31, where “family” was the trigger that led to her murder.
More specifically, what WicDiv seems to be interested in is the idea of the old consuming the young, treating them as a resource to further their own ends. Like, to pick a random real-world example from the last few days, baby boomers blaming millennials’ out-of-control sandwich habit as the reason the younger generation can’t afford property, rather than what their own actions did to property prices.
This is literally what David Blake is doing with Jon – tapping his powers, and justifying it as a down payment on the years his son ‘stole’ from him – and what Minerva’s parents did by monetising her demise. It’s also what Ananke, and arguably the population as a whole, does with the Pantheon. It takes a group of talented young people, and trades their lives for enlightenment or safety or power, depending how cynically you want to read the whole thing.
Actually, this does loop back to that final image, which puts the trade-off in its simplest possible terms, by framing it as an act of ritual sacrifice.
Actually, if we’re trying to condense this theme into a single punchy one-word, maybe that’s it: sacrifice.
That covers not just Blake and Ananke’s sacrifice of the kids, but the gods’ self-sacrifice in accepting the two-year sentence – at least, where there’s any sense were given a choice.
At the kindest extreme is Dionysus, who gives every waking moment – and eventually, his life – to others. He does it because he’s a good person, but Imperial Phase has interrogated whether that is a healthy impulse. There’s another, much messier examination in the Valkyries, and the recent revelation that Kerry has returned to being Brunhilde. It runs through the Specials, in 455′s Lucifer and 1831′s Woden and especially Inanna.
Perhaps most importantly, sacrifice also ties in with Persephone’s revelation this issue, that she feels like she made a deal for godhood. “No price was too high,” she says, as the tears finally break through. For anyone who’s turned personal tragedy into something profitable or praised, that guilt probably feels familiar.
So, is that the third theme Gillen’s talking about? Dunno, tbh.
But I do feel pretty confident in saying that this has always been the central question posed by WicDiv: What are you willing to give up, in order to get what you’ve always wanted?