Why make art? We’re only on this planet for such a fleeting instant, so why would anyone bother using that time to make something without any tangible value?
This is the question at the heart of The Wicked + The Divine, the critically acclaimed Image Comics series by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles, which serves as the pen and ink equivalent of a pop song about life and death.
In this first volume, The Faust Act (fair warning: Gillen loves puns), we witness as ordinary teenage girl Laura is drawn into the world of The Pantheon, the most popular pop stars on the planet, who also happen to be the reincarnated forms of 12 mythical deities.
Each member of The Pantheon was once an everyperson like Laura, until they were approached by seemingly ancient spirit guide Ananke, who effected their transformation to kick-off the latest round in an ongoing 90 year cycle. As she did so, she laid out what was in store for the newly reawakened gods and goddesses, as dictated by this cycle:
“You will be loved. You will be hated. You will be brilliant. Within two years, you will be dead.”
It’s a gameplan that’s pretty much on track when Laura enters the scene, until the female incarnation of the Lord of Lies, Luci (short for Lucifer) steps outside The Pantheon’s mandate to inspire humanity and kills two assailants who attack the group by openly using her supernatural powers, blowing up their heads by clicking her fingers.
During the trial that follows, Luci’s cavalier attitude allows her to be easily framed for yet another murder, this one in cold blood and apparently beyond the shadow of a doubt. With the rest of The Pantheon unwilling or unable to come to her aid, Luci’s only hope for acquittal is Laura, who finds herself on the trail of a killer with the powers of a god…
The Wicked + The Divine (or WicDiv, as it’s known) is one of those comics that makes you glad there’s an indie comics scene (and I say this as a huge fan of mainstream, “flights and tights” comics).
With its rapid fire pop music references (some obvious, some less so), original and unpleasant characters, and unflinching attitude towards violence, sexuality and colourful language, WicDiv could only ever have come to light thanks to a publisher like Image, which offers creators virtually unlimited creative freedom to tell the story they want to tell.
It’s a good thing too, because this book really benefits from letting its creative team run wild. Inspired to write the book by the death of his father, Gillen is clearly pouring his soul into WicDiv, offering up compelling characters and razor-sharp dialogue, all served up in a narrative driven by an engaging (if unresolved) “whodunnit” plot and filled with emotional moments that run the gamut from devilishly funny to heartbreakingly sad.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s just Gillen who’s giving this series his all, however. No, his frequent partner-in-crime McKelvie is also pencilling out of his skin on this one. His four-colour actors are all amazingly expressive, his action scenes are dynamic yet easy to follow, and his clean lines give the book a streamlined, fresh feel (it’s worth noting that he’s complemented immeasurably by Wilson’s colours, and Clowes lettering also deserves a shout out).
But without doubt the most import visual element in WicDiv (and one at which McKelvie always excels) is the costume design, and under his pen, every character has their own dress sense perfect for their personality.
Whether it’s Laura’s middle-class South London teen clobber or Luci’s Thin White Duke-inspired suit, all the men and women (particularly the women, which is rare even in modern comics) are dressed in a way that proves McKelvie not only takes in the clothing of the world around him, but has also absorbed a lot of the high fashion seen in modern music (keep your eyes peeled for various visual nods to past and present musicians, much like the Bowie-inspired get-up mentioned earlier).
Writer and artist might both be on form, but to go back to something I said when reviewing another outstanding Image series, Saga, what really makes WicDiv special is the way that it’s creative team comes together to become more than the sum of its parts.
It’s true that Gillen and McKelvie have each enjoyed success separately, but in fittingly music-inspired analogy, they’re like Lennon and McCartney: despite strong solo careers, they do their best work when they’re together and seemingly offset each other perfectly.
All right – so WicDiv is a smartly written, good looking book; it’s filled with great bits of craft (informative character logos on the recap pages, covers that segue into the story itself, the list goes on…), and it’s clearly as “cool” as a comic can get, but what makes it so special beyond the surface level?
LOOK OUT! SPOILERS!
What makes WicDiv stand out is that it’s about the pop culture “gods” and “goddesses” who inspire us, and about the power of the art they create to affect our lives for the better.
Throughout this first volume, we see how the music (and the mystique) of The Pantheon not only touches Laura deeply and emotionally, but later, how contact with the group awakens her own divine potential.
When Laura clicks her fingers in the last few panels of The Faust Act and her cigarette magically sparks to life, what we’re really seeing is the spark of inspiration made real, and the power of art (and the people who create it) reaching out and changing someone’s life.
Which brings us at last to the answer to my opening question: the reason for making art is that it saves lives.
I mean this in a very literal sense; whether it’s a song that got you through a break-up, or movie that made you forget about the job you hate, or the book you read that reignited your own passion for writing, each of us has had at least one moment in our lives where art has touched us in a positive way.
As Gillen himself put it in an interview with Comic Book Resources:
“A lot of people do celebrity and superhero; that’s an old trope. But it’s almost always cynical, the idea that just because they did a bit of coke they aren’t as good as Superman. And it’s like, ‘Fuck you! David Bowie saved my life.’ It’s the idea that these people are all deeply flawed but they make huge, important differences to people and there are all kinds of ways to save someone’s life.”
I can personally vouch for that.
I started reading WicDiv shortly after I moved to London from Australia. It helped take my mind off being homesick, the Spotify playlist Gillen created to accompany the series is what I listened to when I decided to start jogging again to get in better shape, and coming into contact with McKelvie’s artwork has caused me to re-visit my own approach to pencilling.
In short, it made a monumental difference in my life and on some level, probably saved me (from stagnation, if nothing else). So yeah, it’s special and it matters.
THE SPOILERS! THEY’RE…THEY’RE GONE!
The Wicked + The Divine – Volume 1: The Faust Act is a great example of what comics can be: it’s edgy, unique, shot through with emotion and equal parts subtle and bombastic. It questions why we make art, whilst working as a great piece of modern art itself at the same time, and fans of comics or music, or those just looking to be inspired, owe it to themselves to read it.