By Maya Garcia
When the creative team behind The Wicked + The Divine announced the The Wicked + The Divine 1831 special, the classic literature diehards in the fandom rejoiced. And we rejoiced by flocking to social media to post long threads about our hopes and predictions for the issue and dashing to the library to pick up biographies, poetry collections, and campy 80s movies pertaining to the English High Romantics.
I opened 1831, fingers twitching with excitement at the thought of seeing my old friends the Romantics in a strange new way, and was delightfully thunderstruck to find among them the Romantic nearest and dearest to my own Russophilic heart – Aleksandr Pushkin. His appearance in the comic is brief and oblique, consisting in fact of a mere ten words in a speech bubble.
No unit of literature is too small to be given an in-depth analysis by a properly enthusiastic and imaginative reader. And I hope that by performing such an analysis on this single sentence (in the context of the comic up to this point) I can offer fellow fans entertaining and edifying insights into one of the myriad literary allusions in 1831.
Let’s have a go.
“Perun…” This is the name of an ancient Slavic sky god, the supreme deity in his pantheon. There are frustratingly few sources of information on the gods of the ancient Slavs as they had no known systems of writing before the 9th century C.E., when Greek Orthodox monks invented the Glagolitic and later Cyrillic alphabets to aid in bringing Christianity to the region. Much of what we know about Slavic mythology is extrapolated from visual artifacts and reports by monks. Perun is one of few figures who emerges from this tradition with a relatively clear image, that of a kingly, bearded warrior who commands stone, fire, and above all, lightning.
This image doesn’t call any 18th or 19th century Russian writers to my mind (other than maybe Tolstoy who had the long beard and patriarchal wrath thing going on, but he was just a baby in 1831 and wouldn’t be caught dead in a story about Romantic poets anyway). But why spend time wondering which Russian writer is best fit to wear the mantle of the highest god, because Russia has already chosen Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin.
There are endless fascinating cultural artifacts that one can point to illustrate the extreme degree to which Pushkin is venerated in Russia, and my personal favorite examples are: that time I was street drinking in St. Petersburg with a group of American college students and tipsily exchanged recitations of classic Pushkin verses with a couple of strangers we met outside a bar; the presence of civic artwork and/or tourist traps in every place the man ever set foot; and the fact that even the radically avant-garde Futurist poets and critics, who exhorted the Russian literary community to cast its old writers overboard from the “Steamship of Modernity,” still wrote essays and poems that praised Pushkin.
“…collapsed in Petersburg…” Ah, Petersburg! Petersburg! My favorite city for many reasons, one of which is the fact that you can’t go more than a few blocks without seeing the name or face of a dead poet. When I first saw the city in the fall of 2011, several metro stations had translations of verses by of the Romantic poet John Keats displayed in the big frames where metro stations usually hang advertisements. When I asked someone why the metro was advertising for Keats, their answer was “It’s pretty. It’s poetry.”
This is a city that may no longer be the political capital of the country, but proudly considers itself to be “The Cultural Capital of Russia.” This is the city to name drop when making a shorthand reference to Russian Romanticism. And yes, of course Pushkin died there. I’ve been to the lovingly preserved room where the tragic event occurred (a real must-see for melancholic comparative literature majors doing a year abroad in Russia).
“…pure language raging from his guts…” What a lovely turn of phrase, moving from the almost-Biblical mysticism of “pure language” to the (literally) visceral brutality of “raging from his guts.” The juxtaposition of these elements is very Russian Literature ™, but the resulting phrase is original and compelling enough to reach my ears over the din of lesser clichés one encounters daily in Slavic Studies. I can’t trace it to a quotation (though I’ve only been working it over for a couple days and I mostly work on 20th century literature anyway…), but I can see what moments in the Pushkin Mythos to which it could refer.
“…pure language…” Students of Russian literature learn to recognize the particular aspects of literature with which each canonical writer is most strongly associated – their divine domains, if you will. Dostoevsky is the Patron Saint of Unreliable Narrators; Pushkin is the All-Father of the Modern Russian Literary Language.
“…raging from his guts…” Unlike Shakespeare, Pushkin lived and died a well-documented and very public life. An incredible amount of detail concerning his day-to-day existence is available to the dedicated archival scholar and such major moments as his death are familiar to all. Pushkin’s death is such a well-known moment in Russian culture it is the subject of countless paintings and poems, and even has its very own Wikipedia page. It doesn’t get much more Romantic than dying at 37 (just a few months older than Byron) from a wound sustained in the course of a duel defending his wife’s honor against a dastardly French officer. While he did die in bed several days after the duel, the image of the poet collapsing in the snow, bleeding from his guts, is entirely true-to-life.
I think I’ve proven the connection here thoroughly enough to move on to examine the possible implications of Pushkin-Perun’s inclusion in the Wicked + Divine world. In particular, this implied character invites comparisons with a certain member of the contemporary Pantheon – Baal. Baal (the Sumerian deity) and Perun have very similar functions and imagery in their respect mythological traditions – it’s not too outlandish to posit that they, along with the other ruling sky-gods that appear in nearly every other Indo-European pantheon (i.e. Zeus, Jupiter, Indra) could perhaps be regional interpretations of the same figure.
Baal (the comic character) and Pushkin-Perun might also be regional interpretations of the same figure: the Black superhero with lightning powers. Pushkin, like Baal, was Black – well, not Black like Baal as he was Black under very different historical conditions. He was a member of the nobility whose maternal great-grandfather, Abram Hannibal, was African. Hannibal was kidnapped from Central Africa as a child and held in bondage at the court of the Ottoman Sultan for a year before being bought by Russian ambassadors and given as a gift to Tsar Peter I. Peter made Hannibal his godson and gave him a nobleman’s education and military rank. Pushkin’s relationship to his African heritage, as understood from his poems, letters, and unfinished biography of his great-grandfather, is a complex topic of interest to many scholars. I have not (yet) studied it closely, but I am familiar enough with Pushkin’s heritage that imagining him with lightning powers brings to my mind a certain racialized superhero trope.
The “Black Lightning” archetype has a long history in superhero comics, and may have been propagated by a certain laziness among white comic book creators when it comes to making new and interesting roles for characters of color. As a non-Black person, I have a limited capacity to comment insightfully on this trope, and I hope that my writing here is just the beginning of a larger conversation that will prominently feature input from Black readers. Examination of archetypes and stereotypes is one of the main forces that drives characterization in The Wicked + The Divine, and it is up to people of color in the fandom to judge how sensitive and useful this examination is. Until there’s a Latinx character in The Wicked + The Divine (a moon goddess Selena would be fantastic!), I’ll be careful to stay in my lane. The comparative reading of Baal and Pushkin that I’m attempting here will be done from a literary criticism standpoint, but I invite other fans to bring the ethical questions to bear.
The gods of the contemporary Pantheon incarnate a range of pop star archetypes and Baal is one of the more easily identifiable of the group. The “elevator pitch” one might give for Baal could be “What if Kanye West really was a god?” Of course, both Kanye and Baal have a lot more going on beneath their cosmically egoistic personae. Baal’s character arc (in my opinion, one of the most emotionally compelling in the comic) explores the cognitive dissonances of being a self-aware celebrity, of having tremendous power, but still not being able to control how others will ultimately judge you. The dynamism of Baal’s character is built on a series of seeming contradictions in his personality and positionality in the narrative: he’s “bad” and revels in the label, but he is also a proud Sky God who (for most of the narrative so far) takes Ananke’s side in the fight she frames as being one of law, order, and light against rebellion, chaos, and darkness; he performs a particularly forceful type of straight masculinity, but is involved in one of the series’ most tender queer love stories; he’s a man of action and violence, but also a genuine poet (he briefly hints at having had an artistic career before he met Ananke – and he delivers some of the best one-liners in a comic full of quotable one-liners).
Baal’s character development seems to be in the process of undermining and overcoming these ultimately artificial contradictions, with the result being a more complex and human character. In this context, Baal’s being an instantiation of the comic-book cliché linking Black men and electricity might be another way of exploring celebrity persona as self-parody.
The Wicked + The Divine’s central conceit of Recurrence allows its creators to explore characterization and archetype in a way not confined to a single, linear storyline. The first tableaux of the comic features four gods of the 1920s and judging by the iconography (Baal’s sigil is a ram’s head), one of their number is also a Baal. The man whose place at the table matches the placement of the ram’s head in the pantheon wheel is Black, and while he doesn’t bear a strong physical resemblance to Baal or comport himself as flashily as Baal does, he does exude a similar strong, masculine confidence.
Writer Kieron Gillen has said in interviews (and his notes to issue 4) that Baal is “inspired by the whole line of archetypes between Bo Diddley doing Who Do You Love? And Kanye West doing Power.” Now, Bo Diddley came too late to fit in the 1920s pantheon (and the man in the comic lacks Bo’s iconic glasses – you know the ones that Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, and Morrissey all copied?), but if we trace the genealogy of the Blues back a few decades, there’s a wealth of iconic musicians who might provide inspiration for a Wicked + Divine character.
Robert Johnson leaps off the pages of musical history as an obvious choice for inclusion here (perhaps team WicDiv could deconstruct the rather patronizing legend about him meeting the devil at a crossroads and selling his soul for musical talent), but equally strong cases could be made for such other early blues and jazz pioneers as Jelly Roll Morton, W.C. Handy, and Lonnie Johnson. The creators may be going for a more composite character anyway (the other 1920s characters seem like they might not be as directly based on real celebrities as the 1830s characters were).
Going back one more saeculum (90-year cycle), we return to Pushkin-Perun It seems more than coincidental that we’ve been presented with another pantheon member who is a thunder god and a black male artist. Of course, one could say that he’s just a combination of the most prominent Russian Romantic with the most well-known East Slavic deity…but that would be boring. I personally would not have thought of Perun when assigning a god to Pushkin (in Russia he’s often compared to Apollo, and while I would rather not continue in the hellenocentric tradition, I would also have gravitated towards such a god of music and prophecy, or perhaps a messenger god with a mischievous streak).
But what fun would it be to read this comic if the creators thought the same way I do? I have enjoyed the chance to think about Pushkin in a different way by comparing him to the Baal archetype. To do this, I’ve considered how Pushkin (the myth if not the man) related to power.
Pushkin had a complicated relationship with authoritarian power that makes Baal’s relationship with Ananke look blissful. He was a rebellious youth who wrote politically charged poems that earned him repeated exiled from the capital in the early 1820s. He was welcomed back to Petersburg after the newly crowned Tsar Nikolai I squelched the Decembrist Uprising of 1925 (in which a large group of reform-minded officers refused to pledge allegiance to the conservative Nikolai). For the rest of his life he would be under close police surveillance and his works would be personally edited by the Tsar before publication. Despite having voiced anti-authoritarian views in the past, he would publish poems in praise of the Tsar. To what extent he was motivated by concern for safety, defeated resolution, and/or a real change in belief is unclear. Ultimately Pushkin, like Baal, had to negotiate having a fierce, iconoclastic spirit, with serving a violent, paranoid dictator who ruled by divine right.
Defiance of authority and social expectations is only one connotation of the versatile descriptor “bad” that Baal claims for himself in issue 4. It’s also a bold assertion of sexuality.
In a society where the dominant group (i.e. white men) sees black male sexuality as threatening and deviant, to be a black man who revels in his own sexual power and refuses to apologize for being beautiful and aware of it is a radical provocation. This framework doesn’t exactly map onto Pushkin, who could almost pass for white and lived in a society where aristocratic poets such as he were expected to be sexually voracious. Pushkin had many lovers and wrote a fair number of sexually explicit poems (my favorite is the one where Satan fingerbangs the Virgin Mary and she likes it so much that her eventual holy union with God the Father ends up being a real disappointment).
And what of the connection to power as visually manifested in the command of thunder and lightning? Baal characterizes his electrical abilities with the phrase “I do power,” which suits his magnetic charisma and assertive sexuality (lightning, once thought to be the literal “spark” of life, is a time-honored symbol of virility). Pushkin too had charisma and physical charm in spades. Moreover, I think inserting lightning into his mythos amplifies his association with nature, the vast, wild Russian nature into which this Romantic (and political) exile wandered when he needed (or was forced by the tsar to take) a break from being an urban dandy.
The future issues and special issues of The Wicked + The Divine will doubtlessly reveal many more facets and complexities in the characterization of the current Baal and his predecessors. If I have inspired even one reader to help pass the time until the next issue by reading some Pushkin, I have done my duty as his loyal follower.
Maya Garcia is a recovering Romantic and current graduate student specializing in music, literature, and youth cultures of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Originally from Southern California, she currently resides in Somerville, MA, where the climate is much more suitable for melancholic brooding. She writes and draws things as @gothshostakovich on Tumblr and @otterhouse_5 on Twitter.