Review: The Wicked + the Divine 1923 AD Special
As The Wicked + the Divine starts to round its final bend, writer Kieron Gillen and guest artist Aud Koch (America) return to the literal beginning, namely, the Pantheon of 1923 that graced the first pages of WicDiv #1. In keeping with the modernist mood of the time period, Gillen and Koch experiment and tell a 56 page Agatha Christie (Ananke may or may not be a stand-in for her.) drawing room mystery featuring all of the Pantheon members, who have all stayed alive to this point. There’s also a lighthouse. Most of the comic book is Gillen’s prose, which is purple-y, atmospheric, and channels several of the great modern writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, possibly Langston Hughes, and T.S. Eliot, who is racist and pretentious as hell. Large sections of text are broken up by fantastic art from Koch showing the murders is better than telling us about them and end in a fine, kinetic tribute to one of the first motion pictures.
The issue is a meditation on the conflict between regression and progression, so-called high art and low art (Poetry and film in this case, and possibly by extension, prose and comics.), and there is a driving angst about the possibility of yet another world rending war that isn’t helped by Nazi with a German Expressionist aesthetic, Woden’s pronouncements. And beneath the lofty themes, it’s one hell of a murder mystery. WicDiv #1923 AD is technically a standalone story, but Gillen and Koch make it into a period piece remake of “The Faust Act” and potentially the whole series complete with a whodunit about the exploding head murder of Lucifer as well as a framing narrative leading directly into WicDiv. It’s a multi-layered showcase for the prose stylings of Gillen and Koch’s ability to tell a visually arresting story in a few powerful panels or pages.
The extended length of the book allows Gillen and Koch more than adequate time to explore the personalities and even some of the personal journeys of the different Pantheon members. Lucifer dies fairly early, and his living form only appears in the drawing of the dramatis personae on the first page, but he’s perfectly Fitzgerald/Gatsby. Lucifer is very new money trying to impress blue bloods like Baal, who’s an American trying too hard to be British like a certain limp wristed anti-Semitic bank clerk, and Set, who gets a sharp, sexy design similar to Desire from Sandman and the prose of Virginia Woolf. He tries to be profound, but is all fluff just like Fitzgerald’s novels. But there’s nothing wrong with having a little cotton candy, now and then.
My personal favorite member of the 1923 Pantheon is Morrigan, who is obviously James Joyce with his free indirect discourse, rapid shifts from omniscient narrator to third person limited, and affinity for Guinness. Gillen uses him as a kind of loner oracle that some Pantheon members find amusing, and most find annoying. But he speaks what’s on everyone’s mind and describes everything around him in great detail letting a little truth shine in the artifice of light dancing, purple prose, and Neptune’s speech, which is the opposite of purple prose. And Koch’s drawing of his death scene is the epitome of modern art with a bleak color palette He’s too much of a wild card like modern Morrigan so Ananke had to take him off the table. This is all in the service and to ensure events run on the smooth side rather than the artsy, mass murdering side because even if she’s less of a killer than modern Ananke, the immortal Agatha Christie will do whatever it takes for the next Recurrence to occur, the Great Darkness to be staved off, and for inspiration to continue. This involves tragic sacrifices, light shows, and silent film title cards because hey, this is the Roaring Twenties, and a little party never killed anybody.
The WicDiv 1923 Special, especially the parts where Set and Baal were extolling the supremacy of poetry (And, by extension, poetry by white people.) while blasting dance and silent film aficionadoes Susanoo and Amaterasu reminded me of my second year at university, circa 2013. That was the year I switched from writing mainly poetry to mainly pop culture and to be honest, mainly comics, criticism all thanks to a professor, who enjoyed ripping student poems to shreds and uncritically banned writing “genre fiction” in our short story unit. (I included as many references to Spawn and Nintendo 64 games in my story as possible to tick her off.) In WicDiv 1923, Set and Baal are angry that the “common people” have access to art via the new medium of film and want things to go back to the good ol’ days when books were chained to desks in monasteries. (They don’t mention monks and vows of silence, but it’s implied in other words.)
This is just like the poets and reviewers of poets I knew who, for all their attempts at populism, were just writing for a small, “elite” group of other poets. But, when I write about Star Wars or Superman or even WicDiv, more people can connect to the themes and ideas in what has unfairly been called “low culture” in the past. There’s nothing wrong with making art that actually reaches people and connects to them. That’s truly how you connect and inspire people just like Amaterasu’s dancing and film, which were inspired by style and film icon, Louise Brooks. (No brooks, no bob hairstyle.) She has a selfless, democratic approach to art while Baal and Set want to keep theirs inaccessible like the top of the lighthouse, and this is where their connection to the totalitarian Woden comes in even though they sneer at his cheap monster movies, which were super influential on modern film. Who doesn’t love German expressionism? Especially the woodcuts of Frans Masereel, who could be considered as an early comic book creator with his 1919 work Passionate Journey. Nazis should all be punched though. This is all serves to show that art is subjective and should be for everyone and not trapped in canons and hierarchies and all those stuffy, boring old things.
In WicDiv 1923 AD, Kieron Gillen and Aud Koch use the setting of the 1920s and the angst of modernism and the world between the World Wars to tell a riveting murder mystery, a wonderful homage to silent film, and a kind of ars poetica for WicDiv. Koch’s ability to shift from cubism to chiaroscuro-lit expressionism and even classic compositions are unprecedented, and all her pages from this comic deserve a MoMA exhibit and eventually a retrospective. All in all, this is a comic that everyone from wannabe flappers and pretentious poets to action junkies and mystery readers can enjoy and probably spend the rest of 2018 unpacking.
Story: Kieron Gillen Art: Aud Koch
Story: 10 Art: 10 Overall: 10 Recommendation: Buy
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review