Baby, They're the Old Romantics: The Wicked + The Divine 1831

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine is one of the best, most popular and most critically-acclaimed comics published by Image. If you haven’t read it, it’s set in an alternate version of our world, where every ninety years twelve young people become reincarnations of deities from the world’s many mythologies while simultaneously embodying the primary creative aesthetics of the period of each Recurrence. They are loved. They are hated. They will be dead in two years.

The series explores fandom (both its good and bad sides), the journey from fan to creator – and, naturally, death. The story is focused on the 21st century Pantheon, where each of the deities represents a different genre of pop music, while also maintaining a lot of the superhero sensibilities. Just look at the fight sequence at the end of the first volume and tell me it would look out of place in one of Kieron Gillen’s Marvel works. The recent story arc has reached the turning point of the overall plot, and in the break between the next one hits, the creators put out a special one-shot, telling the story of one of the Patheons past. More specifically, the 19th century one, during its last days.

The main series channels pop music and superhero comics. The glimpse we got into the 20th century Pantheon suggests the swinging 20s influence (and a quick The Invisibles reference). The one presented in this one-shot is rooted in the biggest obsession of its time – Romanticism.

Romanticism, which evolved partially in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, focused primarily on emotion and return to nature. And not in a calm, pleasant manner; it was originated by a movement in German literature and music called "Sturm und Drang", which literally translates into "storm and urge" (though it’s conventionally translated as "storm and stress"). Romantic creators focused in individuality and extreme emotions; one of  "Sturm und Drang’s" most influential novels, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, told the story of the titular man falling deeply in love with a woman and, unable to handle rejection, committing suicide. By the way, the book is also responsible for the creation of what might be the world’s first fandom; called "Werther’s Fever" (because "Wertherdom" isn’t academic enough), it caused young men to dress in a manner similar to Werther’s (cosplay), act out his obsessive crush, and buy themed merchandise (porcelain, perfumes and prints). In less amusing news, a number of fans emulated the main character to the point of actually committing suicide. So if you thought the period was picked by Kieron "None More Goth" Gillen at random, guess again; even if the one-shot doesn’t make the connection outright, it’s not coincidental this is the comic’s setting. In fact, the entire Romantic period gave birth to what we know call as a "fan".

As for nature, Romanticism emphasized dark, nighttime or stormy depiction of it, favoring local landscapes of Europe’s northern regions than previously preferred warm, Mediterranean ones. In fact, one could take note that the goth subculture is a return of that particular, darker aesthetic. A Recurrence, if you will. "Once again, we return."

But let’s get to the actual issue. Telling the story of the tail end of its Pantheon, it begins with the death of Hades and only gets darker as the plot goes on. The remaining four gods gather in Lucifer’s mansion in the deep dark woods. Those are, in the order of the below panels, Morrigan, Inanna, Woden, and their host. The choice of characters is, again, not coincidental. All of them are also part of the 21st Pantheon, showing that even though they are reincarnations of the same deities, their personality traits are completely different, more reflective of who they were before becoming gods than of the gods themselves. 21st century Woden is a coward, an opportunist and a creep; his Romantic counterpart is cold and regal. Modern day Inanna is kind and gentle; the 19th century one is more than a little selfish.

What’s more, the choice of deities is another example of Kieron Gillen using his research to good effect. Both Woden and Morrigan come from northern European mythologies (German and Celtic, respectively), the popularity of which grew in Romanticism, in its followers’ drive to return to primal aesthetic and rebellion against the classical Greek and Roman influences. Inanna represents an interest in Orient, which also played a part in this period. And as for Lucifer, Romantic literature is when the devil has been imbued with heroic traits, starting with William Blake’s Paradise Lost, and later embraced by (among others) Lord Byron, who this particular Lucifer is modeled after. Heck, even the presentation of a certain major character from the series – whose identity, to avoid spoilers for people new to the series, will be unrevealed – is closer to their Faustian origin, and more menacing than ever.

The story focuses on the meeting, and the events surrounding it, reinterpreting story beats from many works of Romantic literature (including a certain "world’s first science fiction novel"), darker and more tragic.  It’s closer to a Gothic novel, the precursor of a horror genre, where fear, terror, and a menacing atmosphere are an aim of the writer and their audience. The subject matter helps the comic’s tone; it’s unlikely childbirth, which is an important part of the issue, will ever be be used in the series’ main setting.

The atmosphere is definitely increased by Stephanie Hans’s gorgeous artwork. She takes to the period like Jamie McKelvie does to the main series’ pop sensibilities, creating stunning locations and modelling the deities in the image of major Romantic figures.

Clever and creative as typical for the series, The Wicked + The Divine 1831 remixes some of its themes in a new setting, providing a glimpse into one of the past Pantheons and opening up new mysteries to be uncovered. It’s a must-read for the fans of the series.

The Wicked + The Divine 1831 #1 is written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Stephanie Hans, and published by Image Comics. You can it at your local comic shop or on comiXology.

Dominik Zine is a nerdy lad from northeastern Poland and is generally found in a comfy chair with a book in hand.