The Wicked + The Divine: Overemotional Investment
Posted by Abigail Brady at 22:10 on 17 Sep 2014
Earlier this year I said that I couldn't write about Young Avengers because it was too personal, too close to me, that it would be too much like exposing myself. The Wicked + The Divine is also too personal, but that's exactly why I need to write about it.
Fandom these days is attentive and twitchy. Your archetypical example of a media fandom is Star Trek, but it took many years for Star Trek fandom to arrive into existence, despite the fabled letter-writing campaigns (largely orchestrated by the production office, it turns out). Comics fandom was emerging at the same time. Cut to 2014, everything is different. These days it's almost a given that a given parcel of narrative will have a fandom, that people will enjoy episode 1 enough to go and form communities. Shows that don't have one will be see as failures, regardless of their ratings success. Promotional efforts often focus on creating infrastructure for a fandom, apart from merely persuading people to watch in the first place. (This is not actually an internet thing, you can see it was heading this way in the 1980s.)
But what you also get is pre-fandoms, groups of people excited not by the content itself, but by the publicity material, whether this be formal or not. For example, it was announced a couple of years ago that the creator of one of my favourite shows in the world ever (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) would be creating a show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which you may have heard of. Obviously I was on board; I was emotionally invested in it before the pilot had even been filmed, along with many others who liked the Marvel Studios movies and Whedon shows. I think that’s part of what killed it: if I’d known nothing about it I might have quite liked it, but what I was after was a show that was as good as Buffy, but with spandex. Instead we didn’t even get Dollhouse.
I was a WicDiv pre-fan. The potential was obvious, even if the pitch is simply "Gillen McKelvie goes pop". The glimmerings of premise drew me in; I wanted to know more, I wanted to know everything. I drooled over the preview art (who are these women lying on the ground in swirls, and how are they connected?) and bought and framed the Laura and Luci prints before the first issue was even released.
Would I like it, though?
If I didn't, it would be... awkward. Even if I ordinarily would have been indifferent to it, that would be a let down enough, as the SHIELD experience had shown.
So reading #1 was weird.
Fortunately it was absolutely fucking brilliant, and overrated only in the sense that it has not literally died for our sins. You can measure my regard for it by counting the number of people I have leaked, lent or made read #1, which is a dozen and still going (Liz and Tori have copies of #1 and #2 right now. Abstractly I would like them back but I would rather you read them. That's another measure of my confidence in it, in fact, that I'm lending people two issues.)
The issue is a strange unit to analyse comics in. Nobody would read them like that if they had a choice, and they're only published that way because tradition and economics. So I've been keeping quiet (at least in public) except for general praise. Criticising by the arc, as I was doing on X-Marathon (even when I was struggling to isolate coherent units because Claremont), makes more sense. But I've been bursting to talk about it since May, and we've nearly got an arc now, so fuck it.
The first issue of WicDiv sets up a murder mystery that the next three issues utterly fail to address. It makes a big fuss of looking like a murder mystery (who killed the judge? who framed Luci?), and taking advantage of the things you can do with that structure - a general examination of Means, Motive and Opportinity - we even get the classic Accusing Parlor scene. But this pretence, which was only cursorily being maintained (you will notice the clue in the lack of clues) is completely discarded by the ending of #4. The answer to the question "who is framing Luci?" turns out to be "any fucker, it doesn't really matter who did the actual clicking of the fingers, they are all perfectly happy to let her take the fall and frankly how can they trust she didn't do it, she is Satan after all."
Was Laura really expecting that the pantheon would snitch, to her, Luci's pet? Our savvy Laura? Cass, who ought to know better, was hoping for the same thing. Cass doesn't even have a usable story. She has LuciGate but her source is second-hand. Cass won't have anything to go back to her editor with. She can always blog, though. Laura got the better end of it. She has what she wants. She's no longer just another of an anonymous mass of fan. She has an in. Laura has, like me, mistaken an entry into a social circle of creators, with a path to creation.
Let’s unpack that.
Laura is all of us. All of us reading this, that is. Laura is not an everywoman, but an everyaspirationalcreator. Cara Ellison, at her fireside chat with Kieron Gillen at NineWorlds in August, said she saw Laura as her. There's a lot of Kieron in her, too. (He's done similar themes before, most obviously with Zero in Generation Hope.) And she’s me.
So far, she’s the worst bits of me. But not my usual old worst bits, like my poor work ethic, my tendency to be indecisive, overanalyse, and never to want to commit or be depended upon. She's the new worst bits, the ones that I have been cultivating over the last couple of years. She's the bit of me that looks down on where I am now, thinks I'm wasting my life. The me that is suggesting final tweaks to this piece during a training session at my new job. The bit of me which, given a desire to run away and join comics, started hanging out with a bunch of comics creators rather than put the work in and pay my dues on the small press scene; the bit of me that does something indistinguishable from networking while agreeing that thinking of it like that is sociopathy. And, of course, the very worst bit of me, that I unlocked in 2014, that does ruthlessly self-destructive (and, I'll not kid myself, others-destructive) things, with the paper-thin rationale that she wants to create.
Back up: what really happened in Holloway? Laura went there for the ultimate fan-ambush, her one chance to corner Luci on her terms. Luci offered Laura a deal in exchange for her poking around: a chance to become one of Luci's acolytes. It was a lie. Luci is a solo artist, not another Woden. All Laura wanted was Luci's social acknowledgement, for the pantheon to interact with her perhaps not as a peer but as a person of significance. And Laura got that. Can you imagine Laura's horrified reaction had it turned out that she really would become a demon? Laura doesn't exactly know what she wants but she does know she wants there in her own right, not as a member of someone's entourage.
Laura played Satan, and she didn’t even know it. (Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe Luci will extract the payment later. Now the deal has been made the threat of enforcing its terms can be used for all sorts of other coercion. But for now, Laura looks like she's won.). The name of the trade paperback collecting this story is the Faustus Act, but who made the bad deal here?
What was Luci doing in there, though? To begin with, she let us think she was constrained. She was, for all that she had been in contempt of everything, including the court, physically acquiescing to the demands of the state. She was in court in the first place, and she let herself be taken to the prison, and stayed there for over a week. Logistically, she could presumably have escaped at any time. It is only the news that she has been firmly rejected that triggers her to act. (Unless the cigarettes were important - but needing a material component would be against our aesthetic.)
How much of this was Luci's plan? She had no guarantee that Laura would come, but she made sure to name drop Ananke where Laura could hear it. If Ananke was going to come then Ananke would have. There was no need for Ammy to be involved. I don't get the impression that this Luci is one for long-term planning, though. Improvisational, definitely throwing things forwards to catch, sure, but not some master manipulator. (And if she is, she’s got me - willingly - fooled. At least in that respect. You’ll not find me defending her as a person - the list of Worst Things Luci Has Done is pretty long already, such that shit like genuinely expecting a 17-year-old to smuggle drugs into prison is just noise.)
If Luci is being framed - and that's a very fucking big if - who could do it? Well, anyone. That was the point of the scene in Valhalla. Luci, in the flashbacks in #3, rules everyone out. But #4 rules everyone back in, even Ammy, Luci’s “best friend” (Luci’s assessment, their sole on-panel interaction being Luci interrupting an exasperated Ammy hinting at a possible other story). Ammy, eventually, concedes it could be her. Apart from the gods at that meeting, Tara is an unknown. She’s one of the two named gods that we haven’t even met briefly (although we have seen her face, on posters on the tube and she’s on the cover of #5). Inanna we know even less of, other than that he's the nicest, the only one to oppose what the pantheon did to Luci. Morrigan and Baphomet confirm their own non-involvement in the incident, which doesn’t rule out a conspiracy. They were fucking, after all. And they’ve fallen out - what over?
And there is another possibility. There are twelve hours on that clock, you see, one of each if the - No, wait, I’m thinking of Watchmen. There are twelve seats at that table (and Ananke). The way we experience this in #1 and #2 is that we see a bunch of symbols for gods who have manifest but we have not yet met, and then we gradually meet them. There are some blank spots. One of these, I have been assuming, is earmarked for whatever god Laura will manifest as (or, be kept empty for a good while for Laura to aspire to - a Laura who knows that all twelve seats are already taken is going to be a very different, third act, proposition.)
But #3, in its confirmation of Baphomet’s alibi, rules out the reading of the end of #2 that Baphomet had just then arisen as a god. Simply by telling us that Baphomet had existed during the timeframe of #1, it shows that the symbols can lie, that they don’t reflect an omniscient view. Perhaps they simply represent what the general public (or at least, the fans) know.
So we don’t know that those two remaining empty seats really are empty. They could be filled with unknown unknowns, or they might even be known to the pantheon.
They might be other Baphomets, or they might be people we already know. There's another significant non-god character in the cast - Cassandra. Cass is important, we know that. She already has a god name. And not just any god name but one that is appropriate for her narrative role - the telling of unpleasant truths. And we know she sees through the tricks, she’s been to see all the gods and has been unmoved. After #1 I decided she is already a god, she just doesn't know it (a counter-point to Baal). The flashback in #2 made me re-assess this. Luci's transition to godhood was noisy and dramatic. If that happened to you, you'd know. But then in #4 Ananke turns out to not just be a mysterious plot-tender, but a character in her own right. This implies things can be different. Perhaps Cassandra's transition was smoother. In fact, what if she is like me: she cannot click her fingers. That would be... terrible. (Don't give me hints, I've tried, they just don't, I blame being hypermobile.)
Issue #4 is the issue that changes the way we looked at previous issues. Not just because of Luci, but because the worldbuilding becomes that much more complete. Unlike your usual gods-are-real story, WicDiv does not have potentially limitless possibilities. Like the gods themselves, WicDiv is constrained. You get 12 (well, 13, but I think I'll be frowning at further supernumary gods). We can expect a burst of brilliance for a couple of years (hopefully longer, although the immediacy of it will fade as it goes on and becomes a period piece written in 2019 about 2015.). But then it's gone, done, see you all in 2104.
The first three issues were a slow discovery of the publicly-visible bits of a world. The Morrigan was underground, but only in the secret gig sense. The secretest of all secret gigs, yes, but still somewhere that you could just go. Even backstage at the gig in #1 hadn't been really private, it was the kind of performstive backstage to which fans and camera crews are invited. (It is the pub after the con.) But in #4 we see Valhalla. We get faces for all but one of the remaining named gods (the last one, Inanna, appears on the cover of #6, in December's solicits). This changes the tone from an exploration of a new space to a character drama, an examination of interpersonal dynamics in an increasingly claustrophobic social sphere. At least, for the present day sections. There is quite a bit of backstory left to go in to.
One of the other things we don't know very much about is the practical side of the recurrences. To what extent to the gods remember their previous incarnations? Nothing we had so far was incompatible with "none", but #4 has our characters look forward to the 2100s. If there were no continuity would they give a shit? (Incidentally note that the nicely deterministic god wheel theory is blown away by Baal's uncertainty as to his return.). They've been going on forever, but we've only got a hint of the most recent two: we know three of the Romantics gods (Byron, Shelley, and some poet guy who hung around with then.), and we saw on page a few of the Jazz age gods. The stamp collector in me would like to know a lot more about who they are as soon as possible, but this is just not going to be compatible with storytelling in a space-constrained form; they are probably better used scarcely, as a strategic reserve of surprise; especially the more modern, post-Enlightenment gods, who will have meaning to us.
But what they mean to us might not be the same as they do to the people of WicDic. Something funny is going in with the dates of the Romantics pantheon - although Byron and Shelley's husband did die in a two-year time frame in the 1820s, they were about my age - ie in their dotage compared to Luci and Laura. And that summer at Lake Geneva, that you would surely use with these guys, was in 1816. This is hardly an error (look at the research Kieron has done on Uber), so I'm guessing things are different somehow. Woden, our creator god, here incarnates as Mary Shelley, most famous to us as writer of Frankenstein, about another creator, of a being perceived as a monster. Perhaps she cuts out the fiction. Perhaps that's why the Valkyries are wearing helmets.
Or perhaps not. I've been right about a couple of minor things (The Morrigan being alive and having three forms) before, although in the wrong way (I thought they would be sisters, two of which would remain alive.). I've been wrong about things (I imagined Woden as Rammstein not as Daft Punk.). But I love that I am speculating. All I'm showing is that despite one phase ending, despite the world and its rules becoming better known, that initial excitement there we has about what might be been replaced with new things to speculate about. One day, five years from now, I'm sure I'll read this and laugh at myself. But for now, it's fun, being a tiny part of this fandom. It'll continue so forever, of course. At no point will they make good on the threat of killing off already-beloved characters.
Ah, death. It's a major theme of the book, we're told. It's the other reason the book is finite. And it is true. It opens with a close up of a skull on a table full of well-loved skulls. But so far our deaths are impersonal. In #1 every male character with a line has their head exploded (Susanoo, the assassins, the judge), but we didn't know them. So far we see the niceness and the light, and though we abstractly understand that the book has a very dark premise, I've found it difficult to emotionally engage with that. Given that, I'd expect to see them start dropping sooner rather than later. Like, at the level of Ammy in #5. That would be a real heartfuck, wouldn't it. Which is perfect, because a lot of what the book is about now is the inability to think about death as anything other than a far-away concept, a kind of large-form creative procrastination. This is your other fear of your aspiring creator, the idea that one day - too soon - we will die - and that we won't have done enough stuff.
I'm afraid of that, for sure. It's what midlife crises are made of, and it is difficult for me to describe my 2014 as anything but. I did some very stupid things. Some of them I regret. Some of them the best I can hope is that one day I will be able to apologise for them. (Not Transitioning Earlier has now moved down significantly down my list of regrets from its previous long-standing position at number 1). Some of them (quitting my job and moving to Oxford - the final part of which happens today) I don't. But they came from the same place, looking at my 35th birthday and wondering what I have, experientially or materially, got to show for it, other than the joyful prospect of working in an open plan office programming computers for another 35 years. That is simply not what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. I just was sort of good at it, and it seemed obvious that I should do what I am good at. Except: doing something you are good at all day turns out to be boring. I never - despite one breakdown (a gendercrash - really) considered doing something else. But this second breakdown, this has led to something better. I am a different person. I have burned away what doesn't work. And I have had some spectacular good fortune, a kind of apotheosis through housing. I have an escape plan. Next year I will have a bolt hole. I can do this, probably. I can at least give it a shot, for a year or two. Become someone better, or fail.
WicDiv is too personal to write about. Which is why I just have.