Kieron Gillen is no stranger to diverse teenage characters. The author of the Young Avengers relaunch, Gillen is experienced at writing characters from a variety of racial groups and sexualities and even won a GLADD award for his work. The Wicked+The Divine (pronounced “The Wicked and the Divine” or simply “WicDiv” for short) takes it one step further. The premise—the reincarnation of twelve gods as of British music performers—allows Gillen to reinterpret icons both mythological and musical as modern teenagers, contemporary ideas and all. And most importantly, he does so without casting judgment on any of them.
That’s not to say that WicDiv is set in any sort of futuristic utopia or in a galaxy far, far away. Instead, he starts the main plot in 2014 and uses the meantime to present society’s—particularly the music industry’s—changing views on race, gender, sexual identity, and sexuality. Gillen often manipulates with the audience’s expectations, setting up characters as stereotypes and then deconstructing our assumptions. For instance, at first the character Baal, a clear expy of rapper Kanye West, seems to be a cliché: an aggressive and staunchly heterosexual black man.
The reader eventually realizes, however, that much of Baal’s anger and motivation stems from his feelings of hurt and betrayal after his partner, Innana, sleeps with someone else. We’ve learned to expect machismo and toxic masculinity—even Laura, a self-professed fan of Baal’s (The Wicked+The Divine, issue 8, pg. 3), is surprised to learn that he and Inanna had been in a relationship. In place of a stereotype, Gillen writes a complicated, queer relationship between a gay or bi cis character and a somewhat gender-fluid, pansexual character.
The decision to make Baal queer could also be seen as part of the contemporary push back against homophobia in hip hop and rap; Kanye, whom Baal is largely modeled on, spoke out against homophobia as early as 2005 and hiphop artist Macklemore’s 2012 “marriage equality anthem” Same Love are indications that the tide is indeed turning against homophobia in the music industry.
Gillen’s scripting of the female WicDiv characters are also examples of new understandings of racial, gender, and sexual identities. Female promiscuity, for instance, has long been regarded as immoral in different cultures and societies and remained so up until the creation of the Pill in 1957 prompted the beginning of changes in American attitudes towards female sexuality. The stereotype of black women as promiscuous “Jezebels,” however, continues to exist in the entertainment industry today in the objectification of black women and the enduring stereotype that they are inherently promiscuous. The 2001 “Monster’s Ball” character Leticia Musgrove, for instance, earned actress Halle Barry an Oscar for Best Actress, but was still referred to as a “prostitute” by black actress Angela Bassett due to the movie’s emphasis on Musgrove’s sexuality.
However, like the backlash against male heteronormativity in the music industry, the age-old stereotype of the promiscuous black woman is now being turned on its head. Again, Gillen follows the current societal narrative and refrains from depicting women as inherently sexual; their sexuality is incidental. For instance, Laura, the narrator of the story, and Sakhmet, a goddess of the newest Pantheon, are both black and bi, but their sexuality is never connected to their gender, race, or sexual identity. In fact, Sakhmet’s approach to sex seems to be primarily a reflection of her manifestation as a goddess; Sakhmet is the ancient Egyptian goddess of sex and war. As Sakhment puts it herself, during an interview in volume 3, issue 17, “I am war and sex and death” (pg. 11). Similarly, the depiction of Laura’s decision to take up on Baal’s offer of sex in volume 2, issue 8 is completely non-judgemental. The only thing Kieron Gillen has to say in 2015’s Writer’s Notes: The Wicked+the Divine #8, about the scene was, “It’s good to see Laura smile again.” In The Wicked+the Divine neither Laura nor Sakhmet are sexual, because they’re black and/or bi. It’s just the way they are.
The relationships between the gods are also realistic and relatable. The main cast are teenagers, after all, and are bound to hurt one another even as they figure out their identities and what they want from their partners. Innana’s relationship with Baal ends when Baal finds out that Innana slept with Lucifer. So many of us have been Baal that we might instinctively side with him, but we see Innana’s viewpoint too: we can’t help but sympathize with him when in volume two (issue 8, pg. 21) he says, clearly regretful, “I just don’t get why everyone can’t be like me.” It would have been easy to follow the traditional societal narrative and shame Innana or view his actions as immoral, but all the WicDiv reader might come away with is that a lack of communication can ruin relationships; Baal wanted monogamy, Innana didn’t, and neither of them communicated that to the other, so their relationship ended on a sour note. And like Gillen’s refusal to indict Laura and Sekhmet for their sexuality, Inanna’s polygamy, a traditionally “immoral” act, is never linked to his racial identity. Choosing to villify Innana wouldn’t have been true to the character, or accurate to reality—and Gillen never equates sexuality with morality.
In the world of The Wicked+The Divine there’s no connection between a character’s race, gender, or sexuality and his/her/their sins. Faults, such as infidelity, are not posed as a straight or a queer action. Baphomet (Cameron) may cheat on The Morrigan (Marian) in their heterosexual relationship, but so did Innana on Baal. A character’s race also has no bearing on his or her faults—Amaterasu may be a white girl who takes the name and powers of a Japanese deity, but she’s also kind and caring. Urðr may be aware of racism and privilege, but she’s also apt to be rather self-righteous. As Gillen puts it in Writer’s Notes: The Wicked+the Divine #1, from 2014, WicDiv is a “book about problematic people who will do problematic things”—regardless of their race, gender, or sexuality.
Gillen doesn’t demonize his LBGQTA+ characters, but he doesn’t put them on a pedestal either. Instead, he reflects the music industry’s, and society’s, changing views of gender, race, sexual identity, and sexuality by creating complicated and flawed characters.
For gods, they’re remarkably human.