Comic Book Gods: The Wicked + The Divine

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  September 17, 2014 — 12 Comments

Almost from the beginning comic books have lent themselves to repurposing mythology in order to tell stories. Usually this process was indirect, with new characters like Superman and Batman acquiring mythic resonances over time. However, the riches of ancient cultural myths and stories were far too tempting to simply borrow elements from, and soon you had figures like Thor and Hercules fighting alongside more down-to-earth heroes. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s this dive into ancient myth and religion took a more serious turn as writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Jamie Delano, and Grant Morrison grappled with increasingly complex notions regarding the narrative reality of fantasies they were producing. Comic books, many started to argue, were the conveyers of the new mythologies.

“Promethea is, from the very first issue, described as a fictional character. Now there’s a strange loop of self-reference going on there, because you’re reading about this fictional character who is perfectly aware that she is a fictional character and indeed that is the source of her occult power. So it’s kind of more or less saying that, yes, this emblem of Promethea that you are looking at—this is the actual goddess Promethea. That this is an actual embodiment of the imagination. In fact for one panel I thought that we pretty much manifested the god Hermes. How would a god of language and communication manifest in a physical universe? And of course, just as a goddess of dreams would manifest through dreams, then a god of language and images and communications, and, if you like, comic strips, would probably manifest through a comic strip.” – Alan Moore

For those embrace a polytheistic belief system in the modern world, who take seriously the “old” gods and goddesses, these philosophical twists and turns within the comic medium (not to mention the quality story-telling) started attracting a lot of attention. Soon, works like Grant Morrison’s “The Invisibles” were being used as inspiration for real-life occult and religious practice with Morrison himself taking gleeful part. The role of religion in comic books and how it has influenced the people reading them was now something being seriously studied and written about. Now, a new generation of books are continuing this process, most notably “The Wicked + The Divine” by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie. 

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“Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead. The team behind critically thermonuclear floor-fillers Young Avengers and PHONOGRAM reunite to start a new ongoing superhero fantasy. Welcome to THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, where gods are the ultimate pop stars. But remember: just because you’re immortal, doesn’t mean you’re going to live forever.”

What’s interesting about “The Wicked + The Divine” is that it portrays a world where gods seemingly walk among us, but in a manner that leaves plenty of ambiguity as to what’s really going on (all wrapped up in a murder mystery). The divine beings take seat in ordinary mortals, instantly changing them into celebrities, at least until they die. A reporter, who happens to have studied mythology in college, gives voice to the natural skepticism towards such a phenomenon, critiquing the strange appropriations and contortions of these “gods.” This is mythology in a post-modern world, as pantheons and cultures are jumbled. Where The Morrigan and Baphomet do underground performance art to a select group of followers, and Lucifer is locked in jail claiming to be framed. As seemingly miraculous things continue to pile up, the series looks at the thin line between fame and faith.

“I’ve always thought that if comics are a part of pop culture [then] they should reflect pop culture, but a lot of the time comics, superhero comics especially, just feed on themselves. For me, comics should take from every bit of pop culture that they can; they’ve got the same DNA as music and film and TV and fashion and all of these things.”Kieron Gillen

This series isn’t the first time that Gillen and McKelvie have traveled mythic territory. The series Phonogram dealt directly with the idea of music as magic, complete with aspects of gods who oversaw different musical epochs (the goddess Britannia, for example, oversees British guitar pop). Both series, by fusing pop-culture and fame with myth and magic, allow for the creation of a new tapestry of ideas. Making us see how the revels we read about in ancient texts might truly manifest in our modern world.

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“Phonogram was explicitly about our world. It’s a fantasy which is happening around us all, unnoticed except for those who’ve fallen into its world. In a real way, it’s real. Conversely, W+D is much more overt. The appearance of the gods changes the world, and has changed the world going back. There’s the strong implication that certain figures in our world simply didn’t exist in The Wicked And The Divine‘s world, because they were replaced by a god.”Kieron Gillen

“The Wicked + The Divine” like Moore’s “Promethea” and Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” gives us another context through which we can think about the numinous world; About gods, magic, and how we interact with both of those concepts. While the depictions may seem irreverent to some of the devout, an interesting and vital exploration is taking place, and I think it’s a journey worth taking. Issue #4 of the series is out today, available digitally and in most comic book stores. Digital back-issues can be purchased at Comixology and other digital comic outlets.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    That might be very intriguing indeed!
    As for the God is Dead series that Alan Moore did the one-off short story for: his is great, but the rest of the series sucks (with some occasional good art). I hope to write about that on my blog relatively soon…but, in general, it’s awful (and not even just from the viewpoint of a hyper-critical polytheist!).

    • lyradora

      I love forward to reading that post. 🙂

  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    I generally frown upon the portrayal of gods in comics, but I think Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series and Mike Carey’s resulting spin-off, “Lucifer” are excellent takes on mythology.

  • XDark Elfx

    Thought forms….

  • lyradora

    I absolutely love Promethea. Awesome comic. 🙂 I just wish the depiction of the Greek Gods in Wonder Woman was as great …. Of course, India has a long history of adapting Hindu epics (and other tales featuring Gods and heroes) in comic format, e.g. Chitrakatha. I haven’t read enough manga to really know anything about the depictions of Gods and spirits by Japanese creators.

    • Ravenix

      Kami, yōkai and such are featured a lot in anime and manga. Many of these stories are in a fantasy/romance setting but there are a fair few paranormal-themed stories featuring spirits/ghosts. The film ‘Princess Mononoke’ is a particularly good example of how yōkai are presented in modern media, and even franchises such as Pokemon and Digimon have monsters based on Japanese spirits (for example Ninetales is based on a kitsune). They feature in games too- the main protagonist of the game ‘Ōkami’ was derived from and named after the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.

  • Tauri1

    To quote St. Augustine: “If there was no god, man would create one.” ’nuff said.

    • Um, that quote wasn’t from Augustine of Hippo. It was from the Frenchman Voltaire, who said, “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer”. It is a common misquote.

  • Sunweaver

    If the Ancient Greeks had duct tape, they would have used it… or comics or modern cinema. Thankfully, my gods aren’t stuck in 6th century B.C.E. and that all kinds of artists can be inspired by the Muses. I’m not saying this is big, sparkly letters “inspired” work as in INSPIRED, inspired, but it’s certainly intriguing.

    I love this:
    This is mythology in a post-modern world, as pantheons and cultures are jumbled.

    Which would have been very familiar to Classical Era Greeks (Lots of Hellenic/Egyptian cross-mojonation, for one). I’m really intrigued by a melting pot approach to a story that centers around deities from different pantheons and think that comics are an excellent storytelling medium. And taken over by a god for two years? Man, what a ride that would be!

  • Raksha38

    Yay, I’m so happy to see this article! I’m a big comics fan, but I’ve became obsessed with The Wicked + The Divine faster than any other series I’ve read. From the first issue, I was dying for the next to come out! The concept and execution of the story is hitting some of my favorite story kinks and I’ve always loved McKelvie’s art.

    Semi-related: Did anyone else read Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers? Speaking of things I’m completely obsessed with. That series was amazing and I miss it.

  • I’m still waiting for “American Gods” to be made into a series…

  • Pitch313

    My most influential deities/figures/pantheons from comics (but probably have not been strong influences, because traditions.) In no particular order.

    Madame Xanadu (I am partial to Artthurian lore. And mystery occultish comics.)

    Witch Hazel (More villainous than we imagine. (*cackle* *cackle*)

    The New Gods lore, particularly Darkseid and Apokolips.

    Doctor Strange lore. (Otherworlds by Ditko.)

    Tenchi Muyo, because Mihoshi.