The Wicked + The Divine Vol 1: The Faust Act
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
As a kid I didn’t know much about music.
Do you remember the first time you started to realise that stuff was actually made by people? Like: comics as being a thing that actually a thing that real living people had to sit down and work on and create? Like: my very first comic was The Beano. And I’m pretty sure the Beano didn’t have credits. It just came out as this already made self-sealed thing. Dropped from the sky and landed directly inside my local newsagent. Lollipops. Chocolates. Sherbet Dips. And The Beano.
(The only one that ever gave me reason to suspect was Calamity James (anyone? anyone?) – because the art on that made it look drawn rather than just processed….)
But then I started with 2000AD and – what are these little boxes in the corner? “Creator Credits”? And the interesting thing about that is: all the writers and artists at 2000AD are just referred to as “Droids” which seems kinda cool and futuristic when you’re a kid but kinda sinister and a bit like the mask has slipped when you’re a proper adult and stuff and start to hear all the horror stories about how comic creators get treated…
But what I actually wanted to talk about was music.
Because hey – The Wicked + The Divine right? I mean: I know you can say it’s about life and death and godhood and growing up and all that stuff right? But actually – what it’s really about it: is music.
That very first issue. That 4, 3, 2, 1 countdown and then: “All we know is that it means everything.”/ “It’s not a mass. It’s what masses aspire to be.” / “Infinity passes.” / “And then I’m gone.” = that’s music that is. Everything that you can’t quite put down into words (you ever notice that most music reviews the reviewer just talks about the meaning of the lyrics as opposed to the meaning of all the music behind it? Which is a bit like trying to describe the sensation of a sunrise just by saying it’s round. (And hey: who would want to try and describe a sunrise anyway? When all you really want to do is bathe in it and experience it and just have your whole body be draped in it’s lovely heat and warmth and all the other things….)
Of course as everyone reading this already knows: Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie have been doing the comics as music / music as comics thing for awhile now. Phonogram being their first album / underground hit / it sold no comics but everyone who read it went out and wrote a blog post about it kinda thing. And The Wicked + The Divine being the big budget overground smash hit blockbuster sensation (and isn’t it always nice when that happens?).
It’s actually a little embarrassing that we haven’t got around to this sooner… Crazy popular. Library favourite. Set in London (well… Brockley). Winner of Best Comic at the British Comic Awards. Pop stars and Gods and magic. All based around the deliciously delightful idea that pop music seems like it’s trapped in an endless cycle of recurrence… (“Isn’t this just….?” etc).
But back to me. And as I was saying: when I was a kid – I didn’t know much about music.
And in terms of realising that whole thing about stuff being made by actual real people and not just appearing out of the ether I think the first time I became aware of music as being a thing made by people was the Spice Girls. (And that wasn’t me – that was my little sister. As in: she was the fan and I just made faces but then also ended up watching the videos and learning the words). Altho – maybe that’s not right? Because maybe before that – there was Led Zeppelin…
Ah. Led Zeppelin. I had their first six albums. I listening to them constantly. Could recite lyrics at will even if I didn’t really get what they were about (“squeeze my lemon till the juice runs down my leg” anyone?): and I HATED THEM. But my best friend was into them (and he was reaaaaaaally into them) and so well: you know what kids are like. I just kept listening to all their songs in the hope that maybe the next one would be good / maybe the next one would give me what I was looking for…
But that didn’t happen until I found Nirvana.
I don’t know if I’ve ever tried to put Nirvana into words before. What it was that worked on me and got me hooked on that rush / seeking that rush for the rest of my life. And yeah of course I’m talking about the band – but maybe also well the state of perfect quietude, freedom, highest happiness along with the ultimate liberation from the repeating cycle of birth, life and death (it’s both the same thing / best band name ever?). But those quiet/LOUD waves – with the simple childlike melodies hooked on to words sung in a voice that sounded like pain and sweetness all mixed together into one delicious tone: like a slice of toast dipped in ice cream. And playing it far far far too loud on my dinky little hi-fi system because everytime I played it – it was like dropping myself on to the top of the world’s tallest tidal wave and riding it all the way to the bottom: just complete and total exhilaration and sensation: because with a book or a comic or a film or whatever that has a story – at least you’re still following a thing right? But with a song – with music – it’s just your experience of it. It’s just the feel of it. The noise of it. Beyond language. Beyond abstraction. It’s just… well… music.
And that’s what I love about it.
Also: well – in the interests of full upfront disclosure: Kieron Gillen has been incredibly nice to me / the LGNN. Agreeing to take part twice in the S.M.A.S.H. things we do. (In fact while you’re here: go and have a look at the stuff he wrote about diversity / watch him talk and then go and have a look at the things he wrote about Selling Out). And no respect intended to anyone else – but he’s been one of my most favourite people that we’ve got to speak: he’s smart / funny / thoughtful – and he thinks about things in a way that makes me think again which I think is probably all I can probably ever ask for… (Oh: and he did this thing here too!).
Which whoops – kinda puts me in a little bit of an awkward position maybe because – I’m full of nothing but good feelings for him and am very grateful that he was kind enough and generous enough to come and talk about comics and comics-related stuff…
(Thumbs up emoji).
And well yeah: just to judge from the reception I’ve seen people have to it in my library alone… Because this book is basically comics chocolate and whenever I bring it up at the Barbican Comic Forum all everyone can ever tell me is how totally and completely yummy it is and how once they’ve read it all they want is more / more / and even more. (Cigar-chomping business-person voice: “It’s a hit! The kids all love it!”)
(Altho of course there are always some dissenting voices: “WicDiv is perfectly functional and effective comics.” OUCH!)
So if you want maybe you can all just tell me how both wicked and divine this comic is (yeah yeah whatever – you love it). All the things that you love about it. All the things that it does to you. What it makes you think and what it makes you feel.
Maybe this comic is music to you?
Barbican Comic Forum
Something I’m always interested to see in comics is treatments of sound. Not just the onomatopoeias—though I do love it when artists do interesting things with them—but how they deal with music. Onomatopoeias are easy: anyone who sees BOOM!! or ‘THWIP’ or ‘SNIKT’ in a comic will know what it’s supposed to sound like. Music less so. How do you convey music in a picture? You can put some music notes in the background, simple. But what if you want to show what the music sounds like? Maybe you add some lyrics (or reference lyrics you’re not licenced to use) or show an album cover or a close up of a song name on an iPod and hope your reader knows it.
Gillen & McKelvie have been doing the music in comics thing for a while (or more specifically: music as magic in comics). The obvious tactic in Phonogram for building music into the story is to use a real-world music scene and stuff the names of real-world bands and songs into captions or have characters namedrop them in dialogue. It works if you’re familiar with these bands already; more so if you’ve experienced the sort of club nights featured in the stories. I can’t imagine Phonogram is understandable or interesting for the vast majority of people, though. (Unless I’m seriously underestimating Kenickie and the Pipettes as popular culture touchpoints.)
Wicked & Divine has a more challenging setup. It doesn’t use real-world bands or artists or songs as a hook. Instead, it has a bunch of young people who the reader is supposed to accept as pop culture gods. They’re shown performing, and we know their performances make people feel something, but we don’t actually know what their music is supposed to sound like.
Except that some of the characters look like real-world artists. There’s a David Bowie one. There’s a Prince one. There’s a Florence Welch one, a Daft Punk, a Rihanna, a Kanye West. Without any indication of the actual music going on in this series, my brain has plugged the gap by linking the character with their real-world doppelganger. So I assume whatever music Luci makes is Thin White Duke era Bowie, and that Inanna sounds like Prince, and so on. I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of the creators, but if so it’s a clever trick to help people fill in the gaping hole of what the music sounds like in this series—particularly because unlike Phonogram’s obscure references, the inspirations for W&D’s character designs are widely recognisable. (Or, y’know, ultimately what the music sounds like doesn’t matter at all because the point is actually how the music makes people feel.)
Brief negative interlude: I’m not totally sold on W&D as an overall story. The short version of this is that I don’t feel I’ve been given a reason to care about most of the characters. They’re all going to die in two years, you say? Meh.
The long version: for me, a large part of this is because I find the story is painfully slow to develop its cast. In Volume 1 that’s reasonable—it would be difficult if not impossible to do a good comic and detail a cast of 12+ in just six issues—but 20-some issues in and there are still characters who are a mystery to me (e.g. what’s up with the Morrigan? Minerva? Sakhmet? Dionysus?) I doesn’t help me that I don’t get a sense of who most of these people were pre-godhood. For some (most?) readers that won’t matter, and what’s relevant will be how they change throughout the course of the story regardless of who they once were. But I find the more interesting characters to be the ones whose past lives I know something about.
But I keep reading because there are times when it’s fascinating as a comic; that is, when it ties the music part of the story to the art in a way that’s unique to comics. Matt Wilson’s colours do a lot of the heavy lifting here, drenching panels involving music in the graphic equivalent of neon glow and supernovas and sparkles to show the feeling music gives. This panel is from Volume 2 (sorry!) but illustrates what I mean.
Going beyond Volume 1 (sorry again!) there are a couple issues that do really interesting things to link music to paper. Issue 14, focusing on a DJ-type character, the creators use panels and scenes from past issues to tell the story—effectively sampling and remixing their own comic. Issue 8, involving an underground rave, not only has Matt Wilson’s characteristic neon music-magic glow, but overlays or pairs panels with a giant 1 2 3 4, like a beat (and, of course, a nod to the series’ way of summoning magic: an uttering of 1-2-3-4 and a snap of fingers). It’s immediately immersive and a way of building a musical atmosphere that’s completely unique to comics.
I’m reading it a bit differently to you guys, I think. To me, the story doesn’t feel like it’s about music, but about fame. One minute you’re a nobody, and the next you’re a god because The Execs decide they like you, and everyone cares deeply about your latest feud. The actual music felt conspicuously absent to me, to the point where it seemed deliberate. Or maybe they just didn’t want to write lyrics, because god knows lyrics in books/comics are usually terrible.
I’m with Amanda on wanting to know more about who the characters were before. If your story is about people becoming gods and how they deal with it, then you gotta sell me on the change. I dunno, I enjoyed the story, but I wanted more depth to it. I ended up reading the whole lot, and it kinda felt like eating a giant bag of those neon blue sweets that your mum would never let you have, bright colours and neon flashes and then it’s over and you’re still kinda hungry.
The art was too plasticky for me – I agree on the great use of colours, but the inks felt really lazy – any sort of texture is through colourwork, and that gave the impression of being very flat, very un-lived-in.
This shot really sums up the art to me – completely uninspired inks, with colour going above and beyond. Still can’t believe anyone thought that was a good shot to have as the first of the book, it’s so characterless.
We’ve got this far without it coming up, but what’s the deal with them becoming specific gods anyway? It seems completely irrelevant to the plot, the characters don’t seem to worry about it too much… They act like they’re cosplaying gods more than being them.
Barbican Comic Forum
For me The Wicked and the Divine was the perfect bridge from superhero based comics to the world of graphic novels. I followed the fairly traditional path of Watchman, Dark Knight Returns, then working my way through Alan Moore back catalogue and some of the better Batman books. But I felt (feel) overwhelmed by the whole medium. It’s not just that it would take a lifetime (and lottery win) just to read all the Marvel and DC stuff. It’s not just that the quality varies, and for each character there are multiple story arcs and reboots. It’s not just that if you walk past the Marvel and DC and Hellboy you are left looking at lots of slightly strange independent books with no clue where to start. The problem is how to even engage with this sort work as a comics n00b. You can’t just pick up Sex Criminals in Forbidden Planet and say: “time-freezing orgasms, yep that’ll do.”
But Wic+Div was so well designed, so bright and colourful, with an almost manga feel to its tall and beautiful characters. I totally judged it by its cover and instantly felt in safe hands. And, besides, the gods are kind of superheroes, so you know I can get on board with it’s “rules”.
So, like everyone, I am a fan of Wic+Div. Looking at the art specifically I don’t know why more artists don’t got for this bold colour palette. It’s like the eye equivalent of stroking a cat. My favourite Web comic is Penny Arcade and that has been a huge success for many reasons, but one of them is that it’s big and bright and easy to look at. You can take a Big bite out of the detail in Wic+Div, rather than finding yourself peering into the gloom just in case you’ve missed some secret clue planted by the artist.
So the little thing about setting the story in Brockley has had a huge effect on me. Since I first Red Wic+Div book one I have written 2 things, both of which are explicitly set in South London – shamelessly ripping off this idea but, as they say, write what you know. As a South Londoner I am all for making it seem like a place of magic and mystery. Indeed early in the comic they walk down what is clearly Geoffrey Road in Brockley and although it’s hard to imagine a less magic place it also happens to be where my best friend used to live and it has an middle-city warmth to it which I guess maybe people also get from Privet Drive. Maybe my fear of gentrification is less because of my atrophied sense of social justice more because I worry that character will be torn away and replaced with somewhere mimicking Docklands.
I lived briefly in Beijing and on the older buildings there are little animals carved into the roofs [apparently no one really knows where that fashion started] and it’s nice to think there are little fairy tales baked right in to the architecture. However as that ancient city has grown the vast majority of those buildings has been torn down and replaced by giant glass tower blocks. I wasn’t a fan but maybe one day someone will have the same affection for those new buildings as I have for Dawson Heights – yes it’s ugly, but that’s because it is clearly a cloaked space-dreadnaught parked in Honour Oak. If Wic+Div took more advantage of these little bits of its own environment, that would be pretty cool.
The “I’m Iron Man” approach to the super-powered characters is also a nice change, indeed as has pointed out, the observations on fame and fandom are very contemporary. Building the world around the gravity of these characters and their internal politics is more interesting then some sort of secretive illuminati back story. The characters become not just selfish individuals choosing between great power and great responsibility but rather a cultural force.
It’s interesting Joel raises Nirvana because like many a 90s teenager I would without a doubt been on the cult of Kurt – a man who in actual real life was was saddled the ridiculous title “voice of a generation”. Maybe Beyoncé serves that purpose for other people, I have no idea. I’m not sure that’s exactly the idea the writers for going for but its certainly what comes to my mind when I think of people I have “worshipped” in some form. It all seems ludicrous now to my middle-aged self for whom a true state of spiritual well-being is never too far from a pint of IPA accompanied by a cheese and pickle sandwich.
But I digress. I should admit I have temporarily stopped reading Wic+Div and one of the reasons is that having acted as a bridge to a whole new world of graphic novels I have devoured book after book and I just didn’t need the Wic+Div spoonful of sugar any more. The plot wasn’t afraid to be twisty and detailed except that with a cast of thousands, when I picked up the most recent volume I simply couldn’t remember what was going on. It doesn’t pay off on South London for me either, but then nothing does, that’s the only reason I write my own stuff. I wonder if there is a trap in comics, which is that they need to have the immediacy of a movie because they just can’t be that long, but diving headlong in to the action means you just begin to like Luci, and then she’s gone. The characters have all this intrigue, but you never get a sense that there was any rest and that the infighting is just a permanent feature. The result is that when it all kicks off, the drama is muted because things have never not been kicking off.
One comic which cheats on this is Injection because it shamelessly steals its characters, and so you can fill in the blanks yourself. Even then it also takes time to paint in some back story in a way that Wic+Dic only dabbles with. Maybe if I had read a lot of stuff on classical gods, I’d be shaking my head right now, but I doubt it.
If this is a negative note to end on, it is not meant to be, I guess when I write up this stuff, I wonder what could have been, what was I hoping for from volume 2 when I finished volume 1? What about the characters did I want to know more about? (answer, as someone else has said is, so much more) For all the story has held back or failed to deliver this information, it has added new depths and taken surprising and interesting turns. I was gonna check back on volume 1 to make sure I wasn’t writing lies, but it seems I have lent it to someone – it is one of the very few comics that I would happily give to anyone to read without feeling the need to make some sort of disparaging apology first. High praise indeed.
Barbican Comic Forum
I like Rat’s point about it being about fame, especially because the ‘music’ aspect of the series falls away pretty sharply after Vol 2 in favour of… well, a lot of teenage drama and uninteresting character infighting.
Rat said: “The art was too plasticky for me – I agree on the great use of colours, but the inks felt really lazy – any sort of texture is through colourwork, and that gave the impression of being very flat, very un-lived-in.”
A friend of mine once commented (negatively) that McKelvie’s work reminds him of an airplane safety card. I still like his art, but can’t unsee the safety-card quality of it (and now you probably won’t be able to unsee it either. Sorry!)
Rat again: “what’s the deal with them becoming specific gods anyway?”
And what’s the deal with gods from around the world apparently always reincarnating in a country that doesn’t have any connection to most of them? Somewhere in Vol 1 Cassandra calls out Amaterasu for cultural appropriation, but it’s not used as a jumping off point to address the mechanics of the pantheon. Granted, the characters in that scene might not know the answers themselves, but the series doesn’t ever try to explain this, afaik.
Jonathan said: “I wasn’t a fan but maybe one day someone will have the same affection for those new buildings as I have for Dawson Heights – yes it’s ugly, but that’s because it is clearly a cloaked space-dreadnaught parked in Honour Oak.”
This is so off-topic but I can’t help it: Dawson Heights is a magnificent building. I’ve lived in its shadow for nearly 10 years and I still love seeing it as I’m cycling home or bussing around my neighbourhood. If you get a chance/haven’t already, tour it during this year’s Open House London.
Hah, yeah, I see that!
I wonder if you could have done the plot with them all being old british gods? Morrigan goes that route, but my mythology isn’t good enough to know if there’d be enough variation to be interesting. Gog/Magog… um… Morrigan… That’s all I know.
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum
Well, if the ‘Black Panther’ movie can have an Egyptian deity and a Chinese God set up in a central African country then we can take who we want. As I’m about two thirds of the way through the excellent ‘History of Rome’ podcast (which I heartily recommend) and realising how long the Romans were here I’d say their Gods are really ‘our’ Gods too, along with the Norse pantheon.
Something which I can’t tell if it’s a bug or a feature is despite seeing everything in the first year through Laura’s eyes we don’t really see how this is effecting the world at large. I think it’s in volume 2 that it’s talked about how the Gods are inspirational and in two of the specials that have been put out, 1831 and 1923, we see figures of the time, like Byron, Mary Shelley, James Joyce and Hemingway, as Gods, but there’s none of that here. I don’t know whether it’s deliberate on Gillen’s part or whether it’s the same as with Phonogram, where every story that’s not about Britpop or music at least thirty years past suffers from a lack of focus? I don’t know whether ‘Wicked and the Divine’ is Old Man Gillen complaining that pop stars these days aren’t as exciting as they were in the nineties and that’s why we see no influence on the outside world because, aside from the fucking raves, there *is* no influence on the outside world, or whether for the Gods twas ever thus and their effect on society only happens after they’re gone.
I have to say I’m a Mckelvie fan, though watching him work on a long form comic like this, has been watching a good artist mature in to a much better artist.
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I’ve been thinking about music and comics and the relationship between the two…
I’m not sure if there’s that many comics that I’ve read that have managed to capture the experience of music in comic form (in fact I’m not even sure what would look like… Isn’t a song beyond words and pictures? Isn’t that what makes it so transcendent?).
There are a few comics out there that try and (how do I say this?) make themselves into songs? I mean I know he’s my spiritual grandfather and everything and I really don’t want him to put a hex on me but (whispers): it seriously makes me cringe every time Alan Moore does an issue of a comic that’s supposed to be read as music.
He does it in V for Vendetta…
The Bojeffries Saga…
The League of Gentlemen…
I mean: I think I get the impetus behind it. But come on: comics are silent. And it feels for me that any attempt to pretend that they’re making sound is doomed to failure because you can’t hear what the music is supposed to be – just the silence around you that only gets bigger by the attention that it brings to it. I mean: I know the Harvey Pekar line is “Comics are words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures” but erm – you can’t make sound and maybe you shouldn’t draw attention to that?
And well yeah I don’t know: but it just kinda seems like a back-to-front way of doing it. Because thinking it over I’ve realised that the best intersection (or whatever you want to call it) of comics and music isn’t when a song is overlaid over a comic (like the Alan Moore examples above): but when the comic is laid out in such a way – and the story is working that actually reading it creates the sensation of music… If you know what I mean?
Like obvious example maybe but for me The Dark Knight Returns is the best example of this. Doing individual pages and panels out of context doesn’t really give the full effect – but if you take a look at the picture below you should get some idea…
Like: the words and the images create this marvelous rhythm that pushes you on from page to page like the matching of a drum… with the 16 panels either pushing you forward or slowing you down or (like the bat smashing through the window in the bottom quarter): emphasizing the whole movement so when you’re reading it you can actually (somehow someway) hear the damn thing playing in your head.
Another good example (just so Alan knows that I still love him) is Promethea (which you may have heard of….) especially the later books where it’s not so much the panels – but the way that the artstyle changes from issue to issue that makes you feel like you’re floating through different spheres of sound. So when the artwork is busy and bold and red it feels like fuzzy thick heavy metal / post-rock…
And then switches to lighter stuff that’s like light and twinkly childlike electronica
That’s when the comics becomes the music.
And that’s the good stuff…
Weekend at Arnie’s
I actually like Alan Moore’s lyrics! Often cringey, often fun.
The Promethea panels above are wonderful, and I do wish there was more formal experimentation in WicDiv – though perhaps there is in later books. I’ve only read Vol 1 and 2, and 2’s panels are already much more interesting. I think there is something about the regularity of McKelvie’s panels and his ‘plastic’ style that can sometimes undermine the music of the comic, as Joel puts it, even if I like the clean-lines-bold-colours thing.
Anyway, I’m on much firmer ground talking about writing and story, so I’m glad others have mentioned problems in that department. I find myself frustrated as often as delighted by WicDiv. I love the idea – gods and magic and pop music? Yes, please! – but it all feels like it’s spread very thin. We race through the story without ever really having much time to deal with the ramifications, what any of the whirlwind events mean to the characters or to the audience. Perhaps that’s why it seems to Loz like the Pantheon has no influence on the outside world; despite the crowds and vigils and news reports and fans, the Pantheon are disconnected from all the worldly institutions and people that stand between celebrities and the public in real life. We never see any PRs or agents or producers or suits of any kind; we see only glimpses of journalists and security and entourages. The Pantheon exist in a world both completely separate from their fans and strangely immediate, never interacting with the wider world until they make sudden personal appearances to the faithful. Appropriate for gods – but I’d like to see more of the temple infrastructure. Maybe I’m just boring like that.
Where it really works for me, similar to what Amanda has said, is when it’s about the effect of music and the effect of fame, and when that comes through in the art, especially the more experimental sections like Dionysus’ gig in Vol 2 (above). In fact, a lot of the strongest moments in that vein are in Vol 2 or towards the end of Vol 1, when we see the weight of all this divine melodrama. Laura seeing her blood-stained face repeated over and over on the evening news after Luci’s death, or Dionysus revealing his bloodshot eyes, not having slept for weeks. Or Ameratsu’s gig near the beginning: the way Laura dresses as Ameratsu to capture just a fragment of the divine; the goddess herself reaching down to point right at Laura, Laura both blessed and wanting ‘everything you have’. It does a great job of showing that kind of personal communion when you see a really incredible performance, when it feels like the god is speaking to you and you alone…
And yet, and yet. You need more than just communion. You want what they have. You want what they are.
I wouldn’t necessarily have got that when I first read WicDiv a few years ago. Now I’ve seen more artists live, and it works so much better, because I can understand that completely transformative feeling of just being… bigger somehow, being radiant, just for an evening. And wanting that power. We invoke the gods, and a part of us wants to go all the way, even if that means a two-year lifespan. It’s not just fame. It’s the power to speak, and to be heard by millions – and how that’s godhood and doom all at once. Everyone will hear you. Hardly anyone will understand. Everyone knows your face, but nobody knows who you are. You’re a god. You can’t change anything. Baal says this explicitly: ‘We [only] get to change you, and then you choose what do with it.’
There’s the old cliche that any book about magic is really a book about art…
Islington Comic Forum
I’m not a fan of Moore’s songs in comics but songs CAN be done well in comics especially for humourous effect. Wagner and Grant did loads in 2000AD which often owed more to football chants than poetry but worked well on the page. Another thing that can be very effective is parodies of songs because you can ‘hear’ the tune. Personally, I think this example from Robo Hunter is one of the greatest pages of comics ever