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The Wicked and the Divine was the best comic book of 2014

The Wicked+The Divine #5
The Wicked+The Divine #5
Image Comics

For a comic book nerd, Wednesday is the best day of the week. New issues are released on Wednesdays, allowing a reader to pick up where they left off, start new adventures, or gain the closure of a story that's come to its end.

In 2014, there have been some sterling stories that I adored.

Marvel killed Wolverine, gave Storm the spotlight she deserves, brought Peter Parker back from the dead, and introduced us to Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenage girl named Kamala Khan. DC gave us the loopy, goopy comic that is Multiversity, gave a new beginning to Wonder Woman, and welcomed back the Secret Six . And the melodramatic space opera Saga, along with Red Sonja, Letter 44, Pretty Deadly, and Sex Criminals proved there's verdant life beyond the big two.

But for me, this year and its Wednesdays have belonged to The Wicked + The Divine, a jewel of a comic from writer Kieron Gillen, a deeply talented creator of charming, gritty characters and familiar yet intriguing comic book worlds. Artist Jamie McKelvie, Gillen's partner in crime for past comics like Phonogram and Young Avengers, gives Gillen's cutting prose beautiful life.

Along with the team at Image, they've produced my favorite comic of 2014.

Gods among us

(The Wicked + The Divine/Image Comics)

The Wicked + The Divine has a great idea at the core of its mythology: gods have an expiration date. In the world Gillen's built, gods like Minerva, Baal, and Lucifer live for two years, die, and come back 90 years later. The rules are simple, and they set the psychology of the book.

With two years to live, the gods do what anyone would — live like celebrities and rock stars. There's no point in bettering themselves, or putting the time into a goal (fuck college, right?) they'll never finish. So gods become celebrities with expiration dates.

The idea is a rough spin on one we're all too familiar with from the real world. It isn't all that far out to think that insidiously talented artists like Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain — all part of the so-called "27 Club" — were gods on some kind of macabre timer.

(The Wicked + The Divine/Image Comics)

The debate over the gods' worthiness is a canny commentary on celebrity culture and stardom. Gillen has explored this territory before before in his comic Phonogram, where magic masquerades as Britpop. He's just as sharp here.

It's hard not read the interaction between Lucifer (the androgynous woman in the white suit) and Amaterasu (above) and think of the wrath and adoration people like Kim Kardashian or Justin Bieber inspire — to say nothing of the endless arguments about their artistic worth.  It's also easy to see ourselves in the book's protagonist Laura, a young black woman with hints of William in Almost Famous, who would do anything for a taste of godlike power:

(The Wicked and The Divine)

You almost forget how progressive it is

"Wicked" and "divine" aren't necessarily polar opposites. Divine could mean saintly. But the word also means godly, marvelous, superhuman. And the gods we meet in Wicked tend to be more wicked with superpowers than they are a pantheon divided into good gods and bad gods.

And this collection of deities — the ones we've seen so far — are mostly women and people of color. Sekhmet, an Egyptian God, has the same skin color and cat eyes as Rihanna. Lucifer, the devil, is androgynous, looking like David Bowie during his White Duke phase. Baal is a black man with a boyfriend. The Morrigan, an Irish mythological figure, is three different women.

(The Wicked + The Divine/Image)

Seeing  people of color and women in positions of power is, unfortunately, still rare in fiction. It's even rarer to see non-white and female characters who are allowed to bring humanity to violence, anger, and selfishness, to get to play the wide range of emotions available to straight, white men.

That's what makes Gillen's saucy, salty world feel so special.

Gillen's characters stretch, fumble, push the limits, and carve out their own successes and failures in these roles. We see a (gay?) black man become a champion of the rules and the Prince of Darkness take shape as a blonde, genderqueer figure:

(The Wicked + The Divine/Image Comics)

But make no mistake — these characters don't have carte blanche. They're limited by public perception and rules they didn't write. They're punished for being too divine, too godly — perhaps a quiet reflection of concepts like glass ceilings and model minorities in the real world.

With all these gods, their superhero powers, and their rock concerts, it's easy to forget that there's a shrewd commentary on religion here too. Gillen isn't just adding elements like race and sexuality to these beings. He is also making a case that celebrities are just as influential as religion. How influential that is and what good it comes out of it are perhaps the book's greatest ambiguities.

It's a challenge, but there's no better time to start

(The Wicked + The Divine/Image Comics)

Though Wicked employs its own mythology, there are points where it all but asks you to read up on mythology (or at least Wikipedia entries). Morrigan's character can feel confusing if you aren't familiar with Irish mythology. And you may not realize how subversive McKelvie is being until you realize how a character like Baal has traditionally been portrayed.

But instead of feeling like homework, the outside reading makes Wicked richer, opening up a world of small Easter eggs and character asides that you might not have seen before.

But don't let the extracurricular reading scare you off. Wicked is actually a very young comic book, making it easy to pick up and start reading. If it were a television show, we'd be in the first season, right at the winter finale. There have only been five issues — all of which can be found in a collected edition called "The Faust Act."

The sixth issue comes out on December 17.

Come back every day of December for Vox's picks of some of our favorite pop culture of 2014.

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