Beauty in the Breakdown, Part 2: The Wicked + The Divine
Once again, we return.
A few months ago, I did a breakdown of Jamie McKelvie, Kieron Gillen, and Matt Wilson’s comic The Wicked + The Divine, or WicDiv, as a compression of high and low culture. I played coy with you guys in Part 1, but I’m going straight to the postmodernism this time. Don’t freak out, don’t click away—you don’t need to sigh because you won’t get bored! It’s easy stuff, and a cool way to look at the work, I promise.
This time, it’s all about power.
If you ask me, pretty much everything is about power. But that’s especially true in stories that involves gods walking alongside humans. What can a person do in a world where gods exist? WicDiv is unique in that this godliness is a part of humanity. All the gods of the Pantheon were human until they weren’t. Once this changes, there’s a bright line drawn between the them and the rest of the world. You would think, with their superhuman powers, that the scale would tip in their favor, but this is not quite the case.
In Issue 4, Ananke, guardian of the Pantheon, makes some illuminating statements about the relationship between the Pantheon and their human worshippers. Laura wants to break Lucifer out of prison, but Ananke insists this isn’t possible. She says:
“The humans are not as defenceless as they think […] Lucifer has always had trouble believing in the gods, including herself. We must make the world understand how unlike the rest of the pantheon the Great Rebel is. Otherwise this risks being the last recurrence… and inspiration will leave the world forever. Humanity would not realize what it had lost until it was gone.”
Ananke is expressing her concerns that the Pantheon may not reincarnate and, instead, have a permanent death. In the context of pop music, religion, and culture in general, it reminds the reader that true power resides in the consumers, rather than pop stars, gods, or producers themselves. If a pop star has no fans, if religion no believers, and creators no consumers, then, for all intents and purposes, they cease to exist. The power resides in us, rather than these ideas or authors who seem to be the source of these texts and concepts that move us (This is what people mean when they talk about “the death of the author,” by the way). Ananke’s recognition of weakness in the larger structures—ones that were previously cultural authorities—is reflective of a very postmodern ideal: the dispersal of grand narratives.
French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard was the first to come up with the notion of grand narrative. By his definition, “grand narratives” are monolithic entities like Christianity, capitalism, rationalism, communism—ideas that seek a single unifying theory that can explain everything. Most -isms fall under this umbrella. There are also “little narratives” are fragmented and only purport to explain small events, rather than encompassing an entire worldview—sort of like the local grassroots efforts contrasted with larger counterparts. Lyotard suggests that, at least in the West, grand narratives have given over their power to little narratives. Going back to the book which helped me understand a lot of lit crit, An Introduction to Literature, Criticism, and Theory, my old friends Andrew Bennet and Nicholas Royle summarize: “Legitimation is now plural, local, and contingent.” By Lyotard’s reckoning, power has shifted from these bigger explanations and ideas to smaller, interdependent ones.
The Pantheon is highly representative of these plural, local, and contingent narratives. It represents a multitude of narratives, legitimizing not just Christianity with the presence of Lucifer, but also Norse religion with Woden and Urdr, Canaan religion with Baal, and seven others, This legitimization decentralizes the single “grand” narrative of Christianity—the religion that has dominated much of the Western society and history—into twelve smaller narratives.
We could summarize these notions of crumbling grand narratives—and compressions of cultural hierarchy like we saw last time—as a general decentring of power. Both ideas represent the dissemination and destabilization of power from a top-down scheme into a more flattened model. No longer is there one source of power in truth, but instead there are several truths and powers that are contingent upon one another.
With this in mind, there is yet another reading of Ananke’s words, if carried to their logical conclusion—it is the regular humans, the masses, who have truly sublime power, not the gods, despite their superhuman abilities. Ananke even goes as far as to say to Baphomet, in issue 9, that the gods are at their weakest when they perform and reveal themselves. In most depictions, a demonstration of extraordinary abilities is a signifier for power, but in the case of WicDiv, Ananke indicates that this performance weakens them—likely due collective draw of individual humans. Audiences have the ability to make gods as much as they have the ability to destroy them. We can also read Baal’s statement from issue 4, the one I referenced in the last piece, it in this light—the gods are not able to change anything; it is the humans who have the power to effect change.
Though the reader may have thought power existed with the few at the top and expressed downwards, in these three scenes, they are reminded that this power actually exists at the very bottom and is spread laterally among the many.
This decentring of power is seen in yet other aspects of the comic. In the first issue, the gods are seen giving an interview to YouTube journalist/vlogger and Pantheon skeptic, Cassandra. Throughout this issue and later installments, her interviews and research are discussed and approached as being equally valid to journalism from major news corporations. This legitimization of Internet journalism, blogging, and vlogging as equivalent to the previous news “authorities” once again decenters power from large institutions and returns it to those who previously consumed it. However, Cassandra’s role in the comic is fascinating, as she represents multiple institutions and levels of power as the comic progresses.
In the this very same scene from the first issue, Cassandra challenges the gods directly by stating that that they are “kids posturing with a Wikipedia’s understanding of myth.” This challenge is later reinforced by Cassandra’s dismissal of Laura an issue later, when she reminds her that she has a “Masters in comparative mythology and did [her] thesis on the stories around the recurrence.” Shortly afterwards, she describes Laura as “little miss my-first-search-engine,” while pointing out that she has “a student loan’s worth of [knowledge] rolling around [in her head.]” This statement is meant to establish her as an authority on the topic of the Pantheon, having gained her expertise in higher education.
However, Cassandra’s authority is regularly challenged by Laura, whose knowledge of the Pantheon comes from both experience and, quite explicitly, Wikipedia. She is shown browsing the website on her phone and states openly to Cassandra that this is how she has learned about Ananke. And yet, despite their differing knowledge bases, Laura is accepted by the Pantheon and even allowed entry into their home and Norse god Woden’s base, Valhalla, while Cassandra is not. Here again fragmented, grass roots knowledge is prized over the knowledge gained from centralized academic institutions. The numerous references to Wikipedia in particular underline this point, as the website represents a resource that can theoretically be contributed to and edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Laura’s source of knowledge is itself a source that relies on decentralized power.
But, Cassandra’s role evolves even further once we arrive at issue 9, where she is revealed to be Urdr, one of the three Norns of Norse mythology. She is now a participant in the very thing that she has held in such contempt and doubt—but she vows to use her new abilities to make people understand the truth about the Pantheon, or at least the truth as she understands it. In issue 10, she performs at Ragnarock and tries to make it clear that the Pantheon are nothing, that all the fame, celebrity, and glory attached to them are meaningless. And, of course, her audience cheers at how great it all sounds. It is just as Baal said. It is the Death of the Author all over again. Urdr’s intent is irrelevant; all that
matters is how it is received by her audience and what it inspires.In her new role as a member of the Pantheon, she expects to have more power to make people understand, to be in a better position to get her message across than she was a YouTube journalist, but there is no such change. The power is with the people.
There are still other ways in which power manifests itself in the series, whether in the in-world continuity or the power structures of our real one. Even with the implicit challenge of Christianity as a grand narrative, there are explicit narrative challenges in the other direction. In the first issue, Laura, Cassandra, and three members of the Pantheon are fired upon by what is implied to be a militant Christian group. Though we later discover that the real culprits aren’t affiliated with the Christian church at all, McKelvie and Gillen’s gambit is a good one and highly plausible.
In the Western world, Christianity has enjoyed a great deal of structural and political power—power that stands to be challenged by the existence of the Pantheon. Thus, an attack on the Pantheon by the Church—implied or otherwise—is a literal portrayal of a grand narrative attempting to destroy the group that threatens to put its authority into crisis. In addition, considering the Pantheon is made of pop stars, the flattening of the high-low cultural hierarchy also becomes evident once again. Pop music and pop stars, low culture icons, are able to draw power from and exceed the strength of the Christian Church, a pillar of high culture. That is to say, broadly speaking, pop is considered to be equivalent, if not superior, to organized religion.
Breakdown of power structures is the name of the game in The Wicked + The Divine as a larger work, not just in terms of explicit narrative events but implicit choices by the creative team. In the cast of the Pantheon alone, we have a Japanese-British woman awakening into a Norse goddess and a black man as a Greek god. We see at least four non-heterosexual gods, one who is genderqueer, and yet another who is trans. The race, gender, and sexual orientation are constantly varied such that readers are in a state of uncertainty about new characters and old. This uncertainty presents a legitimation crisis for the previous authorities of whiteness, cisness, maleness, and heterosexuality. With every character refusing to conform to any kind of standard or stereotype, surprising you at every turn, you have no choice but to abandon these old pillars of power and read with your eyes wide open. The variety of each individual is far more reflective of the real world than these bigger and once all-powerful ideas of what is normal—and that’s what a lot of postmodernism is about.