R. R. Reno
I just finished Malcolm Muggeridge's Chronicles of Wasted Time, an autobiographical tour de force. Muggeridge was born into a democratic socialist family and married the niece of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Leftist royalty in early twentieth-century England. But a year as a journalist in Moscow at the outset of Stalin's purges caused him to lose his faith, and Muggeridge's became one of the great skeptics of twentieth century truisms, both Left and Right—a skepticism eventually reinforced and given warmth and humanity by his conversion to Christianity. A gifted writer and acerbic wit, every page of Muggeridge's front row seat to the ideological (and military) conflicts of the last century is a joy to read.
As the summer came to a close, I caught up on one of the most talked-about comic books of the moment, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked and the Divine. I read the first two volumes of the series, which have come out in trade paperback. What I found was an absurdly high concept book that painted a mythology for millennials in eye-popping color.
Here’s the premise: every century or so, a pantheon of gods (figures from various mythologies like Minerva, Woden, and the Morrigan) incarnate in the form of young pop-stars with miraculous charisma. These young people lead ordinary lives; find out sometime in their teens about their larger-than-life calling; and then get to be variously idolized, famed, and reviled—and die an untimely death before two years are out.
This complicated conceit pays off in two major ways. Firstly, the book’s creators get to have a lot of fun blending pagan gods and pop icons. For example, Baal’s avatar bears a marked resemblance to noted self-idolater Kanye West, and Lucifer appears as a young women aping David Bowie’s Thin White Duke-era fashion sense. Secondly, the analogy of the pantheon to pop music allows the creative team to examine the fleeting godhood of fame in the Internet age. Our protagonist is a British girl named Laura who’s an obsessive fan of the gods. She also aspires to somehow wrangle a godhood for herself, ignoring the strong foreshadowing that such a course will cost her dearly.
McKelvie’s art is gorgeous, aided by Matt Wilson’s bold colors. Kieron Gillen crafts a twisty, unpredictable narrative. His characterization nails the anxious narcissism of youth—These child-god-celebrities make all the bad choices one might expect from directionless young people given instant fame and a death sentence. Though the gods are ancient, Gillen’s pantheon is up-to-the-minute progressive: there’s a trans character and most gods seem to be bisexual by default. They’re crafted exactly to be the idols of this era.
On some level, Gillen sympathizes with his young characters’ “live fast, die young, leave a decapitated corpse” mentality. He has mentioned that the some of his inspiration for this series came from his father’s cancer diagnosis, so clearly thoughts of fading away versus burning out are on his mind. But Gillen is older and wiser than his cast, so he doesn’t ignore the chaos his hedonist heroes leave in their wake. After the characters party for an issue with Dionysus, Laura tells the god she thinks his euphoric aura is the best of all the miraculous powers the pantheon is granted. Then Dionysus ruefully admits his power’s drawback. “I don’t sleep,” he says, and for a moment, the divine glamor clears from his face, and we see the bloodshot, anxious eyes of a young man living as if earth could be Olympus.