June 18, 2014

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The Wicked + The Divine #1

The Wicked + The Divine #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson and Clayton Cowles
Image Comics

What if God was one of us? Just a stranger on a bus? Trying to make his way home.*

Sorry, just messing with you. But asked slightly more seriously, what if a god (or someone claiming to speak the divine word)  showed up in our world today? Clearly in the Bible, things didn't go all that well. But our modern-day society is more complicated than that of Judea 2,000 years ago. We live in a celebrity obsessed, constantly connected culture, and if someone showed up claiming to be a god, there'd be those that doubted them, but there would also be those who embrace them (and maybe wanted to cosplay them). And what if those gods embraced their role as modern day celebrities, with the ubiquity of social media, constant news, and everything that entails? The result might look something like The Wicked + The Divine, the highly anticipated new series from Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie (Young Avengers). This is a promising first issue, with the sharp writing and visual wit for which the creative team are known. 

The story begins in 1923, as we see several young people gathered around a table with an older woman. She parts company with them, and then they proceed to (it appears) cause an explosion which consumes them, just by snapping their fingers. The story moves to 2014, where a teenage girl named Laura has snuck out of the house in order to see a concert by the recently emerged deity Amaterasu (who appears to be, like Laura, a teenaged girl). Amaterasu is on stage at the front of a club with a glow about her, surrounded by throngs of people, and Laura makes her way to the front of the stage. It's a moment of pure joy and rapture and bliss, as Laura (the narrator for these scenes) confesses to us that Amaterasu is her favorite (apparently far more than Baal or other gods). After Amaterasu makes eye contact and points at Laura, she promptly faints. She wakes up and is met by Lucifer (also a teenaged girl) who brings her up to speed and brings Laura in to the back room to meet Amaterasu. There are other gods present, along with a highly skeptical reporter who is in the middle of interviewing Amaterasu, who was, up until recently, a 17-year old girl named Hazel Greenaway. It seems that in this world, the gods return every eighty or so years, and when they do, they occupy the bodies of teenagers for a few years and then their time on earth (and the life of those teenagers) ends. 

As the reporter (Cassandra) is sharply expressing her disbelief for these so-called gods, the group comes under attack from gunmen across the street. Lucifer deals with these gunmen in a definitive way, demonstrating that these gods do have considerable power. Lucifer (call her Luci) turns herself into the authorities willingly and the final part of the issue takes place in the courtroom. Luci confronts then judge cleverly with the fact that in order to charge her with a crime, the court would have to essentially acknowledge that she is a god (or at least seems to have supernatural powers). The issue ends of a dramatic note, which deepens the story and adds an air of mystery, as there are clearly more forces at work, than we've been shown.

This is a highly anticipated comic, and for good reason. The creative team have produced something interesting, promising and beautiful. Jamie McKelvie's style here involves consistent, clean lines, emotive (but not overdone) facial acting, and skillful design and layout. This is visual art that's intended to be both expressive and accessible. Each character is distinctive with their own look, and the action and layouts are clear and move the story effectively (at least in this first issue, there nothing quite as "out there" as the layouts used in certain issues of Young Avengers). Matt Wilson's colors here are bright and dramatic, very appropriate for a story about teenage gods who hang out at dance clubs. During certain violent scenes the color is almost overwhelmingly bright, and the book has an overall "pop art" feel to it. This is made explicit at a few points in the story where a certain character or scene is pixelated a la Lichtenstein or Kirby. 

The story has a similar "pop" feel to it. The dialogue between the characters is sharp and witty, and the personalities are distinct. Gillen captures something fundamental about the way people (particularly young people) "worship" the things they love (art, or music, on if this case actual deities). It also feels very deliberate that these gods are teenagers that one day wake up and realize they're something truly special. This gets at the fundamental anxieties and insecurities involved in being an adolescent. If someone does truly believe in themselves and embrace what's special about them, it seems right that others would be drawn to them. Here, that idea is taken to the nth degree (of course, they do also have super powers). The story also provides some commentary in that these gods are treated like pop stars, and Laura (our "regular person observer" character) notes that the experience of being in the presence of these pop-gods is what religious mass wishes it could be. The new gods here (though reincarnations of old deities) have replaced the gods worshiped by their parents and grandparents.

This story feels very "of the moment." In ten years, will all of the references to "Wikipedia" and "click-bait" and "cosplay" feel at all dated? Maybe, but that is in keeping with the clever theme of the book, which is that these gods are both great and ephemeral. When you're young and completely in love with and enraptured by something (or someone), it can feel like the most important thing in the world, and it's hard to be too concerned with the distant future. Regardless of whether the cultural references in this story will stand the test of time, the story is one that should skillfully (and beautifully) speak to people now.

*This song was ubiquitous back in 1995-1996.