Acclaimed Comic The Wicked + The Divine Argues for the Value of Pop Culture

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Photo: Image Comics

The idea for The Wicked + The Divine came to writer Kieron Gillen right after his father was diagnosed with a terminal illness. In his best-selling Image Comics book, 12 gods are reborn every 90 years, and within 2 years they’ll be dead. “In a way, The Wicked + The Divine is my response to mortality,” he said. “The book’s fundamental question is: life is really, really short. Why the hell be an artist?”

To explore that question, Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie created a cast of volatile teenage characters and imbued them with the powers of gods from every corner of mythology. Gillen threw in his favorites — Baal (a Middle Eastern storm god), the Morrigan (a three-faced Irish goddess of fate and death), and Lucifer (you know that one) — and dreamed up a teenage Londoner named Laura, whom he calls “the heart of the book,” to knit them all together. They turned the gods into pop stars and made their primary adherents teenage fans. Then, they killed everyone off.

To Gillen’s relief, despite his and McKelvie’s tendency to make the heads of main characters explode, fans have stuck with the book. The Wicked + The Divine, or, as many refer to it, WickDiv, is one of Image's most popular books; retailers bought more than 40,000 copies of the first issue when it came out in June 2014, and the book has retained a consistent audience over the almost two years it’s been in print. Issue #18 is out today, and Gillen spoke to Vulture ahead of its release about his choice to write a bisexual female lead, how he gets inside the teenage brain, and the series’s take on popular culture.

Between The Wicked + The Divine and your other books like Young Avengers, you tend to write a lot of teenage characters. How do you depict that type of angst so precisely?
The interesting thing about teenagers is the transitional nature of them. As a teenager, you tend to fuck up much harder — you make some interestingly formative mistakes because it’s the first time you’re kind of wrestling with issues about yourself and the way you interact with the world. I was also really falling apart when I started writing WickDiv, and I felt more teenage than I had for 15 years. You could describe it as a heightened emotional state — a kind of personal life whirlwind — so a lot of that stuff naturally went into it. Sometimes I look back at how I was then, and I’m surprised the book makes as much sense as it does.

I also try to think of writing as methodized empathy. It’s a wonky writer thing to say, but a lot of it is respecting the truth of the characters. These are real emotional performances, and it’s essential to stay true to what these characters are feeling. That’s what I try to do.

So The Wicked + The Divine contains autobiographical elements?
Absolutely. Each characters is kind of an essential problem I have with my personality — an aspect of myself I’m trying to wrestle with — but fractured like a kaleidoscope. 

And they’ll all be dead in two years.
That’s the weirdest thing about WickDiv: At the start of every issue we say, “These characters are all dead within two years.” And then people are surprised when we kill someone off! Every time we make a big move we think, “Will this be the one that breaks the book?” But people have gone with us, and I hope they’ll let us take them all the way to wherever it ends.

Where did you draw inspiration for the main character, Laura?
Laura is an embodiment of many frustrations. One of the major things I drew upon in writing her was my own experience discovering comics in my early 20s and having that feeling of, ‘I really want to do this, but I suck.’

At the end of the first arc she does one magical thing, and she spends the rest of the second arc trying to do it again. That represents the period when, as a creator, you’re doing the work and it’s not magic. You might be doing the exact same thing as you did before, and it worked brilliantly then, but now the magic is not there. Putting a huge amount of work into something and then seeing that the work you’ve done is utter bullshit — that’s hard.

Photo: Image Comics

She’s very complicated, deliberately designed so, in that the other characters are a pure statement of a problem, and Laura has to deal with them all. She has these enormous sweeps of altruism, and then you’ve got these bits where she does phenomenally selfish things. She admits so many ugly things about herself, and that’s what so powerful about her: She might say something you recognize but don’t necessarily like. She’s not easy to like. But the complicated response people have to her is, I think, one of the strengths of the book.

Did she come to you fully formed, or did you make a conscious decision to write her as a mixed-race, bisexual London teen?
Laura and I live in a similar area, so I would see girls on the bus and think, ‘In five years’ time when you might want to read comics, I would like there to be someone you can read about who looks like you.’

In many ways The Wicked + The Divine is based on the fandom of a teenage girl. But in pop culture, objects of female adoration are often trivialized. Why the choice to take that concept so seriously here?
A lot of that is just basic boring sexism; female compulsion and desire and interest is always undermined while male fandom is taken more seriously. But Jamie and I grew up with a lot of female heroes, so the idea of taking female fandom seriously was natural to us. In fact, the first story we ever wrote was about being inspired by feminist pop art and not always living up to its ideals, so that’s right at the heart of it.

The sheer rapture art inspires is something I take incredibly seriously no matter where it comes from, and I’m suspicious of people who don’t. If you’re in the business of creating art but you don’t trust that response, it’s a bit like being an atheist priest.

Photo: Image Comics

The series was optioned for TV by Universal last summer. Are there any updates on that front?
Nothing really worth talking about. It’s TV stuff, so it moves on TV time. Nothing disastrous has happened; it’s just kind of ambling along. Jamie and I are interested in finding people who want to do a good adaptation — we want someone who actually gets what the book is about. We designed WickDiv to be a comic, so a lot of what we do is impossible to recreate in a form that isn’t comics.

Some of the gods in the book are clearly based on cultural icons like Prince and David Bowie. When you’re creating a character, do you come up with the pop star or the deity first?
It can go either way. Sometimes when we’re making the gods we think, ‘Okay, we want to use this pop star archetype,’ but sometimes it’s, ‘Okay we want to use this god, therefore which pop star will they be?’ With Inanna [the Sumerian god of love and fertility] we thought of the Prince archetype first, but we wanted to use Baal before we thought of a pop star equivalent. Occasionally we come up with them at the same time. For instance, Lucifer was never anything but a gender-switched David Bowie.

Photo: Image Comics

When Bowie died, so many people posted photos of Luci from the book. That must’ve been cool to see.
Did you see the date? The day Luci died in the comic was the day after Bowie died.

You’re kidding.
Luci died on January 11. Bowie died on January 10, 2016, but it was the 11th by the time we found out. I will say, that really did weird us out.

I can imagine.
Bowie was definitely a symbol for us. All the creative people I’ve ever known admire him for what he did during his lifetime, especially in his last years. He’s made a lot of people buck up their ideas; there’s a general feeling of “If even David Bowie dies, I need to get a move on.” Jamie has responded to Bowie’s death in that he’s really tried to push himself, and some of the stuff he’s doing with the new art, the action, the emotion, is an enormous step up.

There’s a line Baal drops in issue four — something like, “We don’t get to change the world, we just get to inspire you and then you get to change it.” That’s very much the Bowie effect: the idea that by changing culture you influence more people, therefore you create more change.

Speaking of influencing culture, what sort of response have you gotten from fans of The Wicked + The Divine?
Honestly, the response people have to WickDiv has been very powerful. We went on a signing tour, and at one signing two people said, “Your story helped me come out.” I was biting back tears. The idea you can have that kind of impact on somebody’s life is astounding. I meet people to whom I clearly mean the world, but you have to remember it’s not really about you — it’s about the work. It’s about them talking to themselves. You’re just a conduit for whatever experience they’re going through.

Photo: Image Comics

There’s a scene in issue six when Laura gets into an argument with David Blake, a middle-aged scholar of god lore who doesn’t think her generation deserves the gods they have. Laura seems to come out on top of that argument. Is that you sticking up for Millennials?
I’m more on Laura’s side than on David Blake’s side. The old always dismiss the young — that’s something that’s gone on forever and will continue to go on. That’s part of the conflict at the heart of WickDiv: It’s a book about cycles, but it’s also a book about change. It’s easy to feel cynical and to say everything has been done before, but there are also transformative things and things that have been done before but are different now because of the context in which they occur. Pop culture is difficult to take seriously and simultaneously the most important thing in the world. And there’s an implicit part of WickDiv that says pop culture now is as good as pop culture has ever been.