Here’s an incredibly obvious statement: The Wicked + The Divine is a comic about performance. Like, yeah, dude, do you remember the very first double-page spread? It’s like page 10 of issue #1.
‘Performance’ is always the word WicDiv chooses for the gods doing their artistic thing. Not show, or concert, or act. Most likely, that’s to help separate it from music – especially important when dealing with past pantheons, with their writer gods, cinema gods, theatre gods and so on – but I think it’s a telling choice.
Look at what Ananke – who is presumably the arbiter of this vocabulary – has to say about performance, in issue #9:She means that it’s easier to decapitate a god when they’re performing, but it makes sense because of the truth in the underlying metaphor. Art is a way of bearing your soul to people, and doing that live, with people in the room, who probably paid to be there? Well, I’m just thankful I’m a writer.
This isn’t the only kind of performance in WicDiv, though. There’s also a kind that has the opposite effect: performed identity.
Identity performance is the idea that we use our clothes, speech, and facial expressions to express who we are – an at-least-partly conscious act, which we can alter based on people’s reactions or how we want to be perceived. It’s a necessary part of integrating ourselves into society, but it’s also fundamentally a mask – something that doesn’t expose our inner self, but conceals it, and protects it. But some identities are more performed than others.
I am increasingly convinced that this kind of performance is actually more important to WicDiv than the singing-and-pyrotechnics kind that seems more obviously baked into the premise.As the story gives us more and more evidence that the Pantheon aren’t magically possessed by their godly namesakes, it seems pretty clear that all of the gods are performing their identities, based on the cues given to them by Ananke. Lucifer, Morrigan, Amaterasu – these are roles to be played.
Look the comic’s most recent revelations, all of which involve gods performing an identity that is fundamentally not their own. Woden, in the modern day and the 1920s, isn’t really Woden. Minerva, in those same eras, isn’t the innocent child she claims to be. Her identity and Ananke’s might be interchangeable, somehow.
Notably, these characters could all be classified as – to borrow a bit of terminology from Amaterasu – baddies. But we catch almost all of the gods performing their identities at one point or another. Most obviously, at the moment the mask slips.See: Lucifer at the moment of her death, the hardened front crumbling, to expose the scared girl beneath. See: Dionysus outside the party, fading down his powers to reveal the red eyes beneath. See: Baphomet, pretty much the entirety of.
Baphomet’s a good case study, actually. He’s another god who has been revealed to be playing the role of another – he should be Nergal – and the only one who can’t be neatly classed as a baddie.
Baphomet’s chosen persona is an irritant, a parody of toxic masculinity. It’s an identity that we saw him start to adopt before godhood, after Cameron’s parents died. The barrier he puts up is probably best embodied in his beloved mirrored shades, which hide those light-brown windows to the soul the same way Dionysus’ blacked-out eyes do. You can tell when Baphomet is being sincere, because he tends to lower the shades.Clothing is one of the central tools we use for performing identity, at least in physical spaces. The shades also feel like a way of turning one of the common metaphors in talking about this stuff – namely, the mask – back into something literal.
This is something we see even more literally with Tara, though in her case the mask is a way of escaping the identity she must perform as a god. Or more straightforwardly, with Woden, whose entire head is hidden behind a two-way mirror. Or Ananke going from no mask in 455 to one that covers her eyes in 1831, to the elaborate headgear she wears in the modern day.As with the idea of a mask, most of the language used around performed identity is borrowed from theatre: stages, role, actor. Erving Goffman, one of the key figures in developing this perspective, referred to it as ‘dramaturgical’.
In WicDiv, we see these metaphors come full circle, with two characters from past Recurrences who collapse the two kinds of performance into one: the actor gods, 455 Lucifer and 1923 Minerva. Lucifer tries to escape his fate by escaping into the role of Julius. The 1923 Special makes repeated references to Minerva ‘getting into character’ – something that probably indicates foul play on her part, but is also indicative of the effort of playing a god in general.
The prose passages of the Special are interesting because it’s a rare opportunity to contextualise how the gods deliver their lines. The only other time we’ve been given this kind of perspective is in WicDiv’s other explosion of wordage – the magazine issue. Look at all these references to the gods pausing before they answer questions:It’s a sign that these responses aren’t instinctual, but being processed through a layer of ‘what would my character say’ – something that Baal specifically gets called out on. Dorian Lynskey’s article talks about Baal’s “theatrical pride,” “schtick,” “the facade”. Along with his carefully-prepared nicknames (which I’ve written about before), Baal is using another of the key tools for performing identity: language.
He’s joined here by the roleplayers, Baphomet – with his goat-damned puns – and Morrigan, who hides the red fury of Badb beneath the careful wordplay of her Macha persona.
Baal and Baphomet make for an interesting comparison. They’re often positioned as opposites, at least in Rising Action, but in this regard the two have a lot in common. Specifically, because the identity they both seem to be trying to perform is masculinity.
Gender is one of the areas where performed identity is most focal, and I think it’s a good example of how being forced to perform an identity that’s been thrust onto you by society can be limiting, because it suggests there are only two genders, and only one correct way to be either.
I don’t want to trivialise this massive, and massively important issue, but I do want to finish writing this damn essay, so let’s talk about how those limits also apply to the Pantheon’s godly identities.
Look at how hell-bent Ananke is on putting the gods into neat categories:Fire gods, death gods, underworld gods, twelfth gods, destroyers… It’s like she’s playing bloody Pokémon. Ananke constantly tells the gods how they’re expected to behave: Lucifers are always trouble, she tells Luci. The patterns she identifies aren’t really borne out by the gods we’ve seen in the Specials – how much do the Lucifers of 455, 1831, 1923 and 2013 really have in common?
This seems like the most important thing about performed identity in WicDiv. These roles aren’t chosen by the people who play them, they are thrust upon them. Sometimes they fit neatly, and sometimes the actor is able to negotiate a new persona, but they’re always defined by external pressures – from Ananke, filling in for the social expectations that most of us face.
This could well be another way of manipulating the Pantheon, but even in the most generous reading… Well, it’s like Laura says, in her argument with David Blake: “You’re only seeing cycles. Like… what’s happened before. You don’t know anything about what can happen now.”
Want more WicDiv-related nonsense? For timeline diagrams, historical speculation and loose observations, head to the Tim + Alex Get TWATD Tumblr page.