Reading 'The Wicked and The Divine' makes me feel like an out of touch grandparent, confused and little irritated by youthful posturing I'm not sure I want to understand. I should admit I am biased on this front, I am coming off of three and a half years of a liberal arts college, and Kieron Gillen has a knack for capturing the all too familiar voices of self-important youths. Tumblr-friendly discussions of entitlement, sexuality, and privilege mixed with meme-worthy references is an on-the-nose recreation pop-pretentiousness as it really exists, and in all likelihood this is a mark of Gillen's talent. But 'The Wicked and the Divine' remains a book without a central character to enjoy or admire which would get me past the distasteful portrayals of youth culture. It's a book that continues to feel like a stylish exercise in comic-making without a soul. Of course, those criticisms go for the first two volumes as well, so why did I hang on to read a third volume? Well firstly, Gillen's mythos, as hard to parse as it often is, contains some interesting ideas that I still hope to see explored more fully. But more importantly, to accommodate series artist Jamie McKelvie working on Gillen's Phonogram, volume three boasts Brandon Graham, Leila Del Duca, and Tula Lotay (and others) in its temporary artist lineup. It's hard to turn down new work by any one of these artists and having them all working together made this an attractive venture. Using this star-roster of artists, Gillen spends six issues fleshing out the backstories of his teenage pantheon while progressing the story of the God killer. In other words, volume three is something a little different for the series, and in places, is quite successful.
Volume three explores the back story of a number of characters who have until now been in the periphery. We get the story of the cynically hedonistic Woden, the objectified Tara, the goth-y (no better word for her) Morrigan, the kind-hearted Ametarasu, and the cannibal cat lady Sakhmet. Each of these stories progresses the overall story of the brewing war and search for the semi-wrongfully accused Baphomet, but more importantly slow the pace down a little and give the world a lived-in quality that has been severely lacking up to this point. It remains a fundamental problem with the series that the laws of the mythology are a central element but are never clearly laid out. The rules for who becomes a god, what being a god entails, and what the motivations are of the various pop-star gods remains maddeningly absent, often making it feel like chunks of story are simply missing outright from otherwise compelling issues. To put it simply, no matter how stylish the art and how clever the dialogue, it is never quite clear what is actually happening.
And make no mistake, the art is very, very stylish. The artists each perform admirably even if some styles fit better than others (as is to be expected from a series defined by the signature style of a single artist). Specifically, Tula Lotay's work is astounding here, managing to make the heart-breaking (if a bit overtly preachy) story of Tara even more poignant. On the other hand, Brandon Graham's art, which is as gorgeous as ever, is likely the least fitting, feeling oddly cartoon-y and making the characters look radically different from their normal appearances. But again, with artists of this caliber, there's very little to fault from the visual side of the book.
My fundamental question with "The Wicked and the Divine" is 'what is all this actually about?' Gillen seems to be telling a story about pop-culture celebrity, social progressiveness, and perhaps even a little religion (though this seems mostly to be window dressing). Three volumes in, it's unclear what we're supposed to be taking away from the constant violence, sex, and horrible behavior found in the book. It's ridiculously polished and stylish but still feels like it amounts to less than the sum of its parts.
Discussing this book online recently, a sharp reader suggested to me that the book is less strange and off-putting if you consider it as simply focusing on an element of fan-culture usually excluded from comics in favor of nerdier endeavors. And in fact a number of the criticisms I have about lack of focus and confusing world-building would likely apply to 'East of West' a book I love immensely (they even share some graphic design elements). In that light, perhaps the book succeeds in building its own stylized comicbook world, albeit with a subject matter that leaves me cold.
I don't quite buy this interpretation, but it would explain why I find the book simultaneously fascinating and off-putting. Personally, I think even if the pop-culture focus is considered a plus, the book could use more clarity in its characterization (too much of the cast remains petulant children) and a little less teenage-angst masquerading as philosophy. I apologize if this all comes off more as my clarifying my relationship to the book than an actual review. I can't see anyone who dislikes the book being won over by this volume, or any fans being turned away.
The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 3 Writer: Kieron Gillen Artists: Kate Brown, Tula Lotay, Leila Del Duca, Brandon Graham, Jamie McKelvie, Stephanie Hans Publisher: Image Comics Price: $ 14.99 Release Date: 2/3/16 Format: TPB; Print/Digital