The Wicked + The Divine: The Faust Act by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
IMAGE is THE publisher to watch these days, and THE WICKED + THE DIVINE by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie is further proof that, outside of your canonical superhero stories, IMAGE is where you’ll most likely pick up stories written for the mature adult, both male and female. IMAGE has taken the promise of VERTIGO and made it a reality, and all the best writers and artists, even the ones still working for MARVEL and DC, take time off to put out their dream projects with the hands-off editors at IMAGE. Consider this list: SAGA, VELVET, THE FADE OUT, DREAM MERCHANT, COPPERHEAD, SEX CRIMINALS, PRETTY DEADLY, DEADLY CLASS, TOOTH & CLAW, LAZARUS, BLACK SCIENCE, ROCKET GIRL, MANIFEST DESTINY, SOUTHERN BASTARDS, ALEX + ADA, FIVE GHOSTS, DREAM POLICE, NEAR DEATH, and I could go on and on. And these are just the recent titles, most of them from the past year or two. And THE WICKED + THE DIVINE? This is just THE FAUST ACT, as they subtitle this first volume, and I am completely blown away by the first five issues of the storyline. The art is some of the best I’ve ever seen. This comic is a must-have. And considering the pricing as a trade paperback, which I’ll discuss in a minute, there’s no reason not to purchase a copy right now.
The world Gillen and McKelvie have created looks much like ours; however, the gods return every ninety years in a very specific way. Twelve teenagers are informed that they are the returned gods. They instantly sky-rocket to fame and glory and wealth. They are at the center of a constant media frenzy, and they seemingly have plenty of doubters even though they have legions of fans, particularly teenage ones it seems. These young gods also have powers (but this book never feels like a book about superheroes). However, there is a catch: The gods live as gods for only two years. Then they die, taking their once-human hosts with them. Some of these old gods in young bodies seem to think the trade is worth it; others, less so. But they have no choice.
There are exactly three items to list that make THE WICKED + THE DIVINE a brilliant, unquestionable five-star hit: The art, the character dynamic between Luci and Laura, and THE ART! Let’s deal with the first and third items. Since the gods are pop stars, McKelvie gave the entire book a pop art look that is sleek and attractive. The drawing is clean and crisp, and the panel layouts are regular so that, taken together, none of the visual elements have a muddied look to them. The color maintains this clean, polished look: Matthew Wilson is the colorist, and without him, the art in the book would not have its electric snap. If this story weren’t good, I’d almost be prepared to give the book 4 stars on the art alone. It’s that brilliant. If you walk into a comic shop, the covers of the monthly comics of THE WICKED + THE DIVINE jump off the racks compared to the covers of all the other comics out there, and because each cover focuses on a god’s (or Laura’s) face, it resembles a popular magazine cover redesigned by a futuristic Andy Warhol. In fact, the only cover that is subdued is the all-white cover of the trade paperback edition I’m reviewing here! Instead of using that image, which is based on Lucifer’s all-white outfit, I’ve instead used an image from one of the monthly issues so that I can show off more of the art in the brief space I have here. By the way, I do love the TPB cover; it just doesn’t have any characters on the cover. Instead, it depicts a white — angel’s? — feather on fire at its tip.
The story might flop if it weren’t focused on Laura and Luci. There are too many characters to develop well in only five issues: There are the twelve gods, along with Ananke of the Pantheon, who guards the gods and returns every time they do. But there are also human characters who play key roles, plus all the fans. It’s just too much for a short story arc. So Gillen highlights the relationship between Luci, or Lucifer, a beautiful, tough female Lucifer, and Laura, a teenage fan of the gods who manages to get “backstage” and work her way into the center of the group, eventually becoming Luci’s confidant and even friend, we might say.
Their relationship gives the story its true interest. As much as the idea of gods returning may grab our imagination, if we don’t have well-developed characters we can care about to a certain extent, then that great idea will lack substance and depth. The book has depth, though the greater thematic concerns are only hinted at. For the most part, this first story arc offers a character study of Luci and Laura, particularly Laura, the human who wants to reach the gods. This focus also allows the writer the time to give us some of Laura’s background, particularly showing us aspects of her relationship with her parents. But even Luci reveals a bit about herself as she talks privately with Laura.
What else can I tell you about this book other than that you need to buy it? Let me talk about pricing issues, and why IMAGE doesn’t make readers and loyal fans feel cheated when they walk out of a comic shop, even when Amazon offers trades at cheaper prices. In other words, IMAGE makes it easier to support local comic shops. By the way, Amazon doesn’t have THE WICKED + THE DIVINE listed for sale until next week, though it is available in comic shops as of last Wednesday. If you can, support your local comic shop. How much does the TPB list for? $9.99! That’s hard to pass up considering the quality of the story and art.
Here’s what IMAGE is doing that is changing the industry (other than the even more important changes they are making in letting writers and artists have more creative freedom and legal ownership of their work): IMAGE is defying two retail practices common in the comic book industry that have an impact on individual buyers. First, they don’t make readers wait for the trade, particularly with popular comics. THE WICKED + THE DIVINE trade includes five issues. Guess how many monthly issues are currently out? That’s correct, five issues. Most publishers wait at least six months before they’ll put out a collection, and often the collection is a hard cover edition, which would be nice, except the hard covers are ridiculously priced, and readers have to wait another six to twelve months for the more reasonably-priced trade paperback.
To make my point clear, let us consider volume one of MARVEL’s UNCANNY AVENGERS. The hardcover collection, like THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, includes five monthly issues. UNCANNY AVENGERS costs $3.99 an issue if you buy it every month. How much does UNCANNY AVENGERS cost as collection? $24.99! So, if you wait long enough, you are rewarded by MARVEL by having to pay $5 more for the same content. THE WICKED + THE DIVINE? It includes five issues that originally cost $3.50 each. IMAGE, however, released the beautiful trade paperback before the sixth issue came out, and they charge only $9.99 for the volume, or roughly a reduced price of $2 an issue compared to MARVEL’s increased price of $5 an issue once collected in trade! I’d prefer to wait to read MARVEL comics when they come out digitally on MARVEL UNLIMITED (a subscription service that allows you to read as much as you want for $75 a year!).
So, I have two arguments here: One, buy THE WICKED + THE DIVINE: THE FAUST ACT at your local comic shop. Two, while you’re in the store, ask for more recent IMAGE comics (and consider asking the store to put together a good IMAGE section so you can more easily find the best new comics being written and drawn!). And, if you get a chance, come back here and let us know what you think of THE WICKED + THE DIVINE in the comments section.
Finally: Do you have some favorite new or old IMAGE comics you’d like to recommend to readers? We’d love to see those recommendations in the comments below. STRANGE GIRL, ULTRA, and THE SWORD, for example, are three of my favorite less-recent IMAGE comics. Finally, part of me still wants to claim WILDSTORM comics for the IMAGE camp, even though DC has purchased WILDSTORM and folded their world into the DCU (and not very effectively, unfortunately. I had high hopes for GRIFTER and VOODOO and STORMWATCH).
In the world of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, gods are reborn amongst men every ninety years. They live as immortal beings for two years. Then they die. In between, humanity wonders what it meant to have gods walk among them, or whether the so-called deities were in the end anything more than trickery and illusion.
That is what is called a killer premise. It’s clever, packed to the gills with opportunities to express themes from subtle to blatant, and most of all it’s good, fantastical fun. Even better, The Wicked + The Divine — at least in these first five issues — doesn’t merely rely on the strength of its premise to carry it along. The characterization is deft, the pacing is rapid, the suspense is masterfully managed, the art is . . . well, the art is just plain gorgeous as far as I’m concerned. I must confess that I’m not what you’d call an art critic, so I’m really just going on my personal experience rather than more technical knowledge, but Mr. McKelvie seems like he can do just about anything: he can delicately express with a shot of two faces what another artist would need three panels to do, yet at the same time his action scenes frequently out-superhero superhero comics. And those character designs! Flawless.
The story follows the “recurrence” of the latest batch of gods some time after they have (for the most part) been reborn. Our protagonist is superfan Laura, a British teenager (everyone seems to be British teenagers, although it could be that the gods have simply gathered in Britain for some reason) whose ambitions lead to her getting a “backstage invite” from one of the gods. This means that she is on hand to witness an apparent terrorist attack on the “gods” and the revelation by deuteragonist/antagonist/not-quite-sure-actually Lucifer that the gods really do have some fairly terrifying superhuman powers that they haven’t been using. Laura becomes embroiled further and further in the world of the gods as the effects of the attack and Luci’s (Lucifer wants to be called Luci – it’s kind of cute and kind of creepy and suits the character) response to it play out toward an explosive conclusion.
And this is, let’s not forget, only the introductory arc.
It’s easy to read The Wicked + The Divine as purely a fun bit of fantasy and characterization with a dynamic, colorful cast. It works on that level as well. It’s tough to play with divinity, however, and not do something with the legends involved, and fortunately Gillen is up to that challenge as well. Calling the first arc “the faust act,” apart from the obvious pun and focus on the devil, implies that what we’re getting is a temptation arc. But not just any temptation arc. Laura’s transition from fangirl into godly confidante begins at the moment she makes a mental shift from worshipper into peer during Amaterasu’s concert. She begins the concert alongside the others (who eventually pass out around her), thinking in lines like “She’s just seventeen. No one believes it. She’s not seventeen. She’s immortal…. Every second of my life is the best so far.” She ends it thinking something else: “I want everything you have.” Gillen highlights for us that this is a “moment of hubris.” Effectively, it’s Laura doing a Faust-redux: she reaches the pinnacle of what she could have gotten as a fan (worshipper), and then she wants more. She begins by thinking of Amaterasu as transcendent but ultimately changes her mind and equates herself with the other girl, making the power the only discrepancy. Laura is thus the last person in the concert to pass out and the first to awaken.
What happens when a human being places herself on the same playing field as gods and demons? Well, according to Goethe, Marlowe, and Gillen, it’s time to meet Mephistopheles. Standing in this time is Luci, with whom Laura begins to build a personal relationship. By doing so, she’s effectively breaking what your religious studies teacher might have called the “earthly economy.” Basically, most mythologies tend to hold that in the give-and-take of the mortal world, humans worship gods because they want something out of them and gods give humans things because they want worship (hence the not-too-subtle framing of the reborn gods as pop stars in TW+TD). When a human starts to move beyond that paradigm, seeking an equal relationship with a god, something noteworthy occurs. What that something might be can vary, but we tend to get events like covenants, plagues, and (occasionally) apotheoses.
Whether that’s actually where Gillen is leading things or not, he’s clearly aware of a lot of this, and it is likely why the central interaction of the text — between Luci and Laura — plays out like alternating temptation and testing as Lucifer invites Laura closer but then tries to push her away. Exactly what all of it meant and why Gillen has taken this approach probably will not be revealed until the finale, but as it stands this is a very well-executed work in full control of its thematic heft.
I do have to bring in a negative at the end, however. While Gillen does well with his characterization in the space he allocates, things do feel a little compressed, as if there’s a good bit more going on offscreen that has simply been edged out by time constraints. Laura, for instance, makes the transition from (apparently) vanilla fangirl to visiting Lucifer in prison on the basis of one conversation. It’s not necessarily out of character for this to occur, but the reader is forced to extrapolate a lot of what’s going on in Laura’s head rather than getting hints from the character herself, which could lead some readers — especially more casual readers — to find the arcs of the two main characters a bit jumpy and overly rapid. Also, while Gillen clearly wants to introduce a good portion of his cast as quickly as he can, this means that’s — again — there’s a sensation that we’re blasting through personalities on fast forward. An encounter with both Baphomet and the Morrigan in the underground is probably the best example of this, as Gillen works very hard to squish a lot of ideas into as short an incident as humanly possible.
This is a problem I also had with the first six issues of Gillen’s earlier series, Phonogram, where protagonist David Kohl underwent his character arc extremely rapidly and without a lot of emotional resonance for the reader, so that following his progression was more of an intellectual exercise than a sympathetic one. So far I like Laura more than I did David, and I think she has had room to be a relatable protagonist, but on the other hand a little more space for all of this movement would perhaps have allowed the reader to develop a personal relationship with the characters even as Laura develops one with Luci (which I’d argue would have been a better artistic choice, at least in this kind of work). That said, it’s likely that practical constraints were at the heart of this.
All in all, I have no real complaints about The Wicked + The Divine. It’s a fantastic, well-crafted series with interesting characters and themes. It’s got everything you want from a graphic novel. And good god(s) is it cheap. Crass concern at the end, maybe, but there you are. It is a very good work for a very good price. Pick it up if what I’ve said sounds interesting.