Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie are an incredible comics force. Their first longform comics work together, Phonogram Vol. 1, was an absolute achievement. It examined the role of art and how it affects its audience, specifically through the lense of pop music. Phonogram Vol. 2 and Young Avengers Vol. 2 only improved upon the strengths of the initial collaboration. They continued to explore themes of art, youth, creation, and more, while simultaneously playing with the comics form. Gillen and McKelvie have worked together to create some of the best comics of the last decade. The Wicked + The Divine #1 debuts on Wednesday and may be their best work yet.
Although many of the same themes run throughout all of these titles, each tends to focus on a specific aspect. Phonogram focuses on the consumption of art and how it affects consumers. Young Avengers focused largely on the meaning of youth. The Wicked + The Divine features both of these themes, but is primarily interested in what it means to create art.
Although the central premise of the comic is described as gods briefly returning to Earth once every 90 years, the focus lies more on the characters roles as pop stars than gods, although the distinction between the two concepts is essentially non-existent. The three gods introduced in this issue are all incredibly charismatic, young, posses inordinate wealth and fame, and can exert incredible power. When you consider that description, gods as pop stars makes perfect sense.
A concert as mass (or “what mass aspires to be”) provides an introduction to the value these gods provide to their world. Amaterasu is first shown performing on stage in a massive double page spread coloring everything including the bleed. Her presence is so large that it fills the entire world. Matthew Wilson’s colors provide an ethereal light to her form and draw all attention away from the dozens of faces watching her. It is something wonderful, an act of creation.
After presenting the ultimate outcome of the art created by these gods, the joy and connection experienced by listeners, the story shifts to focus on the gods themselves. It moves backstage to look at how they live and the struggles they face. It transitions from the perspective of Phonogram to something new, where the motives of artists will be placed at the forefront of the story.
In addition to the many artists of the book, there is also a critic. Although her role could potentially be transformed into that of a straw man, her presentation in this issue appears to be that of a skeptic. She attempts to demonstrate the lack of evidence for these people being gods and raises valid points, specifically concerning the problematic nature of an English girl claiming to be a Shinto god. Although she is clearly wrong, she is not demonized or treated as a fool. It is unclear whether the critic will remain a presence in the series, but her role is valuable both as a counterpoint to the lofty nature of the stories’ lead characters and as a means to examine the role of criticism.
All of this is the groundwork for what appears to be a long ongoing series. It is a statement of intent. The Wicked + The Divine will be about a lot of things, but at its core, it will be a series about creating art, specifically music.
The inclusion of music in this comic is inescapable. During the first story break, in which the timeline jumps about 90 years ahead, there is a title card featuring “1-2-3-4”. Before that there was countdown from four which recurs later in the story as well. It’s a very basic rhythm that can easily be conveyed without actually hearing music, which is so very important since comics are a non-auditory experience.
This rhythm is imbedded in McKelvie’s visual narrative as well. His standard grid is composed of four rows, most often split in half to create a 4×2 layout. It’s not a constant like you might see in Dave Gibbon’s work on Watchmen, but it is the most common arrangement of space and one to which the comic consistently returns. That basic shape sets a standard that allows other pages to set pace by condensing more panels into the same space or allowing one panel to consume more of it. Oftentimes, two of the columns will be combined to create a single panel that takes longer to read, whether or not there is more content. In the middle of the book, one character becomes so excited she passes out. The page includes 11 panels in five rows, six of them in the final row. The change leaves the reader feeling rushed and disoriented, much like a listener might when a song increases its pace.
Not only does this rhythm appear in the composition of the pages, but as a visual motif as well. The gods of the story are capable of performing miracles when they snap their fingers. Each time they do so panels are arranged to read in sets of four, whether it is in two parallel rows or two distinct groupings, they break the standard page layouts in order to emphasize how they combine. The connection between all four is clear, describing the status quo before revealing the snap and its result. The juxtaposition of snapping fingers and their often explosive results help the reader to create a causal connection where none need exist too. It’s an excellent piece of visual storytelling, building the fantastic elements of the world while underlining the important thematic connections of the story.
When an explosion occurs as the result of a finger snap, Wilson’s coloring changes dramatically. A bright red and yellow combined with a lime green and fuschia shatter the established color palette of the comic, making the panels metaphorically explode off of the page. This happens not once, but four times during the story. It places emphasis on the final beat, on the miracle of a song’s climax, even if that song is incredibly short and simple. It is miraculous both in the story’s universe and to the reader’s eye, making a strong statement about the power of music.
Looking at the 1-2-3-4 rhythm, the use of snapping, and many musical references throughout this debut issue, it quickly becomes clear that nothing Gillen, McKelvie, and their collaborators are doing is an accident. They are aware of what story they want to tell, what ideas they want to relate, and how to best convey all of that to their audience. The craftsmanship here demands multiple readings.
The Wicked + The Divine #1 is the next step in a thematically connected exploration of art, music, youth, and popular culture. It shares the themes of its preceding volumes of Phonogram and Young Avengers, while crafting a new world and taking those same concepts in a different direction. It is expertly crafted both as a comic and the first chapter of a story. Gillen and McKelvie are one of (if not the) best collaborative teams working in comics today. The Wicked + The Divine #1 is a comic that takes all of their skills and work thus far and begins to build on it to explore Western culture in a new way.
It is the definition of must read comics.