Review: The Wicked + the Divine 455 AD

Using an even more twisted version of Lucifer from the Pantheon as an object lesson, writer Kieron Gillen, guest artist Andre Araujo (Avengers A.I.), and colorist Matthew Wilson tell the story of Rome in a single narrative that begins with a glorious literal burst of triumph before denigrating into senseless, violence, hubris, and death. The story is set in 455 AD, and the Roman Empire is on its last legs as Geiseric and the Vandals threaten to destroy Rome once and for all. But Lucifer casts aside his name and takes on the mantle of “Julius Caesar” because he thinks he can save the Roman Empire all by himself and not be the 5th century version of Caligula or Nero. He and his boyfriend, Bacchus (The Roman version of Dionysus) get decidedly mixed results from this little escapade.

Andre Araujo and Matthew Wilson are the perfect art team for capturing the gorgeous heights and the farcical lows of the Roman Empire in WicDiv #455. Araujo can handle the detailed crowd shots like Lucifer’s “triumph” and the flame and gore filled environs of his fall into becoming an imitation of Nero, but he also is a wonderful artist of gestures and facial expressions. Ananke is a hated character in the main WicDiv series, but Araujo makes her a vulnerable, almost pathetic figure, who pleads for her life before a power hungry Lucifer. She’s not necessity or the creator of the Pantheon in that situation, but just an old woman. However, there’s a glimpse of the Ananke we know and hate at the end as she makes jokes about Vandals and covers world history’s collective asses. Wilson’s colors accents Lucifer’s powers with red and golds worthy of an emperor as he shuns the slave saying “Memento mori” and rides into the Forum like a wannabe Julius Caesar even though he’s just won a relatively minor victory.

On a deeper level, Gillen and Araujo show that the Pantheon being their era’s version of pop stars might not lead to them being worshiped and treated like celebrities In Rome, actors were seen as immoral, and homophobic slurs were often hurled at them. (There was a reason that Ovid was exiled, and Augustus was deified.) Sure, everyone went to see Plautus’ comedies, occasionally Seneca’s dark tragedies, and of course, the gladiator games, but these people didn’t have the greatest reputations. Gillen and Araujo riff off on this idea through speeches about Nero being ridiculed for being interested in music and poetry instead of being a statesman, and then images of Lucifer literally playing the bodies of senators like a harp instead of using them to help him rule Rome. But there are even more layers to this provocative image, like the inevitability of the Roman republic’s turn to authoritarianism or the parade of weak, adolescent emperors from Caligula to Elagabalus and beyond. Lucifer should be a metaphorical intern or have an entry level position at the most and not be the “CEO” of one of the world’s greatest empires.

Lucifer/Caesar’s key character trait in WicDiv 455 is childishness, which is honestly one she shared with her present day Pantheon counterpart, who enjoyed mouthing off to government officials and chain smoking. (She would have mocked the actual Chainsmokers though if she was alive to see them.) The 455 version of Lucifer is pretty fucking petulant and doesn’t have 2014’s gift for song quote or barbed one-liners. Gillen and Araujo get the macabre humor beneath his classic Rome fanboy veneer from the opening pages where the genre quickly switches from pastoral to epic, and Wilson’s palette goes from green to red. Lucifer could have had a nice life cuddling with his boyfriend Dionysus and playing songs in fields, but that would be a pretty dull story. Lucifer sees himself as the hero of an epic, but he’s really just a fifth act victim in one of Seneca’s overlong tragedies that Shakespeare and Marlowe added more wordplay and energy to while keeping the body count. And Andre Araujo makes him pull the silliest of faces while attempting to kill Ananke or lecturing to the Senate that wouldn’t be out of place in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Or a grim and gritty reboot of Asterix and Obelix.) if it wasn’t for the serious tone of the story and the general use of red in the background.

WicDiv 455 melds the trashy, lavish, and violent aesthetic of the late period Roman Empire with the thought and creativity of the Augustan Age, and there’s (maybe) no possibility of it being used as propaganda like the Aeneid. Like a passage from the Satyricon, Kieron Gillen, Andre Araujo, and Matthew Wilson meld humanity’s basest desires for sex and violence with our highest urges for glory and legacy into a comic book feast that will have you begging for seconds and looking up Emperor Tiberius’ recipe for roasted dormouse on Pinterest between rereads.

Story: Kieron Gillen Art: Andre Araujo Colors: Matthew Wilson
Story: 9.5  Art: 10 Overall: 9.8  Recommendation: Buy 

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review