There’s a theory that addiction is about trying, and failing, to recapture a first high. Whether that’s your first teenage romance, your first hit of heroin, or the first computer game you could not stop playing, well, that’s up to you.
My first addictive taste of grown-up comics was the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. I’d read some Marvel and plentiful 2000AD as a kid, but it was Gaiman’s series about Dream and his family (including personifications of Death, Destiny, and Desire) that blew me away as a teenager. I adored its wit, but was most amazed at how it retold history, fitting its characters into different mythologies, ancient and modern. The Norse gods, Shakespeare, John Constantine, and Tori Amos were all there. It made me lose any lingering shame I was too old to be reading comics and know I would carry on buying them for the rest of my life.
I was introduced to Sandman by my infinitely more comic-literate school friend Ben, and it was the gateway to graphic novels by writers including Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman and many others.
During my late 20s I fell slightly out of the comics habit, but in my 30s I got back into it — thanks, in part, to owning an iPad and the convenience of the online shop ComiXology. Beautiful books I’d recommend include March, a powerful non-fiction account of the US civil rights movement, The Fade Out, a terrific Hollywood noire, and Blankets, a touching memory about a first love. Generally, though, my regular go-to writer has been Brian K Vaughan. His Ex Machina series centred on a superhero who faces political decisions that are normally more challenging than the supervillains (my friend Chris, who recommended it, probably knew I’d dig any series in which characters pause to discuss the pros and cons of school voucher systems). I’ve enjoyed even more Vaughan’s recent Saga, a bonkers sci-fi epic about war and the practicalities of modern parenting. If you’ve missed it you have time to catch up as it has gone on an agonising year-long intermission after an especially cruel plot development.
However, despite adoring many of the above, in my heart I knew nothing would quite scratch the Sandman itch. Until, on a visit to a friend in LA a few years ago, I dropped by Meltdown Comics. It was empty on a Sunday morning, so the guy behind the counter was more than happy to chat about recommendations.
He appeared stunned when he learned I’d not been reading The Wicked + The Divine by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McElvie. “But you’re from London!” he blurted. I picked up the first trade paperback, and was soon caught up and reading every new issue on the day it came out.
The basic set-up for the series is this: every 90 years a group of a dozen young people transform into a mix of gods from different mythologies. And within two years they always die. It has happened before in different countries for centuries, and it has started again in London in 2014.
Our young gods are all fictional, but pop fans may notice that in their divine states they carry certain echoes of performers including Rihanna, Prince, Florence and the Machine, Bowie, Kanye and FKA Twigs, among others.
It sounds like it should be a comic for teenagers — and I do hope they have been reading it too — so I’ve been trying to figure out why I have been so utterly hooked. Perhaps it is because of its similarities to Sandman with its retelling of religions and mythology.
But I think there are three other, bigger reasons I adore it. Here we go.
1. It’s grounded in the city I love.
London’s been depicted in comics plentiful times before. But there is something about the gorgeous artwork by Jamie McKelvie and the very specific locations it features that makes the city feel more true to me than in any other series.
Some of the comic’s locations are well-known landmarks, such as the British Museum and The Shard, and some are fictional and fantastical, such as our heroes’ headquarters. But most are less obvious, real, in-between places.
My jaw dropped when I realised a crucial scene was taking place in The Buffalo Bar, a basement venue (now, sadly, closed) where I spent many evenings in my 20s and 30s at friends’ club nights. And not only did it depict the bar and its toilets, but it showed the patch of ground outside it by Highbury & Islington tube, and in a later edition even followed characters up and down through the station, through accurate renderings of its tunnels.
As someone who has spent days stuck in the Excel centre for work, I also laughed out loud reading a whole issue located there, complete with a fictional-but-accurate event map in which the restaurants had been given punning theological names. And, again, I was most struck by how scenes also occurred in obscure in-between places, particularly a nearby set of stairs that lead off from the walkway you cross when heading back to the tube.
The comic captures the mundane corners of London (such as the quiet terraces of Bromley, and the back streets of Bethnal Green) but also its magic (as an SW9 resident I was thrilled to spot the rococo flourishes inside Brixton Academy).
I suspect its strong sense of place must be noticeable even to readers who aren’t Londoners. It ensures the comic always keeps a foot on the ground, even when its young cast of popstar-demigod-superheroes don’t.
2. It treats its readers as intelligent
In 1995, when the web was still young, one of the first things I looked up was an annotated Sandman site where fans could unpack the comic book’s dense allusions.
The Wicked + The Divine invites similar exploration, as it is awash with references, largely to song lyrics but also to literature. The White Goddess by Robert Graves is touched on repeatedly. Two stand-alone comics in the series explore what the pantheons were like in previous centuries when the stars would have mainly been writers instead of pop singers.
The first, set in 1831, rewrites the time that Mary Shelley, Byron, Percy Shelley and friends told stories by Lake Geneva and Frankenstein was invented.
The second, set in 1923 , is an Agatha Christie type mystery featuring gods who include echoes of TS Eliot, Huxley, Orwell and Virginia Woolf (who in this has become a version of the Egyptian god “Set” — which gives just a taste of Gillen’s love of puns). One aspect that impressed me was how much the drama in the comic reflected John Carey’s critical book about writers during that era, The Intellectuals and the Masses. So I had a happy fanboy moment when I got a tweet from Gillen confirming it.
But there’s more to the comic’s intelligence than dropping clever references. Complex issues are dealt with deftly, and it helps that one of the lead characters — Cassandra — is a fiercely bright and cynical journalist. She also acts as an in-built form of self-criticism in the comic, pointing out when characters are problematic, and grumpily asking if its heroes are the “culturally appropriative Avengers”.
3. It actually seems to know where it’s going
The top reason why I’ve loved The Wicked + The Divine, though, is it has appeared from the outset that its creators know precisely where they are going.
TV has been awash with programmes that start strongly, but soon reveal that they’re just stringing things along for another series with no real conclusion in sight — Lost being the archetypal example, though the same criticism could be levelled at many others. Characters become popular, so become indispensable, and the creators end up just putting them together in different combinations and disappearing up their own mythology. The same also happens in comics.
But The Wicked + The Divine made it clear from its first issue that its characters had a time limit. More than that, it features a rich flow of major twists that has sent readers like me scurrying back to earlier issues to realise that the clues were planted there fairly, in plain sight, all along. This makes it a deeply satisfying read, and re-read.
We’re now just a few issues away from the end of the series. I’ve no idea if its creators will stick the landing. I’m confident they will. But at this point I wouldn’t mind too much if they didn’t as I feel that, as I reader, I’ve already been rewarded with lots of strong pay-offs to intriguing mysteries.
Plus I’ve now become so impressed by Gillen’s writing, I’ve been devouring his other comics, including the brilliant Phonogram (a must-read for fans of indie music) and his Darth Vader and Young Avengers series.
The one I’m most excited about though, is his new series DIE, now on only its second issue. It tells the story of a group of people who were lured into a fantasy world as teenagers back in the 1990s, then escaped, but are being drawn back in the present day, even though they are now 40-somethings with mortgages and emotional baggage.
It should be obvious from this blog why that one would be right up my street. Once more, I’m addicted.