The Wicked + The Divine is the best comic book you're probably not reading (yet). The instant cult classic was co-created by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen of Young Avenger fame.
The premise, as explained on the back of the comic's first trade paperback, is simple: "Every 90 years 12 gods return as young people. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are all dead."
And in Gillen and McKelvie's latest, they're all pop stars: Lucifer looks like a lesbian David Bowie, Sakhmet (an Egyptian warrior Goddess) could be Rihanna's body double, and Odin is totally biting on Daft Punk's style. Like most pop stars—and gods—they're spoiled and powerful and everyone wants a piece of them. In particular, someone wants their heads, which is the engine that drives the central mystery of the story.
Gillen says the series is the culmination of everything he's "ever loved about pop culture," as well as his way of dealing with the death of his father. "We have such a brief time on Earth," he told VICE. "Does it really matter if you have two, or ten, or 70 years?"
But don't worry: Wic+Div (as it's referred to by fans) isn't mordant naval gazing gussied up with super powers. For a book inspired by death, it's incredibly alive. Partly, this comes from smart theological choices. The creators (Gillen, and illustrator Jamie McKelvie) avoided the picked-over remains of the Greek and Roman pantheons and instead drew their gods from a wide range of sources, including Babylonian, Carthaginian, and Celtic mythologies. But if you're looking for watered-down appropriations of other cultures by a bunch of clueless white guys, you're shit out of luck. In both the treatment of the various mythologies, and in the envisioning of a modern-day England as a backdrop, Wic+Div handles its material with a level of sensitivity and nuance that's rare in mainstream fantasy.
"[With Christianity], I feel I'm allowed to do whatever I want—that's my background and I can deal with my anger however I feel," Gillen joked, when I asked about choosing which religions to represent in the books. For the rest, he called upon his time as a journalist to help him decide what stories he could tell ethically and well. "Dead religions, I felt safe to do what I wanted," he said, and ditto with religions revived after 1948, like neo-Norse paganism. But he was quite careful in drawing from Shintoism, and specifically chose Amaterasu, the Shinto goddess of the sun, because she already appeared in Japanese pop stories.
The more dangerous a story is, the more you need to talk to people about it.
"If you're writing pop culture or religion, you are writing race," he told me point blank. "So you have to work at it." And that means recognizing the pitfalls of what you're doing, and especially, talking to actual people who have real, lived experience in what you're writing about. It also means not reducing your characters to their race, a common trope in comics (just think about how many black superheroes have "black" in their names).
Gillen wanted to draw on Yoruban mythology as well, but decided there was no way he could do so responsibly, as it's an active religion that he's not part of, and it doesn't already occupy much space in the global cultural landscape. His fiction, he felt, could come to displace the realities of the Yoruba religion in the minds of many—as has already happened to Native American cultures.
Gillen believes important stories—the ones that need to be told, and told well—are "dangerous." "The more dangerous a story is," he said, "The more you need to talk to people about it."
That goes for sexuality or class or gender as much as it does race, Gillen emphasized. The world of Wic+Div is elegantly queer and gender diverse. To get these elements right, Gillen drew on his circle of friends, and then checked with them to make sure he hadn't fucked it up. "I never like offending someone I'm not trying to offend, you know?" he laughed. His goal is to write comics that feel real to the world in which he exists—with a few super-powered teenage God pop stars thrown in.
In particular, Gillen was concerned about writing Cassandra, a transgender journalist who is one of Wic+Div's main characters. Her gender identity isn't a plot point, but it does affect how other characters interact with her—much as it would in the real world. That's part of what makes Wic+Div so strong: Being trans (or mixed race, or bisexual), isn't something that only comes up in convenient moments, but is something his characters carry with them at all times. Their identities shape the way they travel in the world, and the way the world in turn responds. All too often, diversity in comics seems randomly assigned—a single signifier of difference tacked onto characters that otherwise act and think like straight, white, cis folk. By undergirding his fantastical plot with a very real world, Gillen makes it all the easier for readers to suspend disbelief when necessary.
Gillen cites the new Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American teenager named Kamala Khan, and her author Gwendolyn Willow Wilson as hopeful touch points for changing not only in the public face of comics, but what goes on in writers' rooms as well. At the end of the day, he told me, "I look at the girls in my neighborhood, and when they grow up, I'd like them to be able to read a hero that looks like them."
Check out The Wicked + The Divine at Image Comics.
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