The Wicked + The Divine #23: The Visible Page

Spoilers for The Wicked + The Divine #23 follow.

Note: As I was finishing this up, I saw Kieron Gillen posted a very long "Writer Notes" post about this issue. I have not had the chance to read it, but in all likelihood it's more insightful than this. Check it out here.

As a huge fan and occasional writer of formalist fiction—that is to say, fiction that takes on the form of some other kind of text—I would be remiss not to talk about The Wicked + The Divine #23. When I teach fiction, one of the main things I try to do is disrupt my students’ preconceived notions of what a story is. Many come in with pretty set ideas, gleaned from their high school English classes and Freytag’s triangle and young adult novels and their corresponding movie adaptations—all great things that provide useful tools and strategies for young writers, but my hope is always that they leave my class no longer being certain what a story is or what a story can be, with all the formal possibilities for storytelling opened up in front of them. If a story looks like a flow chart, how does it maintain its story-ness? At what point is it just a flow chart? What if it looks like a letter? Or a water bill?

All this to say, you can imagine my excitement when I opened The Wicked + The Divine #23 last month and found they had decided not to be a comic—instead, the new story arc is kicking off in the form of a glossy fashion magazine, or perhaps a music and culture rag a la Rolling Stone, with interviews from a number of the characters, including a “previously unpublished” profile on the long-deceased Lucifer. 

For the uninitiated, The Wicked + The Divine is an ongoing series about twelve gods, from all manner of religion and myth (including Lucifer, Woden, Persephone, Baal) who reappear on earth as young influential artists every one hundred years to inspire and guide humanity. Two hundred years ago, they were poets, writers. In the world of today, they’re pop stars—their concerts are transcendent, miraculous experiences, they have huge fandoms following their every move. The catch is, after a couple years, they die—not just the gods themselves, but the people they came back as, who were just normal teenagers and young adults before they woke up with gods inside them.

The murder conspiracy plot that kicked off at the beginning of the series has essentially wrapped up, so this latest issue serves as a recap and also asks “Where do we go from there?” The interviews largely focus on how the members of the pantheon are dealing with recent traumas, reminding us of still-standing mysteries (Woden’s machine), offering new revelations (who’s dating who now?), and alluding to a greater plan. But to me, the content of the interviews is kind of beside the point—look at this gorgeous book, this fun experiment in what a floppy issue can be!

Behind the scenes is maybe even more fascinating. The interviews within the issue were conducted by real-world journalists in chat rooms with The Wicked + The Divine’s writer, Kieron Gillen, who pretended to be each character. There’s another great meta layer added by Gillen appearing on the masthead as the editor of this magazine, and the magazine itself is presented as though it exists in the world of The Wicked + The Divine, which effectively makes Gillen a character in his own comic.

The Wicked + The Divine always has a lot to say about the trappings of fame and celebrity, as well as connected ideas of mortality, both literal and figurative. In this issue, the magazine form allows the book to discuss these ideas a bit more explicitly. In the long-suppressed interview with Lucifer, Mary HK Choi writes that Lucifer “is perfect right now – vibrant and happy. And while there is a humane aspect to the fatalistic branding, the finite relevance that is the reality of the celebrity industrial complex in the age of social media, it’s still super sad.” This interview takes place before the world believes they are literal gods, so there is much made of the personas Lucifer and the rest of the pantheon have constructed or, if you know the truth, inherited. Elsewhere, Ezekiel Kweku writes that Amaterasu “doesn’t want you to see in her a deconstructed divinity, she wants to appear as whole and uncomplicated as an undivided beam of light,” but, like any celebrity, who she is is limited by what people believe her to be. It might feel a bit obvious here, especially in comparison to how subtle Gillen is often able to be thematically—but the less implicit analysis is simply these talented interviewers taking advantage of what the fashion magazine form can and should do. The journalistic prose is sharp and fun but it can also spell things out a little, bring things together, put it all out on the table.

Another element altered by the form is the reader’s sense of movement. Comic books and magazines are media that use both images and text, yet while the raw materials are essentially the same, the end result is strikingly different. In comics, the images in the panels depict the narrative sequentially, as action, as the literal motion of the story. If you see Batman going for his utility belt in one panel, you’ll likely see a batarang hitting Two-Face in the teeth in the next—our minds make that connection, allow us to see the way things move from one panel to the next. Meanwhile, the text of contemporary comics, in the form of dialogue or narration—which itself is often a character’s thoughts—offers insight into the characters and provides any needed exposition, but generally doesn’t give us any sense of movement (although Golden Age comics often did spent a lot of text explaining the action on the page, that's another story).

In the magazine form, it’s the reverse: text supplies our sense of movement and setting, as when Choi and Lucifer are “racing through London for another bar,” or when interviewer Laurie Penny teleports with Woden: “The world dances drunkenly around us, my stomach lurches and we are – somewhere else.” The images, these gorgeous faux-photographs, are static snapshots of the characters. Sometimes you may see a sequence of Baal and get a sense of his movement, but there’s no cause and effect here. No panel revealing what happens after this static image, where they are posed, dressed-up, the perfectly crafted representation of their personas.

Still, as I read initially, I wondered Why? I love a good experiment for the sake of experimentation, and I think it’s detrimental to demand a reason for everything that strays outside of accepted conventions, for everything that dares to play, but it’s also so engrained in us to ask: Why make the comic into a fashion magazine? How does it fit as a part of the story of The Wicked + The Divine?

It’s early on that the text justifies itself—in the first interview, Leigh Alexander asks the notoriously reclusive Morrigan why she’s decided to speak publicly now. The Morrigan replies in typical fashion:

Soon this comely flesh will be stripped to bare bones, and it seems fair to those lost in the game to have a few things more solid than a reputation to obsess over… a girl not solely spectral but solid… A story of two women on a train that shouldn’t exist and the words the goddess shared with the scribe. When this Morrigan has been long a triple-corpse, these words will be on the page.

She wants to make something that will last, because she won’t. Presumably, they all do. And for that we have this artifact, this magazine that will serve as a record and outlive them all, and it exists in both our world and theirs. When we’re reading a comic or watching a movie we don’t normally consider the medium in the moment—we are taken by the story, feel like we are watching it play out before us. Though there are plenty self-referential exceptions, stories are often praised for the sense of illusion they provide, the way we can get lost in them (or criticized for the opposite). But with The Wicked + The Divine #23, it’s impossible to read without considering the thingness of what we’re reading, the form demands acknowledgement, and we are effectively placed in the shoes of all their fans and fanatics. We’ve gotten used to being smack-dab in the inner circle of the gods, but this puts us on the outside again, and perhaps makes us question how well we thought we knew them when we were front row center, when we were seeing events firsthand, when the page that stood between us and them was invisible.

So here’s the question: if it ditches the sequential panels, the world bubbles, all the things that make it recognizably a comic, is it a comic? Or is it simply an illustrated fiction? Is there a difference? If there’s no plot to speak of, is it a story? Or something else entirely? This issue acts as a prologue for what’s to come, and it may just be a clever one-shot: a different take on the characters, a new angle from which to see the next stage of the story. But part of me hopes that this is just the beginning—that issue #24 will transform and take on a new shape, show us something else, make us wonder what it might be.