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trade cover for The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 2: Fandemonium

Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead. The team behind critical tongue-attractors like Young Avengers and PHONOGRAM reunite to create a world where gods are the ultimate pop stars and pop stars are the ultimate gods. But remember: just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever.

The Wicked + The Divine is a statement comic. With its use of pop colours, opulent costumed gods and bold cover images, its art is as much about creating a fashion movement within the graphic novel world as it is about conveying story, artistic experimentation or investigating celebrity culture. It stands out, even in a world of graphic novels where every creative team is working to tie their creation to a distinctive artistic style which will get them noticed.

The difference between The Wicked + The Divine and many other graphic novels is that its art deliberately clamours for attention. It goes without saying that the art of a graphic novel is crucial and that it performs many functions. However, while in other comics the art may be well done and subtly integral to enhancing and reinforcing the wording it accompanies, in The Wicked + The Divine the art demands that it be openly acknowledged as the integral force it is. And, of course, this approach to the art is intentional; this posturing, almost preening, demand that something so fabulous be dwelt upon fits with the theme and subject matter of intense devotion to gods and musicians. It's a clever dual way of working that reveals a key idea about art: even the most indulgent of art can have a purpose beyond conveying beauty, but the beauty of art can also be its own reward.

The Wicked + The Divine is committed to producing a consistent base aesthetic; a glam, lush sensibility confidently depicted by definite lines. I doubt readers will ever see an issue of The Wicked + The Divine move away from its lavish sensibility to experiment with wavering lines, duller colours and stripped back costume. However, as its most recent collected trade edition The Wicked + The Divine, Vol.2: Fandemonium makes especially clear, it is very keen to experiment within the lines of that aesthetic. After the death of David Bowie, Keiron Gillen, the comic's writer, put up a short piece of crossover fanfic which expressed a deep indebtedness to the man and his style. Volume 2 clearly takes inspiration from a range of musical fashion, and is excited to play with a variety of musical genres, just as Bowie was. It's character's varied costume includes Woden's Daft Punk full body suit and mask, Baphomet's vampire rock star cliché, and Inana's fabulous turn as a Purple Rain Prince. Even Laura, the reader's main human viewpoint in this comic, has changed her hairstyle.

Image of Inana dressed in a long purple coat in a costume very heavily inspired by prince

But Volume 2 also varies its art (perhaps more than Volume 1). For example, in Issue #8 there's a pop-art inspired sequence of repeated panels which show a repeated image of Laura's face in different colours. The comic then launches into a sequence of brightly coloured rave pages which feature less panels and fill their space with block colours and a repeating pattern of numbers.

Series of panels showing Laura's face in different bright colours

It's a huge trip sequence that trusts the reader not to get bored of the experimentation. And it looks especially gutsy when you consider that it takes up a large part of single issue. The creators trust that the readers who follow along with single issues won't skip through this deliberately slowed down sequence looking for the plot, or refuse to reach for the next issue because they think everything has gone just a bit too odd. Here, The Wicked + The Divine establishes itself once again as an art lover's comic - a project championing the medium, and the need for experimental space, just as much as its own story. That is perhaps what makes it one of the most exciting comics around right now. It's so committed to being different that it has drawn in a range of fans who want to see what it's going to do next even if some, like me, aren't that invested in what's going to happen next.

See, The Wicked + The Divine relies on the art to do a lot of its lifting. Which is fine if you're a reader with a deep personal investment in the subject matter, or a reader with a strong knowledge of how art works. For other readers, myself included, it can sometimes be a little tricky to navigate. For me, The Wicked + The Divine is a cool project but not always an accessible one on an emotional or story level. Like Renay, I sometimes find The Wicked + The Divine a little disconnected and jumpy. I suspect that part of my reaction is down to the kind of stories I typically read. I'm a comics newb, and a reader built from prose novels which often spend pages filling in small details for the reader. I am much less used to inhabiting the gutter, 'the space between the images' which Bran Meehan says is how comics engage readers 'on a subconscious level' in this fascinating interview.

However, I've also always struggled to really feel the comic's connection to its base concept - that this is a comic invested in examining celebrity music culture. This examination often does takes in the images rather than the text, and as a consequence it feels like the comic relies on its showcasing of gorgeous, unpredictable, doomed gods to connect with the reader's own memories of being swept away by earthly music gods. This will probably work for many readers. I think it might be a little too subconscious to hit a lady like me, from the wordy side of fandom, square in the feels.

Additionally, I've had trouble understanding why Laura would willingly die to become a god. Part of my disconnection with Laura's feelings come from the fact that I've never felt like I would trade life for artistic immortality. However, I feel like the comic should still be able to make me understand her point of view or, at least, provide textual clues that can help me pinpoint what her views actually are. Even if Laura's feelings are hard for her to put into words, the comic should be able to connect the reader with her feelings or with her inability to exactly pinpoint her feelings. The reader should at least feel like it makes sense that Laura's mass of unarticulated feelings cannot be articulated, and yet also feel there is some hope connecting with her emotions. And I think the comic does try, using it's images, to explain to the reader understanding why Laura feels so strongly. I just had trouble fully parsing what it was attempting to do on my first read through.

At the end of Volume 2, after we're shown Laura transforming into the goddess Persephone, I finally started to get inside Laura's head. There was a brief shining moment when I got it because the comic showed what she gained beside a bit of a tame fire-flicking godly power. In this short set of panels, Laura shows what the gods are capable of delivering. The chance to sing, and what that song would create, stood out and hooked up with Laura's earlier idea that she wants to be able to help people, and with Dionysus' feel good rave.

Laura is often the only human contact the reader has with this world, and she's certainly the only human who is in love with this world. So, when she transforms, I felt more connected to the god world - more like that world would be understandable once Laura entered it. And, it's kind of extraordinary that I had that reaction considering that underneath it all, once the reader sees Laura has transformed, they learn that the driving force behind her desire to be among the gods is godly fate rather than human desires. I'm still kind of squinting to see how the creative team made me feel so much about a human reason for wanting to transform when it's essentially irrelevant once we know Laura becomes Persephone. Maybe, it's something to do with the way the gods remain partly anchored to their human personas even once they change (some are exploited by parents they could realistically blast into dust, and they retain memories of their human lives during the two year span before they die again).

This moment of revelation is ended far too quickly, and the potential of Laura/Persephone is snuffed out. At least, sort of… We'll have to see what the next trade issue brings but the fact that Persephone is allowed to speak even after her death hints at further possibilities for her character. Judging by Volume 1, The Wicked + The Divine keeps characters dead but what does that even mean when godly reincarnation is in play? I guess we'll find out in February when Volume 3 drops.

There's one place where my inability to understand is both frustrating and thrilling - how the god's world actually works. The Wicked + The Divine is a long term project, moving through the two years allotted to the gods at roughly a month an issue, and so much about the gods world hasn't been revealed yet. While my grabby information brain desperately wants to know how everything works right now the part of my brain that enjoys windy storytelling, which teases readers along, is enjoying having its nose tweaked. And this continued suspense guarantees I'll be on the third collected volume as soon as it's released.

And, don't get me wrong, there are times in Volume 2 where the story, not just the art, nailed itself to my heart. The Wicked + The Divine is strong on the pitfalls and wonders of fandom. The most pointed moment of relevant commentary comes when the reader sees Laura's past confrontation with an established, older member of fandom who has no hope for the current generation. My generation has seen this old-school debate unfold about our supposed lack of worth, and it's fantastic to see that confronted in Volume 2. My favourite piece of fan commentary though comes the first few pages where Laura sees some fans wearing 'Lucifer died for our sins' t-shirts. She is both physically sickened because of her personal connection to Lucy's death, and aware of how much Lucy would have loved this statement. It's an interesting look at the multiple-sided dice of fandom, and what can happen when you cross over from being a part of fandom into a person fandom observes. Although, as a consequence of Laura again being the reader's only human viewpoint, and now being watched by fandom, Fandemonium feels a little downer on fan culture than Volume 1, even as Laura sticks up for fans of her generation.

Anyway, if the best thing about The Wicked + The Divine is the art then why don't I just focus on cherishing that aspect? The rich and bold cover images for each single issue, which feature a single, close-up image of a god or goddess' face, are absolutely one of my favourite examples of the team's art style. While generally quite simple images, there's a depth and interest to them that has me hanging on them reluctant to move on to the panels of the comic. It's something to do with the shine of the colours, the size of the images (it feels like a brave artistic choice to just focus on one simple, huge image - as with anything simple, it has to be perfectly done) and the shading. Ironically, after talking about how strong and simple the images are, my favourite cover is the one for Issue #9 which features The Morrigan and a ton more detail, but the cover for Issue #6, the opening issue of Fandemonium is a pretty great example of what I'm talking about:

Cover of Issue #6 featuring Inana

Aside from my gut response to the art, I guess, for me, reading Volume 2 of The Wicked + The Divine was a little like watching the BBC's new show Dickensian. I'm not overly invested in who did the murdering and why. However, I am enjoying the world these comics present, as well as the way the creators build a love of pop culture into their world of gods and goddesses.

Supplementary Material

Panels on Panels: The Wicked + The Divine #7
The Dance Floor That Reads Like a Comic: Digging Into The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 2: Fandemonium
Fangirl Happy Hour Episode 32
Renay reviews Fandemonium as part of her Let's Get Literate column
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