The Wicked + The Divine – Pop and online culture converge in...

The Wicked + The Divine – Pop and online culture converge in comic form

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The Wicked + The Divine is about villains. Specifically in how villains are created and what drives villains to effect the lives of the heroes.

The Wicked + The Divine - Cover
The Wicked + The Divine - Cover

WASHINGTON, Aug. 11, 2015  – The Wicked + the Divine fantasy comic book series was created by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie a little over a year ago, being published monthly by Image Comics. The series is largely influenced by pop music and various mythological deities.

With the Wicked + the Divine issue #13, Gillen and Lotay have held a mirror to its audience and shown who the antagonists are at the center of the story for the time being.

The series premise breaks down like this: every 90 years 12 gods are reincarnated in the bodies of 12 young people. They get to live for two years – presumably to do amazing things – before they die. It’s crucial to understand, though, that their godhood is made possible by an ancient woman, Ananke, a constant figure in the history of the gods both past and present.

In this era of the Pantheon, the series creators have taken on the aspects of pop-culture and specifically pop music, having their gods performing for audiences in a way that’s parallel to the way prophets would speak to the masses.

The gods reach their audiences with spectacular miracles, and the concerts become religious experiences where mass hysteria and euphoria happens to the point of being commonplace.

Over the first 11 issues, this premise was stated in numerous forms, and it’s generally accepted on various levels, but with the final issue of the second of volume Fandemonium, everything is and should be thrown into question.

Before issue 13, 11 of the gods had been introduced or revealed to the audience – when the comic started there were still two gods yet to be revealed to the world’s public – with one curious omission.

The god in question was Tara and her introduction throws off the balance of the entire world for the reader, or at least should.

Tara - Image  by Tula Lotay.
Tara – Image by Tula Lotay.

This is the first issue in which Tara has appeared in the flesh but her presence has already been felt several times. The series’ main protagonist, Laura, mentions her within the first few panels of issue 1 and coining the term “f**king Tara” that has carried a lot of weight ever since.

This refrain is picked up by the god Lucifer, a somewhat petty and spiteful god, and “Luci” repeats it regularly.

But for the entire series Tara has been largely absent, save for the concert poster Luci defiles at the beginning of issue 5. There have been several gods gathered both formally and informally with little word as to why Tara isn’t among them. In fact before this latest issue, Tara was treated mostly as a villain without much explanation and the phrase “f**king Tara” has been used as a relatively clever hashtag among the Wicked + the Divine’s fanbase on Twitter and Tumblr.

The Wicked + The Divine - Tweets (content warning)
The Wicked + The Divine – Tweets (content warning)

Longtime readers of Kieron Gillen’s comics work should recognize his cruel tendencies towards his characters.

Issue 13 begins at the Roundhouse for a concert being performed by Tara. Guest artist Tula Lotay lines up the opening reaction shot of the crowd with the similar visuals of Jamie McKelvie in earlier issues. All of this looks the same and normal, until Tara decides to throw a monkey wrench into the concert by performing a seeming acoustic number into her set from before she was a god.

This does not sit well with the audience, and a riot ensues until Tara calms them down by returning to her god performance.

This opening sequence has a very real world connection for anyone who has seen an artist of some renowned – or at the very least with a popular song – and they essentially go off script by not centering their entire show around what made them famous in the first place. Tara points out in her narration that occasionally the audience humors her and she is able to play one of her songs, but in the eyes of the audience – in the eyes of most audiences – that’s all it is, she is there for their benefit.

That sort of fan attitude is present earlier in the series, but because the rest of the gods for the most part are willing to go along with the unspoken contract of fame, it’s only underneath surface but Tara’s unwillingness to play along or to delay what the audience wants puts her at odds with just about everyone she comes in contact with. The idea of ownership is all over this comic and while this issue makes it painfully obvious, it’s been there since the very first concert Laura attends.

But it’s not just about ownership of the artist by the fans – which becomes a much bigger point later in the issue – but it’s also about the ownership of the artist and their music. Tara is the first god to even hint about playing her own music at this point or directly relates to the craft and brings into question what the gods are actually performing.

Up until this point the reader has seen four different shows in the series. The opening concert with Amaterasu in issue 1, Dionysus’ rave in issue 8, Urdr’s critique in issue 10, and Inanna’s explosive final performance in issue 11. There was also the shouting match between the Morrigan and Baphomet in issue 4, which though not technically the same as the previous four, serves the exact same purpose, which is important. All of these follow a similar path in that the reader sees the gods performing but it’s just that a performance, the visual language is there but nothing else is. The only time the reader is explicitly told a god is singing is when the Morrigan is performing a My Chemical Romance song during an underground karaoke. It’s all feels so contained, which makes the crowd yelling at Tara to portray her divinity that much more staggering.

It’s during her personal interlude at the concert when she puts on the mask that reader starts to delve into Tara’s past. The audience travels with her through her narration as tumultuous events shape the outlook she already presented. At age 11, she was catcalled by a passing driver and the events became more disdainful as she got older. She was objectified by everyone around from men to even her school, casting her life in misogyny and virtual tokenism (she is Indian-English). It’s only when she ventures out as a musician to an empty bar, covering her face in a mask that she truly feels like she find out who she is. It’s here of course when Ananke finds her and her godhood begins.

It is deeply implied through her narration that she feels she’s the only artist among them. The rest of the gods may not feel this way, but the idea that she is above them or their general concerns is palpable when she meets up with the remaining gods. Much like the readers and the audience members, her own contemporaries view her as essentially a villain, someone who is not only willing to play their game but pushes back against it. She wants to create while everyone around her just prefers to follow the script and feels threatened by the fact she refuses to do so. To them, she owes it the rest of the group to play that part.

All of the gods in the Wicked + the Divine have real life analogs, either directly to a specific musician or to a specific pop culture aspect.

Lucifer and Inanna as Bowie and Prince were the most obvious. Baal is closest to Kanye, Amaterasu resembles Florence of Florence + the Machine, and it extends from there. Much of the gods’ personalities are taken from these real-life aspects. Tara’s is mildly debatable, but it seems like she’s a cross between Beyonce and Lady Gaga, both in terms of performance and general attitude.

Lotay – and later McKelvie in the back up strip – make the intimidating personalities of both tangible by making Tara huge, as she clearly towers over everyone. Lotay also causes her to be absolutely vibrant in that intimidation during her few scenes with the other gods.

No one pushes back against her directly but everyone finds subtle ways to take jabs at her, always creating cracks in her visage.

It’s here that she has her meeting with Ananke and everything about her goes straight to hell. A major of part of Tara through these 25 pages of issue 13 is questioning who she is. She states to Ananke that she doesn’t understand which Tara she might be, which highlights just how vulnerable and unsure of herself she is. Too many things have happened to her to have a concrete of what self means to her and when Ananke gives her the tablet under the guise of helping her, Tara’s steely visage throughout the entire issue finally falls.

The tablet or rather what’s on it brings everything to light on how the world views Tara and how they believe they possess her. What’s next is a double page spread of 60 tweets all posted within a few seconds of each other with her Twitter handle tagged. In those 60 tweets is a vile list of death and rape threats, hate speech, and overall horrible abuse and violence.

Even for someone with no direct connection to that kind of online abuse, it’s very hard to read. After the issue came out, many commenters noted how close to real life this hit, but for many women, and especially those with even modicum of online notoriety, this isn’t just theory, it’s very much a reality for them. This is what online culture is for them on a regular basis the more well-known they become, even the one nice tweet among stings as much because they are still feeding into everything that is wrong about what she’s reading.

Tara presumably reads all of these tweets on the tablet but one surmises she doesn’t have to. Her face covered in tears, she knows everything that they’re saying because it’s the exact attitude she’s been dealing with since she was 11 and the reason her façade exists. The only solution she sees to her isolation is to be done with all of it and Ananke acquiesces. Tara becomes the latest in the pantheon to be deceased. It’s revealed through all of this the narration has been Tara’s suicide note, which Ananke destroys.

Ananke on the surface has all the makings of tricky character to place but dig a little deeper and that doesn’t quite ring true. The characters have stated several times and this repeated by some fans, how much she ultimately loves them. And openly there seems to be truth to this. She listens to the gods, who are increasingly becoming more isolated as things get thicker and she continually shows them physical affection.

This is the logic of abusers. So far she has killed three gods – and one god’s parents – always stating how sorry it is she has to do this. She’s pushed other gods to do the same and has silenced every one of them who have questioned the rules in which she is supposedly the sole arbiter. At the end of issue 13, she might even have done her most heinous act by destroying Tara’s suicide note. Tara, who had been searching for her own voice, her own personality her whole life, and Ananke took away that last act of agency from. She is a villain but possibly not the major one for the Wicked + the Divine.

Ananke might be a character out for her own ends and using these young gods to serve her purposes and while she might have greased the wheels, she ultimately isn’t the one who made Tara feel like the only option was death. No, by the end of the issue that was her “fans.” People who professed to love her and at least felt willful enough to “connect” with her but could only respond with hate when Tara pushed back against their own expectations and became an actual person.

This story highlights exactly the problems faced with celebrity culture and how people/fans feel ownership over them because of the entertainment they provide. It was important to show that it wasn’t just a solitary harasser but how the harassment becomes a monolith to the point where there aren’t just individuals but a collective who only view performers as commodities.

There’s even greater illumination by how attached readers of the comic became to #fuckingtara and their willingness towards that Gillen artfully holds the mirror up to the audience with this issue.

The audiences have always been a larger factor in the Wicked + the Divine and with this issue, Gillen, McKelvie, and Lotay have made them a key function of the story as a whole. Ananke might be the thrust of the narrative right now, but what happens when the remaining gods exert more power over their own lives – like say live past a seemingly arbitrary two-year limit in their god lives – how are their fans going to react this? Is it going to be positive?

We don’t necessarily react well when entertainers venture outside their own box and break certain imposed rules. This is probably the most poignant issue of the Wicked + the Divine yet, but all of that is tied into horrible nature and how easily it can destroy.


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