An image from comic series The Wicked + The Divine
An image from comic series The Wicked + The Divine

BooksDecember 31, 2019

Why I think this comic series about death is the straight-up best story of the 2010s

An image from comic series The Wicked + The Divine
An image from comic series The Wicked + The Divine

Huge claims from Uther Dean about The Wicked + The Divine, the books he’s spent the last five years with. 

The Wicked + The Divine is the best story released this decade in any medium.

I want to be clear here. People often confuse favourite for best when talking critically. I am not saying that The Wicked + The Divine is my favourite story released this decade in any medium. I am saying it is the best. The best made. The best told. The best looking. The best thematically. The best in bed. The gold star, high five, highest in quality, best.

That said, as a fact of the matter: The Wicked + The Divine is, also, my favourite story released this decade in any medium. But that’s a symptom, not a cause; I like it because it’s the best and I like being right, not the other way round.

WicDiv (as it is frequently referred to) was a comic book created by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie which ran from 2014 to this year, published by Image Comics (Saga, The Walking Dead, Apes & Babes).

As I know that people will be turned off by the fact it’s a comic, I want to front foot that it is not stricken with the perpetual rot of impenetrable intertextuality that makes the severe bulk of comics resolutely impervious to new readers. All you need to know to read WicDiv is how to read, what music is, and that death is a thing that happens. I also want to emphasise that I am not committing the bland literature sin of praising a comic by saying that it is not a comic. WicDiv is aggressively, almost sarcastically, a comic.

Gillen and McKelvie were a well-worn team by the time they started putting it out, having earned their stripes on their sometimes too young and too hungry triptych of stories about Britpop and regret, Phonogram, before breaking out with their Tumblr-hit Marvel comic Young Avengers, a comic that manages to be both exactly and not quite at all like what you think it is based on that title. With their names well and truly made, they decided to go big for their next project.

Modelled explicitly on the seminal long-run comics that came before it like Neil Gaiman and company’s Sandman, the favourite comic of people who’ve only read Sandman, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s almost too dark-hearted Preacher, or Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s cyberpunk ship that launched a thousand journalism degrees Transmetropolitan, WicDiv is 51 issues long, collected in nine trade paperback graphic novels.

As much as WicDiv is a pulse-pounding, mind-bending and heart-breaking story (and it is), it’s also a treatise on storytelling now. A vertical slice of how we live and tell stories now and why, and what should be next. It can only be a comic because comics, as a form, are the closest thing we have to a nexus between all other forms. There’s not a way to tell stories that hasn’t found its way into comics, in a way that, for example, can’t be said of, to pick an example at random, film. I mean, have you seen films that try to be literature? They’re bad films. So, Gillen with his words and McKelvie with his pictures take the form most suitable to looking at all things around the modern condition and the stories it tells, and decide to see how far they can push the limits of all the available options. All the while keeping it legible and, more importantly, fun. It is hard to overstate just how much of a comic WicDiv is.

It seems rude to be 600 words into this piece without telling what WicDiv is actually about, so let’s go there next: every 90 years, 12 gods are reincarnated in the bodies of mortals, granting them astounding and terrifying power. With that power comes a deadline: in two years, they’ll be dead. The gods are patterned after (but distinctly not direct corollaries for) major artists and cultural figures of their time. For example, in the 1830s recurrence (as the arrival of the gods is known), Thoth is Edgar Allen Poe but not quite. In the 1920s recurrence, Woden is Goebbels and Fritz Lang but not quite. Through the eyes of Laura, a diehard fan of the gods and desperate to be one of them, we make our way through the 2010s recurrence, tracking a complex web of love, joy, fear, pain, and, most importantly, death.

Because, if WicDiv is about anything (and it’s about everything), it’s about death. Gillen started developing the idea in the wake of his father’s death. But you don’t need to know that to feel the fear and finality of the great darkness seeping out of the story. The whole first page is a close up on a skull, for example.

However, it is, almost uniquely for a work where at the natural end of the story almost all of the major cast will be dead, not a dour book. Reflective, yes. Grim and sad, sure and yes please. But Gillen’s undying love for puns and McKelvie’s (along with colourist Matt Wilson) nearly peerless knack for punch-the-air spectacle balance the earned and respectful low notes of their tale with giddy, delightful highs.

Image: Kieron Gillen (writer), Jamie McKelvie (artist), Matthew Wilson (colourist) and Clayton Cowles (letterer).

All of those things are good. Or, at least, interesting. But none of them are what make it the best story told in this decade. What does that is its synthesis. That story, those themes, the formal exploration and invention, the joy and the sadness, are all perfectly woven together. WicDiv is incredibly complete. It’s not just that all those elements feed into each other, or connect, they are symbiotic. For a comic that is clearly rooted in its creators making a statement about the modern condition while telling a story about pop artists, it never feels didactic, showy or empty. This is because every single beat, with a few slight fumbles in early issues (hey, it’s the best, it’s not perfect) is a closely woven alignment of theme, story, spectacle and form. It is never doing something just to do something; every change and moment of form, function or feeling follows brutally logically from all the other elements. The sheer craft of WicDiv is breathtaking.

But that sounds like a lot, and even more like homework than all that stuff about storytelling, so I’ll put it another way. In the first issue of WicDiv, Lucifer (who is Bowie but not quite) battles snipers while Sakhmet (who is Rihanna but not quite) watches, and pretty much everything that follows stays at that pitch. It’s the best story released this decade in any medium.

That’s all grand. But there are other stories this decade that approach that level of synthesis, WicDiv is hardly unique. Mr. Robot, my pick for the second-best story released this decade in any medium, does all of that without WicDiv’s early stumbles. Mad Men, Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld’s rigid, slightly airless glacial perfection is the same kind of synthesis, all really being let down only by the fact that they seem too dependent on rehearsing the too-set model of Prestige Television. Black Star, Lemonade and Dirty Computer do the same thing but as music, as A Little Life and The Bone Clocks do in novels. And don’t get me started on Parasite (the third-best story released this decade in any medium)!

So, what makes WicDiv the best and all those other examples incredibly fantastic but not? I mean, first, there’s its seamless, never preachy or token commitment to diversity. It’s a fact that things just get better when they focus on all the people who aren’t straight white men. (To briefly hedge so much that I’m basically in The Shining: I want to make clear that diversity is morally and ethically the correct stance to take no matter what. The fact that it is also an aesthetic improvement is a bonus but utterly immaterial to diversity’s status as an empirical material social and political good.)

Uther Dean with the best story of the decade; the opening image. Images: supplied; Kieron Gillen (writer), Jamie McKelvie (artist), Matthew Wilson (colourist) & Clayton Cowles (letterer).

The other thing that pushes it over the edge to the best is what it did to me. WicDiv made me cry more than anything else released this decade. It made me laugh too. Once, after reading an issue that climaxes with the death of a major character – that’s not a spoiler, I could be describing almost half of the issues of WicDiv – I got a phone call telling me that I’d got a job that I’d just spent weeks applying for. I could tell I should be happy, overjoyed even, but I couldn’t be. I spent the day I got the job that changed my life mourning a comic book character.

I have never felt more invested and connected in a story full stop than reading WicDiv as it came out. I started a little late in 2015 with the first collection ‘The Faust Act’ (told you Gillen likes puns) but then immediately switched to the single issues. I had to know what happened – this was appointment reading. It became a part of my life in a way that few other pieces of art have. Without falling into the tepid, fetid pool of saying that characters need to be relatable, I understood everyone in WicDiv. I saw myself in them. It mattered to me what happened to them because it, almost but not quite, happened to me. Of the many climaxes of WicDiv, one revolves around a character who cannot escape the regret of their past actions, finally realising they can forgive themselves. In reading that, I realised I could forgive myself for my past actions. It was the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience outside of chemically altered states and listening to The Smiths when I was 15. In the second-to-last issue, simply the reveal on the back page of what the final issue’s cover was (and what it meant for the characters, and, so, what it meant for me) made me cry for like an hour. 2015 to 2019 will always be the WicDiv years of my life.

And I know saying that something might ruin days of your life seems like a very specific kind of damning with faint praise, but I don’t mean it to be. In fact, I can’t think of a higher compliment. To make something that has an effect that powerful on the people reading it is almost literally magic. That’s why it’s my favourite story told in any medium released this decade.

Which is why it’s the best story told in any medium released this decade. Yep, sorry, I lied. It’s the other way around. Best comes from favourite, not vice versa. That’s always how it is.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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