So I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all here…
The Wicked + The Divine: 1923 Special
by Kieron Gillen and Aud Koch
At times, I think The Wicked + The Divine is brilliant. It’s an exploration of mythology and godhood, well-researched and with hidden depths that reveal themselves when you really look at the gods the various cast members represent. And I love crap like that.
At other times, I find The Wicked + The Divine tedious. It’s also a meditation on stardom and celebrity, well-thought-out, but with characters who are largely as vapid and uninteresting as the fame culture they represent. And I hate crap like that.
This is not to say that the characters are poorly-written, mind you. As I said, the book has hidden depths, and much of that is tied up in the characters. It’s just that most of them are, ultimately, beyond all the mythological trappings, rather shallow people. But I think that’s entirely intentional. I doubt they’re intentionally uninteresting, though. That may just be me; there are few topics I find less interesting than celebrities. But I recognize that I’m in the vast minority on that. I’m sure many of the book’s readers think they’re fascinating. As always, this is just One Dork’s Opinion, and Your Mileage May Vary.
At any rate. I told you all that to tell you this: the 1923 Special we’re talking about this week delves into all the things I love about the series, and none (or at least very few) of the things I don’t. And it does that by looking backward at the 20th Century Pantheon, and their final night on Earth.
(An aside for anyone who’s never read WicDiv: the premise is that, once every hundred years, a group of people become the avatars of various gods. They burn bright, and leave a lasting mark on society. And within two years, they’re all dead. Important things to know going forward.)
Normally, the series follows the Pantheon of the 21st Century (that group of shallow, boring celebrities I was going on about earlier). They come off more or less like pop stars, giving performances that (near as I can tell) have no substance, but inspire great feeling in their audiences. They’re all about sensation. Giving their followers pure, soul-deep religious ecstasies of a type we normally associate with pagan ritual and charismatic churches in the American South. So it’s like faith healing or snake handling, except the worshipers are hip young club kids, coming in their pants on the dance floor.
The 20th Century Pantheon is another thing entirely. It’s made up of poets, artists, and actors. Intellectuals and scientists. Serious people with serious concerns, who seem to inspire not with simple spectacle, but with philosophies and great works of art. Not all of them. There’s a silent movie actress, a slapstick comedian, and a child star in the batch, and that dichotomy is the source of much of the tension here. Because the rest… Holy crap.
I won’t pretend to know exactly who all of them are based on. Amon-Ra is a figure from the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, but I couldn’t begin to tell you who. Likewise, writer Kieron Gillen has revealed that the Norns are Orson Wells, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell. And though that makes sense, I never would have guessed it.
But among those I do recognize are Ernest Hemingway (Neptune), Pablo Picasso (Dionysus), James Joyce (the Morrigan), and Virginia Woolf (Set). Woden seems to be actor Max Schreck, filtered through the lens of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. And though we don’t get to see much of him, I think that Lucifer is an unfortunate mixture of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his creation Jay Gatsby.
Then there’s Baal. I’ve seen it suggested that he may be TS Eliot, but he also uses the word “eldritch,” which kind of marks him as HP Lovecraft. He’s definitely not all Lovecraft, for sure. He looks nothing like him, for once thing; he’s far too dapper. And while Lovecraft was certainly guilty of elitism (especially in 1923), I have a hard time imagining a pulp writer who’d been so active in the fan press of the day going on so vociferously about how art is too important to let it be shaped by the masses. Of course, for that matter, I also have a hard time imagining Virginia Woolf making that argument, but there she is, right beside Baal.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Before I get any further, I should mention the most striking feature of this 1923 Special: half the pages are prose. A little over half, actually, intercutting with the standard funnybook pages, which deliver on the visual spectacle while the prose deals more with plot and character.
It’s an interesting experiment, and one that works rather well. The prose is fitting, considering how many great authors Gillen is writing about here, and it goes a long way toward establishing the cast. He’s got 12 brand new characters to introduce (and kill off) here, and prose is a far more efficient storytelling medium than comics. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words don’t really take up that much more space, if there’s a story being told around them. Looked at that way, prose is probably the most efficient medium. Hemingway, I suppose, would be pleased.
And Gillen’s prose is good, for the most part. He trips in a few places, with a labored metaphor here or an anachronistic turn of phrase there, but nothing truly egregious. And, honestly, when you set yourself up in competition with some of the greatest wordsmiths of the last 100 years, you’ve got to be very good indeed not to come out looking bad in comparison. I admire him for having the balls to even try it.
Story-wise, we’re dealing with a classic murder mystery in the Agatha Christie style (though there’s no Christie stand-in, I’m afraid). The premise is simple: Lucifer invites the rest of the Pantheon to his new isolated island mansion, and turns up dead not long after they all arrive. So we’ve got a dead body and 12 suspects, any number of whom could be the culprit. And as the evening wears on, the body count rises. Long-time WicDiv readers immediately suspect Ananke, of course, and not without reason: she’s got a long history of killing gods. But the entire Pantheon is still alive when the story begins, and time is running out on that two-year limit she’s so set on. She’s got a lot of work to do, and not much time to do it. In fact, she thinks…
But Gillen’s more clever than that. Which is not to say that Ananke doesn’t kill anybody before it’s all said and done (at this point, I’d be far more shocked if she didn’t). But things are a good bit more complicated than they appear. It’s a good little whodunnit, in fact, one that plays fair with the reader while still managing a surprise or two along the way. So score another point for Gillen, delivering a solid piece of genre entertainment in the midst of everything else he’s doing here.
What I really want to talk about here, though, is that argument about art.
Or, well… Not the argument exactly. I mean, it’s at the crux of the conflict for the 1923 Pantheon, and it’s interesting, as far as it goes. But it’s a little silly. I mean, it’s not like there wasn’t art for the common people before literacy became widespread. There’s the oral storytelling tradition, and ballads, and various types of folk art that existed long before “high” art was a gleam in Da Vinci’s eye. And even when you do get into the Classics, most of that was created for a mass audience, too. Shakespeare, for instance, was a popular author of his day, and his plays are filled with all the sensationalism and filthy jokes you’d expect of such work. And yet, those same plays are great works of art that still speak to the human condition hundreds of years after his death.
So Baal and Set are kind of talking out their asses here. Much as I sympathize with their desire for good art, even Roger Corman understood that their argument is ridiculous:
What’s really interesting about the argument, though, is the context in which it’s taking place. Each Pantheon represents the Spirit of the Age for its own century. Their examples inspire and shape human culture for decades to come. And in the 1920s, it seems, part of the Pantheon decided that it wanted to win the culture war.
Which has gotten me thinking. What the hell is Kieron Gillen trying to say about our current century? Because all we get is a shallow Pantheon of pop star gods, who create nothing except a sensation in the people who see them live. There’s not a great thinker among them. Even the smart ones don’t create so much as they comment on things other people do (and, yes, I see the irony of making that observation in the middle of a rambling commentary on funnybooks). The only one who’s made anything that might last is Woden. And he’s such a self-centered asshole that, for much of the series, it seemed all his creations were centered around enhancing the Pantheon’s powers, and getting himself laid. Hell! The only one who even tried to be creative was fucking Tara, and she was widely considered a failure.
This makes me realize, even more, that I really need to go back and re-read the series. Is the problem not that Tara actually sucked, but that she was trying to provide meaning to a culture that’s only interested in feeling? Will I have more sympathy for her this time around? Because, honestly, looking at the rest of these pricks, I see mostly a cultural wasteland. Our Baal’s trying to be a “raised-right man” (to quote my own personal inspirational musical deity), and the Norns are intellectually solid. But otherwise, I’m mostly seeing self-obsession and a devotion to sensation without substance. These gods have nothing to say, but people are worshiping them anyway.
Which, now that I’ve spelled all that out… It actually doesn’t sound too far off from the culture of the moment.
Maybe 20th Century Baal was right, after all.
Or maybe I’m just Oldy McOlderson, a child of the dying 20th Century who got the gods he wanted long before he was born, and doesn’t understand the gods of this strange new world he’s managed to survive into.
Or maybe this Pantheon really is just kind of crap.
Hmm. Definitely time for a re-read. Then maybe I’ll go yell at some clouds or something…