Best Shots Reviews: THE WICKED + THE DIVINE #40, DIE #1

Die #1
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine #40
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Jamie McKelvie and Matt Wilson
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Scott Cederlund
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

Forget the revolution – it’s the apocalypse that’s going to be televised, downloaded, and streamed all over the world. We’ve already seen it happen on a small scale; think of any shaky, phone-camera video you’ve seen out of the venues and clubs in Manchester, Miami, Las Vegas, Paris or Thousand Oaks. Think of the people who were trying to remember the specialness of a night of music and then imagine the nightmares that are captured on their phones and in their memories. Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie, Matt Wilson and Clayton Cowles have seen the massacres the same ways that most of us have, through a screen, and have channeled that gleeful-worship-of-concert-going-turned-to-terrorized-fear in The Wicked + The Divine #40, the beginning of the end of this series.

This issue also returns to the beginning of the series, as Gillen and McKelvie bring the focus partly back on the fan experience. Before the rise, fall and transformation of Laura, she was a fan and we saw this pop vision of London through that perspective. Now, after everything that has happened in this series, Baal prepares to take the stage at the O2 for the last time as we experience the excitement through Pantheon fans Tom and Nathan’s cell phone camera. Queued out for days before the concert, just hoping to make it to the front row, these guys express everything it means to be a fan of pop music, from the sheer joy of holding a ticket in your hand to the more tender empathic connections we make thanks to what these songs mean and what they do to us.

Baal has been one of the more interesting pop gods in this series. (Okay, they’ve all been interesting.). As these gods are resurrected every 90 years to battle the Great Darkness, Baal knows what he needs to do and marches resolutely toward his destiny even as it tears him up. He’s the toughest and simultaneously the tenderest of the Pantheon. His blindness to how he has constantly been manipulated makes him the tragic figure of this series, the man who believes he’s doing the right thing even if it means damning his soul forever. Gillen and McKelvie show us a man, not a god, in this issue who has to believe that the ends justify the means of fighting the enemy. And that’s a great encapsulation of this series — the very human struggle between doing the right things, the things we want to do, and the things that need to be done.

McKelvie’s art remains the glue that is holding this whole thing together. Forty issues in and the continued sexiness of the story remain hard to ignore. It’s not that he’s drawing sexy people (although it’s hard to deny that some of them are very fine) but the confidence that he’s developed in his line creates an irresistible allure, even in the moments of horror. This issue is told almost exclusively through camera lenses, creating a grid structure that’s broken slightly only once for Minerva to have a direct conversation with an offscreen character even if it feels like she’s talking directly to us. Within the eye-of-the-camera structure of this issue, McKelvie and Wilson’s characters portray this constant struggle between delight and sadness as they march towards what they believe to be defining moments in their lives and careers.

Even with the impending apocalypse barreling down on the O2, this issue alternates between euphoric joy and existential dread, all based on what the characters do or do not know. That’s been the line that this series has walked and that this issue sharply steers into, the pleasure and pain principle that Gillen and McKelvie know are part of fandom and creation. There’s a reason that “The Wicked” get the top billing in this series, as they’re the ones with all of the power. The wicked ones get to be the puppet masters as the divine ones dance on their strings, trying to establish their own individuality even as they’re being manipulated.

In the real world, we’ve seen music venues turned into scenes of horrible violence. While The Wicked + The Divine #40 looks to be following down that same path, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie try to reclaim these spaces even as the world crumbles down around us all. After witnessing his friend Julie being harassed by other concertgoers, Tom steps up and helps her out of the situation. As he explains to Julie, “We’ve got to look after each other.” It’s a key moment in the series as up to know, it’s largely been about these “gods” looking out for themselves, often at the cost of each other. To go back to the fan perspective and to hear that out of a fan’s mouth, it centers what the remainder of the series has to be about, looking out for each other.

Credit: Image Comics

Die #1
Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10

If you were to preeminently judge Die #1 by both its title and premise –– in 1991, six kids play a role-playing game which affects the rest of their lives –– it would sound like Peak Kieron Gillen. Stretch out that description to 280 characters, and it’s the kind of pun you can find multiple examples of on his Twitter. Though this level of surface consideration does a disservice to the particular strain of melancholy contained within the issue –– as does the albeit succinct elevator pitch of “Jumanji for adults” –– there’s a sense of sadness and regret embedded in this story in such a way that it warrants comparisons to Stephen King’s It. In some ways, Die is Peak Gillen, from the teenage cast that’s introduced in the opening scene, to the fascination with obsession –– giving your life over to something –– and pop culture, to how it takes just six pages before the word “goth” is uttered. But at the same time, this feels like new territory for him to mine.

Starting in 1991, Gillen’s story is presented with a tinge of horror by way of Stephanie Hans’ painterly work. They’ve collaborated previously, on the Journey into Mystery finale as well as a haunting issue of The Wicked + The Divine, though this is her first ongoing book; with this particular collaboration, 2018 saved one of its strongest, and most confident, debuts for the end. Dominic and his sister Angela are on the way to Sol’s, his best friend with whom he shares a birthday. The looming trees and bleak look of the detached houses which line the street and Dominic’s narration suggests an encroaching darkness. Told in retrospect, the effect is akin to dredging up memories that were long repressed but imprinted on a mind all the same.

Dominic knows what happens next of course –– “We had no clue” –– yet wishes something else had taken place. Sol’s running a game, six participants all in all, the three already mentioned plus Chuck, Isabelle and Matthew. Their introductions are in a decidedly lower key compared to the gods of The Wicked + the Divine, though they feel more grounded in these first glimpses. The game they play is treated with reverence and importance. Each decides their character, which determines their specific die, and then it all begins…

Gillen, Hans and Clayton Cowles give just enough about the players to drastically alter them, when the audience sees them next, jumping from 1981 to a brief interlude in 1983 before catching up to the present day when the bulk of the story unfolds. But that’s the way it goes when you don’t see someone for months, isn’t it? With this time jump, Die begins to dig into what it’s laid out thus far. What happened when they played greatly affected them, so much so that they don’t speak of it, in fact they don’t really speak at all. Dominic knows that Chuck’s a successful writer and that Matt’s a teacher but is unsure about if Isabelle is too. Angela herself makes games, he can never understand how she possibly could after all that’s happened. Whatever has happened?

Both Gillen and Hans have a history with games, that much is stated in the back-matter when the former also breaks down what led to this book’s creation. As such, the understanding around how teenagers have an inclination to invest much of their identity at that formative age into whatever they like rings true. Here it plays out as a worst-case scenario around those circumstances, that the past twenty-five years have been wholly affected by the game, and they’ve had to hold on to that in silence since. Trauma bleeds onto Hans’ pages, the sadness in Dom’s eyes is palpable, and it has not just affected the core six, the inability to move on has rippled through those around them, but don’t hate the player; hate that godforsaken game for what it did to them.

A sequence set in the rain is what leads them all to come back together, and it’s Hans’ most stunning work in the book. The surroundings glisten, as Dominic and Angela rush out onto the street, the red and blue that make up the colour palette of the surrounding area becomes abstracted, just stretches of color rather than adding texture to particular objects or buildings. In one particular panel, the pair are shown in profile, her hand on his shoulder, his head crestfallen. Everything behind them a blur, the effect disassociates the pair from contemporary space and time. All they have is each other, at least this connection’s managed to survive all they’ve been through.

Hopefully none of this reads as being coy, just with an issue where the characters themselves are having to withhold what’s going on, it feels wrong to get there before they have a chance to. To make up for that, know that the fantasy elements do come into play towards the end and just from this brief glimpse, it’s clear that Hans was the right choice of artist for this book, creating a rich setting and a distinct party of characters through her designs. In this setting, there is a link to The Wicked + The Divine – it is happening again. Only there’s no period of seeing god-like pop stars do residences and performances. Everyone here involved wishes it didn’t happen at all. But it has, and in their words: “We’re all going to live with the choice.” Die #1 is about what we carry with us in life, what we leave behind, and which of these will end up having more tragic implications as the echoes of adolescence reverberate through adulthood.

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