In an abrupt change of gears from Lumberjanes, this week’s Essential Series is Kieron Gillen’s The Wicked + The Divine, published by Image Comics. This is one of those weird series that, when I first read it, I did not enjoy. The first two issues were entirely too hipster for me, and I even joked that I was simply too old to “get” it. But the concept kept me coming back for more and holy cow, am I glad I did. Gillen has created, with this series, one of the flashiest, smartest comics on the market, currently. Also, while it’s a little hipster, that’s not a complaint, nor should it be counted against it.
The concept is simple: Every 90 years, a pantheon of 12 gods take possession of a human body, on Earth. The humans tend to be young — in their teens and 20s — and they are gifted with the power of literal gods. As their handler, Ananke, tells them, they will be loved, they will be hated, and in two years, they will be dead. So the god gets to come to Earth and entertain the masses as super glam rock stars, and the human they inhabit gets two years of fame and power, before dying. It’s an interesting trade-off, and one that is often explored throughout the series.
However, it’s not so interesting as to support an entire series, which is why, naturally, strange things are afoot. There is a central mystery to The Wicked + The Divine, and a sinister going-on, creating a subtle murder mystery. I’ve often joked that just when the series seems content to gaze a little too long into its own navel, it will suddenly drop a hint at the central plot and it keeps you coming back for more. Around the eleventh issue, when the plot is in full swing, and the gods have been established (mostly), the series is impossible to put down.
The gods themselves are a fun mix of personalities. The gods are a combination of themselves and the person they inhabit, meaning they are given to self-aggrandizing, worldly commentary in one panel, and then subject to petty, small-minded outbursts in the next. Some characters are more at war with their heavenly residents than others, while some of the gods appear to be solely in the drivers seat than their mortal hosts.
Gillen wisely gathered from various religions, having Greek, Celtic, Shinto, and Egyptian gods sitting at the same table. Even though the human hosts are all British, it makes the series feel incredibly diverse and inclusive. Gillen is keenly aware of any problems the setting (England) might cause, and calls attention to it quite easily, such as having a reporter question Amaterasu about embodying a red-headed girl. There is a deliberateness in his choices, and an implication that the gods are above such pettiness.
Which is perhaps the best way to describe them: they are above most concerns of mortals. They are here to entertain and to play with us (there is a deeper purpose, naturally), and they seem to find us amusing, much like adults view children. Most of the gods choose to perform and entertain, as rockstars, because what the hell else are they going to do after thousands of years of these cycles? When specifically asked why they don’t perform miracles, most of them react with a yawn. They love to be worshipped and the best way to be worshipped in through fame.
Did I mention it’s more than a little hipster? Well, it’s glam rock in the best of ways, and in many ways, a love letter to the 80s darlings who popularized so many looks. There are nods to Bowie and Prince, most notably, but several others make spiritual appearances. So many pages of the series feel ripped directly from an 80s discotheque, creating a surreal backdrop for what is ultimately a mythological tale. But combining Mesopotamian gods with heavy gold chains and a leather biker jacket may as well be the very definition of hipster. And it’s goddamn delightful.
The best part of the series, though, is that while the central villain is fantastic — in a bold move, the villain isn’t revealed or even hinted at for several issues — the gods themselves are their own worst enemies. There’s an overarching theme of self-destruction that lends an air of tragedy to the entire series.
It’s a must read series for any fans/students of classical mythology, without question. The variety of the pantheon is fantastic, but the story goes so far beyond the confines of rewriting established tales; in fact, Gillen avoids that pitfall entirely. It’s a fun, flashy story that hints at far greater, deeper things lurking beneath its surface. It’s sex, drugs and rock and roll on stage, and cloak and dagger behind the curtain. If you can make it through a few rough starter, establishing issues, it’s a helluva ride.