Image: Image Comics; variant cover by David Aja

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s The Wicked + The Divine #21. Written by Kieron Gillen (Phonogram, Darth Vader) with art by Jamie McKelvie (Phonogram, Young Avengers) and colorist Matthew Wilson (The Mighty Thor, Black Widow), this issue embraces the book’s superhero roots for an exhilarating superpowered showdown. (Note: This review reveals major plot points.)

Image: Image Comics; cover by Jamie McKelvie and Matthew Wilson

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Summer is the season for superhero event comics, and the combination of Marvel’s Civil War II and DC’s Rebirth made this past June the industry’s best-selling month since 1997. That’s great and all, but the industry shouldn’t rely on a never-ending stream of crossovers and relaunches for its continued growth. Those are good for a short-term boost in sales, but Image Comics is proving that publishers don’t need to rely on these types of project to keep their reader bases growing. The Wicked + The Divine’s current story arc, “Rising Action,” is offering a simpler kind of superhero event, the kind that is built on a creative team doing the most exciting work of their careers to deliver a thrilling, beautiful self-contained story. It’s an event because it shows what superhero comics could be if creators broke free from convention and created something more idiosyncratic, offering a story that is fresh, modern, and extremely stylish.

The comics industry is going through a major transition right now, and The Wicked + The Divine is the defining superhero title of this period. Marvel and DC still dominate the monthly single issues market, but Image has been steadily rising as a major competitor, attracting some of Marvel’s and DC’s biggest talent with a contract that offers full ownership and creative freedom. The Wicked + The Divine is one of the key titles in the current Image renaissance, and features a creative team that built up a fan base with work at Marvel Comics before committing full time to creator-owned work. Writer Kieron Gillen, artist Jamie McKelvie, colorist Matthew Wilson, and letterer Clayton Cowles all worked together on Young Avengers before launching The Wicked + The Divine, and the genre experimentation they played with in that Marvel series has informed their work as they build up their own superhero mythology.

Image: Image Comics

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Social media is a valuable promotional tool for creator-owned comics, and The Wicked + The Divine has an aggressive social media presence. There’s a website operated through Tumblr that offers news, previews, and links to purchase the comics as well as merchandise based on the comic (available in a The Wicked + The Divine Threadless store), a Facebook page, and the creators are constantly promoting the comic on their Twitter feeds, which also offers insight into the creation of the series. This creative team is eager to interact with readers and wants to know more about its fan base, which is why it conducted a poll to get a better understanding of its reader demographics.

Image: Image Comics

Those poll results are printed in the backmatter of this week’s issue, and while the polling process isn’t a flawless one, it does provide some interesting information about who is reading this series: 39.6 percent of the readers polled are women, with 8.9 percent labeling themselves as non-binary, and only 37.6 percent of readers are heterosexual. Diverse representation in comics is a major concern, and it’s not a surprise that The Wicked + The Divine’s diverse cast is resonating with a wider variety of readers than the typical superhero fare. That ties into another reason why this title is so definitive of this moment in comics history: it still features a creative team of white men telling the stories of this diverse group of characters. It’s a common trend in superhero comics at Marvel and DC, but The Wicked + The Divine is also taking steps to improve representation behind the scenes. When the book did an arc of standalone single-issue stories about different cast members, most of the guest artists were women, and bringing in those new voices ultimately enriched Gillen’s story.

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Image: Image Comics

The Wicked + The Divine deals with many of the same themes as Young Avengers—identity formation during late adolescence and early adulthood, combating a corrupt authority—but the context is dramatically different. Young Avengers featured a cast of superhero characters that defined themselves as such, but The Wicked + The Divine features a cast of pop star celebrities that fit the superhero mold thanks to their extraordinary abilities, dramatic costumes, and tendency to beat the crap out of each other. The superhero elements of the series drifted into the background during the last arc, “Commercial Suicide,” but the current arc has the creative team doubling down on those superhero elements to take the book into more bombastic territory.

Image: Image Comics

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It’s only appropriate that The Wicked + The Divine would take inspiration from one of the world’s biggest pop stars for its most explosive storyline yet, and in his backmatter essay for the arc’s first issue, Gillen writes, “It’s Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ video for five issues. It’s all high heels and detonations, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as we’re enjoying making it.” That music video is a mishmash of unexplored ideas, but The Wicked + The Divine has the benefit of a fully realized narrative at its foundation, making for a more substantial piece of entertainment that still captures the energy of Swift’s video.

The stakes and the scope of the narrative have been building with each issue of this arc, and this week’s The Wicked + The Divine #21 brings everything to a head as Persephone (formerly Laura), Baphomet, The Morrigan, and Dionysus launch their assault on Ananke and the gods who have been deceived into siding with their elderly mentor. It’s a breathtaking battle, and a particularly outstanding showcase of McKelvie’s and Wilson’s talent for action storytelling. The issue begins with the calm before the storm, and the art team establishes that quiet atmosphere by using straightforward angles and a low-contrast palette. A rush of glowing pink cuts through the dominant blue to add tension to the arrival of Persephone, Baphomet, and The Morrigan, visually setting up the immediately proceeding two-page splash that kicks off the action with a striking shot of Dionysus and his followers joining the fight.

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Image: Image Comics

The low angle accentuates the grandiosity of this moment, and there’s a huge explosion of bright colors to turn up the energy. The pale blue of Persephone’s giant vines pops against the fuchsia sky, and Dionysus’ rainbow-colored acolytes create visual chaos that will only increase as more warriors enter the fray. Everything just gets bigger from this point on, and the art team does phenomenal work depicting a highly ambitious action sequence. The first moment of impact when Baphomet strikes Baal with his flaming sword hits hard thanks to the extreme angle McKelvie uses, and the storm of purple lightning emanating from Baal’s hands gives the page extra intensity while highlighting Baal’s unrestrained fury. That fight is interrupted by the arrival of the Valkyries, who make an especially theatrical entrance by emerging from spotlights that burst into an inferno of pixilated lime green flames.

Image: Image Comics

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This issue is full of memorable moments: Ananke disintegrates Minerva’s parents with the snap of her fingers; Baphomet provides grade-A beefcake when his leather jacket is destroyed, forcing him to fight shirtless; and Woden assembles his Valkyries into a giant pink mecha, setting up a towering new threat to take down in the arc’s conclusion next issue. The most visually impressive moment comes earlier, though, when Dionysus decides to get his hands dirty by pulling out his rainbow nunchucks. The panel where Dionysus strikes one of the Valkyries is an especially challenging one for Wilson, who is dealing with a multitude of visual elements that are colored with different textures and magnitudes of luminosity.

Image: Image Comics

First there’s the pixilated neon red of the Valkyrie’s sword flying toward the reader. Then there’s the rainbow trail of the nunchucks’ movement through the air, which doesn’t glow as brightly as the rainbow sparks emanating from the nunchucks’ impact with the Valkyrie. Dionysus’ acolytes, who are each assigned their own vibrant color, surround these key fighters, as do The Morrigan’s ravens, which are little bursts of negative space outlined in neon green. They all battle in front of the pale blue and pink that are major visual motifs throughout the issue, and Wilson makes all of these disparate elements come together in one remarkable panel. Clayton Cowles’ black, yellow, and pink word balloon for Dionysus is an effective final flourish, establishing that Dionysus finds himself right at home in this wave of vivid color.

Earlier this week, Chvrches debuted the “Bury It” music video, which features art by McKelvie animated by Mighty Nice. The clean, unfussy detail of McKelvie’s linework makes him a great fit for animation, and McKelvie’s ongoing relationship with Chvrches is perhaps the best example of the crossover appeal of his artwork. McKelvie’s art is stylish, but not especially stylized, and he maintains a level of realism in his rendering that grounds his work, even when working on more fantastic projects like Young Avengers and The Wicked + The Divine. There’s a weight to these characters and their world, which makes it all the more astounding when something magical happens.

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Image: Image Comics

There’s no shortage of magic in this week’s issue, and readers looking for a riveting, dynamic superhero narrative should pick up this chapter, even if it’s their first issue of the series. The finer details of the plot may get lost, but The Wicked + The Divine #21 is so cool and confident that it will make readers want to seek out what they’ve missed. A superhero story of this quality is an event in itself, and hopefully more creators will follow its example and start thinking outside the box to redefine what superhero comics can be.