The Wicked + The Divine has always been a comic obsessed with the end. “In two years, they are dead,” the blurbs have promised since the very first issue. It’s taken five years, but with the release of this week’s issue #45, that end has now come.
We met with the series’ co-creators, writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie, to discuss how a comic about death and youth became a story about growing up, and how it’s rewritten their careers as creators.
[Ed. note: This post contains a bunch of spoilers for The Wicked + The Divine.]
Teen age riot
The Wicked + The Divine’s origins lie in Gillen and McKelvie’s previous series together at Marvel, Young Avengers. Starring a teenage team of superheroes, the book’s inventive approach to action — and a diversity in its cast that was still unusual for the Marvel Universe at the time — quickly attracted a loyal fanbase.
Gillen and McKelvie did a 12-month stint on the book, from January 2013 to January 2014, and were offered the chance to do another year’s worth of issues. The pair had been working together for nearly a decade at this point, and this was by far their biggest hit. They considered Marvel’s offer, briefly, then turned it down.
“We’d done what we wanted to do with the book,” McKelvie says. “I mean, you love the characters, you like working with them and you’d like to see more of them, but you have to know when is the right time to walk away. And that was the right time for us.”
“We spent our entire careers hoping to do an ongoing book of our own that actually sold,” Gillen says. “And we were very aware of: We have a well-reviewed book and a chance to do something new and aesthetically pure, we’ve got a lot of eyes on us. This is our once-in-a-career chance to make it work. You’ve got to take that swing.”
And so the entire Young Avengers creative team (Gillen, McKelvie, colorist Matt Wilson and letterer Clayton Cowles) agreed to make something new, a creator-owned book published by Image Comics. It would tell the story of a dozen gods — the Pantheon — who reincarnated as teenage pop stars, inspired equally by mythological figures and real ones. A Woden who remixed the one-eyed god into a mask-wearing DJ, a Lucifer who mashed up David Bowie with the devil herself.
A working title, ‘Young Gods’, had to be dropped because the name had already been used, first by a Marvel superteam in the ‘80s and then by legendary artist Barry Windsor-Smith for a series he launched in the ‘90s. But Gillen says he doesn’t think they would have gone ahead with the title anyway – emphasizing the connection to Young Avengers so nakedly “felt too cynical and parasitic.”
Nevertheless, the two books had one major thing in common: an ensemble cast of teenagers who, under the pen of McKelvie, looked and dressed like real teenagers in the early 21st century, with all the representation — of race, gender and sexuality — which comes along with that. “If we were to start a superhero universe now, instead of in the ‘30s or the ‘60s, what would it look like?” says McKelvie. “This is our world in 2014. This is the city we live in. This is everything that isn’t reflected in the origins of those universes.”
Godhood in The Wicked + The Divine comes with just one catch: It’s a terminal condition. After ascending to the Pantheon, each character has two years to live.
Death was guaranteed from the start, and the book repeatedly delivered, with a bodycount to rival Game of Thrones’. The book’s lead, Laura, started out as a fan, before ascending to godhood — and immediately being killed off. Or so it seemed.
It later turned out that Laura had cheated death, but lost her entire family in the process. As the plot continued to twist and turn, The Wicked + The Divine kept the focus on Laura’s grief, depression and self-destructive behavior.
The premise played with pop-cultural myths like the 27 Club and “live fast, die young.” But as the series progressed, it began to ask hard questions. What kind of person would buy into these myths? “I hope I die before I get old” — who would want to believe that about themselves?
Eventually, Laura started to ask these questions of herself. Godhood, she realized, was a trap. And maybe there was a way out.
Back in 2014, before the first issue had landed on shelves, Gillen already had most of this five-year story inside his head. Comics writing can often be a process of month-to-month improvisation, especially if you’re working for a publisher which decides who is on a title and when they’re off it. And there was certainly some of that here — “other stuff kind of slid into place when writing, and some of it came really late,” Gillen says — but making a creator-owned book, with an established audience behind them, gave the team more chance to decide their own destiny. And the destiny of their characters, too: who would die, and when, and who would live.
At the outset, Gillen shared the broad strokes with McKelvie and Chrissy Williams, the book’s editor. “Obviously, it’s changed a lot since the bible,” McKelvie says, referring to the document where Gillen laid out the series, as opposed to the religious text (although both heavily feature Lucifer). “But the last issue hasn’t, really.” He looks over to Gillen. “You always knew what the last lines were.”
Knowing the complete shape of the story allowed the team to build in some incredible foreshadowing, and layers of hints that seem perfectly obvious on a reread. But this approach came with downsides.
I comment that reading the final issue a couple of weeks early left me feeling a little lonely, without anyone to talk to about it. “I felt lonely for five years,” Gillen says.
Concealing the plot’s various twists proved stressful. “Fundamentally, I’d been lying to all my friends for four years,” Gillen says of one major revelation, three-quarters of the way into the story. “It was worth doing. But I will never do anything like that ever again.”
The biggest challenge, though, was being bound to ideas that — by the time the book was wrapping up — were half a decade old. “There’s definitely things that, as I got towards the end of WicDiv, I thought: I’m not sure I would do this now,” Gillen says. The Wicked + The Divine touches on some very sensitive material — abusive relationships, abortions, suicide — and, says Gillen, “if it wasn’t the Titanic already heading in that direction, I’m not sure I would have done it.”
“That’s part of the process, learning that over the course of the book,” adds McKelvie. “Making a book this long — which neither of us have ever done before and probably will never do again — you are trapped in the decisions you made five years ago. And you’re not the same person you were five years ago.”
It’s a similar story for McKelvie’s art. “When you’re drawing month to month, you don’t have the time, really, to experiment and to change as much as I’d like,” he says. “I’m better now than I was five years ago, but I’ve had to stay within the same style of the book, and haven’t been able to push it in directions I want to push it in. And so I’ve been trapped in that, especially in the last two years, which can be frustrating.”
[Ed. note: The rest of this piece contains major spoilers for the final two issues of The Wicked + The Divine. Read at your peril!]
The Wicked + The Divine’s Pantheon are also trapped within the grand design of a story — albeit it one rather longer, and with much more malevolent intent behind it. We gradually learn that the gods are part of a six-thousand-year cycle, the guarantee of their deaths just a by-product of one character’s plot to become immortal.
In The Wicked + The Divine #44, the book’s penultimate issue, Laura manages to break this cycle. The villain is dispatched, the two-year expiration removed, leaving just one question for the final issue to answer: What next?
Waiting for the great leap forward
Right from the beginning, The Wicked + The Divine made a promise: by the time it was over, the book’s entire cast would be dead. But Laura helped break that promise and give these doomed characters a future — one that the final issue picks up 40 years later.
At a time when it’s increasingly difficult to believe that any of us have 40 years of future left, it is optimistic and heartbreaking and beautiful to see how these characters (the ones who survived, at least) grew over the course of a lifetime. Dialogue hints at the ways they’ve changed but, as has often been the case in this series, a lot of the heavy lifting is left to McKelvie’s wonderful character designs and facial expressions.
“It’s a light touch, because the more you say about the world, and the more you say about the individuals, the specifics of their life, the more it closes off the options,” Gillen says. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life doing the J.K. Rowling thing, and saying, ‘Umar was married to...’ I know what I think, but it’s not in the book. My headcanons don’t count.”
Looking at what is on the page, though — how exactly does an artist go about taking the characters they created, and aging them up by forty years?
“The path of their lives, into who they are as 60-year-olds, felt quite natural in terms of what they look like,” McKelvie says. “The thing I did for each of them was to take a specific person who’s been famous for all their life — because then that means I’ve got access to a lot of reference photos of somebody young, somebody old, but the same person — and see how those people’s lives affect their faces, then apply that to these characters in a way that works for them.”
Filling in the details yourself, based on a couple of lines of dialogue and the lines of their face, is a little like watching someone else’s life flash before your eyes. It can be very affecting — and not just for readers.
“Me and Jamie, when we saw the Laura cover [to #45], we both got very emotional about it,” Gillen says. “For me, I’m twenty years between the two of them. Twenty years younger, I’d be Laura. Twenty years older, I’ll be Laura then.
“And the idea of this person you’ve been with all this time, to then see that gap… Especially at our place in life, it’s a hell of a thing.”
No rest for the Wicked
Gillen has always been open about the fact that the gods each represent an aspect of himself — a person he is or has been and, in most cases, doesn’t want to be any more — and that The Wicked + The Divine is, in part, a way of exorcising those aspects of his personality. So, after five years, has it worked?
“There’s definitely some things I’m over,” he says. “It’s all a process.”
And is that a result of making the comic, or just a case of getting older? “I think the book has given me some degree of peace. The process of doing it was definitely saying goodbye to a load of stuff, and in ways which were not always comfortable.”
McKelvie’s experience has been very different, colored by the harsh practicalities of drawing a comic on a monthly basis. “It’s one of those things where I’ll have to look back properly, and give it some serious thought — because one of the things with this book is that, for me, it’s always been ‘I just have to get this issue done, I have to get this next issue done’,” he says.
“There’s a lot of stuff that I have been putting off for at least three years, because this takes up all my time. In both senses, personally and professionally. So it’s going to be interesting to see how I approach that now, compared to how I would have done five years ago.”
Once in a lifetime
The final issue of The Wicked + The Divine brings this five-year run to a close, but its significance for the team actually stretches a little further. Since the first issue of Phonogram in 2006, Gillen and McKelvie have been fused together into a kind of gestalt comics creator. “People think of us as the same person,” McKelvie says. “Which is obviously horrific, because that means they attribute his puns to me.”
But now the band is breaking up. The pair have no plans to ever do another project of comparable length together, and the four-piece known as ‘Team WicDiv’ – Gillen, McKelvie, Wilson, Cowles – are scattered to the wind. “There’s tangential stuff that me and Kieron are working on, but Matt’s not really part of that,” McKelvie says. “So yeah, that’s the end of the team. All over. Now it’s just time for our solo projects.”
“The WicDiv Wings period,” Gillen offers.
McKelvie laughs, then counters: “I was thinking more like [New Order and the Smiths’ side project] Electronic.”
The double-act dynamic, at least, remains strong. So how do the two of them look back on their time together on The Wicked + The Divine, designed to be the book of their career?
“You know when people talk about like, ‘oh, remember that one issue they did that?’ There’s normally one per series or something like that,” Gillen says. “Yeah, we did seven of them.” He’s not wrong — there’s the issue set to a club beat, the one that remixed panels from previous issues, the one that was a fashion magazine, the one that squeezed six thousand years of human history into eleven pages…
“We were never not trying, for better or worse,” Gillen says. “We were very aware we’d never get to do this again.”
“In my position, you might expect a lot of people to try and cut corners, to just get through things,” McKelvie says. “And like, I can’t for this book. It has to be this physically tolling on me, because this is what it has to be.”
McKelvie confirms that he has a plan to reduce that pressure on his future work, but The Wicked + The Divine was never going to be that kind of book. It was the result of a plan, cooked up back in 2014, which paid off. Unexpectedly so, maybe.
Gillen, McKelvie and their collaborators got to keep the stage they had at Marvel, but with the freedom of doing whatever they wanted on it. Team WicDiv spent five years making the most of that stage, creating something that’s weird and personal and challenging, and often all at once. But how do they want The Wicked + The Divine to be remembered?
“I hope the kids rip us off,” says Gillen. “That’ll be good.”