David Bowie once said “I always had the repulsive need to be something more than human.” It's this idea, of pop stars as something more than human, as larger than life icons that drives Kieron Gillen's "The Wicked and the Divine." In Gillen's "poptimist" superhero exploration, 12 Gods return to Earth for a mere 2 years, reincarnated as teen pop idols. It's a simple premise, but it perfectly parallels the concept of superheroes and celebrities as our modern mythology.
What makes this book so profound is Gillen’s unique exploration of youth, obsession with fame and delusions of grandeur. The book’s tagline is “But remember: just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever.” Ziggy Stardust may have committed rock n’ roll suicide but the character is immortal and the impact left on pop culture and popular music resonates even in this very book. The hook is in the mystery and the familiarity (maybe just like a good pop song). Luci looks like she fell out of The Thin White Duke’s closet. Amaterasu is a riff on Lady Gaga and Sakhmet looks so much like Rihanna. and that’s where the superheroics come in. These people are already larger-than-life. Who’s to say they don’t have powers? Luci’s display and subsequent trial is a reminder of the power of the snapping of fingers, the tapping of toes, the clapping of hands and singing along. It’s the 1-2-3-4 that can bring people together or tear them apart. It’s dangerous. It’s makes people uncomfortable. It can’t necessarily be controlled.
I think that Gillen and company are really trying to distill that feeling. The Beatles might have just wanted to hold your hand but they started riots in the streets. Adults were afraid that a simple shake of Elvis’ hips would corrupt the youth of their era. Youth is fleeting. Pop stars are forever. And while maybe that makes every Lady Gaga and Rihanna seem like a rehash, I think it’s more of a continuation. We’ve had a continuing obsession with the power of pop music. Because, yes, you’ll always be able dig out that old 7” that’s one of only 100 ever made by the band that broke up after 14 shows and that will resonate with you. But ask someone how they feel about “Pet Sounds” and you have something you can share. Phonogram is that old 7” and while The Wicked + the Divine might not be “Pet Sounds,” it aspires to that level of accessibility. Is it weird? Sure. So was Ziggy Stardust, though.
And none of this could be communicated without Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson’s work. McKelvie’s clean-lined style has definitely evolved over the years and his acute attention to detail is what really sets him apart from the pack. As evidenced by The Wicked + The Divine Tumblr and the talk leading up to the release, McKelvie has referenced the looks of his characters heavily. They’re a mix of high fashion and pop art. Luci’s all-white look comes in contrast with our usual visualization of Lucifer after the fall. Sakhmet’s look is full of nods to her namesake’s cat-like appearance as well as some visual references to bondage that allude to the meaning of her name, “power.” Amaterasu’s look is simple but otherworldly when she’s on-stage. McKelvie sells motion very well without overusing speed lines. He’s able to translate action with impressive posing for his characters. Matthew Wilson’s colors help set the mood of the book. From the euphoric haze of the concert scene to the assault on the gods themselves and the subsequent explosions of color, we’re treated to something almost Warhol-esque that fits in remarkably with Gillen’s tone. The almost drag vs. drab approach to visually separating the settings is perfect. There is no middle ground. Real life is boring, almost black and white. But pop stars are in technicolor.
The Wicked + The Divine embodies some of the weirdness of 90s Vertigo combined with the populism of more standard superhero fare. For the uninitiated, this might be the best introduction to this creative team’s work. It’s big and bright and over-the-top. It has all of Gillen’s trademark snark and that’s amplified by McKelvie’s continually improving grasp on expressions and body language. This is pop comics. It’s that song that comes on the radio that you’ll have stuck in your head for days. The beat is good. The lyrics hint at something bigger and you can’t help but wonder. Although what you are about to read is a work of fiction, it should never the less be played at maximum volume.
TBH I thought that I was going to hate the book because of all the hype it was getting before it was actually released, but it really surprised me. IMO this is one of the best Image debuts in a while. What did y'all pick up today?
Edit: The creator has a playlist for the series on Spotify atm. Listen here