Whenever I encounter a piece of fiction with characters straight out of mythology, I pause. Half of me craves it—the part of me that’s a raging geek for all things mythological, from Olympian gods to Sumerian demons to wayang kulit to narco saints. There’s something cozy in re-encountering the familiar, something exciting in spotting details you spent a long time acquiring knowledge of.
And half of me knows I’m going to be disappointed, especially when we’re talking about gods. Gods make for terrible characters. How do you present someone more than human making them relatable without diminishing what ought to make them alien? With ancient gods, how do you present something that’s so intrinsically linked to the culture that birthed it in a way that connects to your modern audience? More often than not, it feels less like Paradise Lost and more like Big Brother—shallow, zany, and full of jokes about banging swans.
When my brother-in-law gave me the first volume of The Wicked + The Divine last Christmas, I paused. In this version of the world, every ninety years, twelve gods are incarnated in twelve young people, becoming the Pantheon. They gain supernatural abilities and extraordinary fame—and in two years they’re all dead. Teenaged and twenty-something gods. Gods as pop stars. The second half of me prepared to cringe.
It never happened.
Written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Jamie McKelvie, The Wicked + The Divine manages to bring deities onto the page and make them feel godlike and relatable. Watching Laura, the normal teenaged fan of the Pantheon, interact with the likes of Lucifer and Amaterasu and Sakhmet blurs the line between fangirl and supplicant in a way that seals the comparison—and makes it clear that it’s not a drawn-out joke. The Pantheon are larger than life and demand devotion in a way that’s not so much a request as a natural reaction. Nonbelievers may challenge their status, Laura’s parents may think she’s obsessed, but through her eyes we see the Pantheon as something bigger, something more real than real.
By using the way we interact with music and celebrity, Gillen finds an excellent analogy for the divine and the worshipper. That otherworldliness, that sense that the Pantheon are beyond or above Laura, is balanced by the glimpses we get into their pasts, the mortal selves subsumed by the gods’ personalities. There’s a pathos here, a sense that the god understands and still is the host. Lucifer remarks on her past self’s passive rebellion with a note of chagrin. Inanna speaks of an all-consuming anxiety that’s fled in the wake of divinity and imminent demise with a tenderness for the wallflower-who-was. In between the human and the divine, the interaction encapsulates what the god is in a way that resonates immediately.
Plus I can’t deny that it’s fun to play “spot the inspiration.” Lucifer as a female Thin White Duke-era David Bowie, androgynous and oozing sex appeal. Ba’al in the vein of Kanye, blistering with ego and power that you want to decry but that kind of feels right. Inanna, reborn looking like Prince—the Queen of Heaven never felt so true.
Not to mention a thoroughly engaging puzzle of a plot, excellent character development and a brutal ability to follow through on promises made. There are plenty of reasons I haven’t been able to stop recommending The Wicked + The Divine since last Christmas.
Erin M. Evans got a degree in anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis—and promptly stuck it in a box. Nowadays she uses that knowledge of bones, mythology, and social constructions to flesh out fantasy worlds. She is the author of the Brimstone Angels Saga, including Fire in the Blood and Ashes of the Tyrant. She lives in Washington State with her husband and sons.