The story of The Wicked + The Divine is the story of its creators. It’s a story about art– the struggle to create and the responsibility of creators to their fans. It’s a story about the thin line between life and death. And it’s a story about fame– the one thing that can transcend that thin line and bring those who desire it closer to the gift– or curse– of immortality.
Over the course of its run, The Wicked + The Divine has proven itself to be one of the most compelling and awe-inspiring comics series of the last decade. Its incisive and inclusive look at what its like to grow up as someone in the margins suddenly thrust into the spotlight have made it a fan favorite of many who are searching for themselves. Its constant ability to reinvent and turn a critical eye on itself have made the book’s structural evolution enthralling to watch.
With today’s release of The Wicked + The Divine #33, the conclusion of the series’ decadent Imperial Phase, The Wicked + The Divine has entered its endgame. Recently, series writer Kieron Gillen and artist Jamie McKelvie sat down with me to explore what that means. We look at how the series has (and hasn’t) changed since its inception;. We explore what Gillen’s and McKelvie’s creative futures look like in these final years of the series and beyond. And finally, we explore the boons and the burdens of getting everything you ever wanted.
[Editor’s note: this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. There are some spoilers for early parts of the series’ run and the interview alludes to more recent events, but names have been readacted to protect those who haven’t caught up on Imperial Phase.]
Lu: Three years into The Wicked + The Divine, how are you both feeling?
Gillen: It’s good. We talk about how well planned WicDiv is and that’s true. And I mean like when [we say] it’s well planned, I mean it’s thoroughly planned. So as we get further in, the more the design is clear. [Some of the structural] stuff we’ve been sitting on for like three years is going to become very clear soon.
I just finished the outline for the last year. There’s like eight and a half thousand words written in terms of issues and [within those], beats. [The last year] kind of exists in a way it hasn’t existed previously, so in some ways it’s mentally done. There’s a lot of work left to do, but the actual core of it…If I died, Jamie [could now] give this document to, say, Matt Fraction, and Fraction could write scripts. You know?
So, that’s how I feel. And it hasn’t gone completely wrong…people are still buying the book. We’ve tried to blow it in many ways, but we’ve failed at all of them. So yeah, it’s nice that we haven’t blown it.
McKelvie: It’s a weird place to be in right now, yeah.
Lu: In your minds, do you feel like WicDiv is already over?
McKelvie: No, no, no. It’s definitely like in the final sort of endgame.
Gillen: Yeah. We can see the end. All we have to do now is land this thing…and if we land it right, it will be what we wanted it to be. And that’s scary. I said it before issue #18 and before, like, issue #21 or something…said that we’re still playing for some degree of stakes. And quite often in a project you know you’ve fluffed it earlier and it’s not going to be what you wanted it to be.
But WicDiv is still…it’s never everything you wanted it to be, but WicDiv is still operating on this [thought of], “Oh, yeah, if we pull this off, people will go ‘that was clever. They knew exactly what they did and they did it for five years.’” It will be a proper mic drop.
That sounds completely arrogant, but that’s true. And that’s scary because I’m so proud of the work everyone’s done on the book, and in like five years, people might go, “oh, that’s a good book.”
Lu: Before you started this series, you had a universe bible, right? In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned that you had the general structure ironed out in that bible, and then you had these subplots that you could weave in and out where they happened to fit best. So when I ask this, I’m not asking about the structure…but rather the tone of the series. Has the tone and the message of WicDiv changed since its inception?
Gillen: Not really.
McKelvie: No. No, some arcs have become more thematically clear as we’ve been going through them. Like, especially say, [the god who died in WicDiv #31]’s death…that was originally planned to be different but it became much more thematically appropriate for her arc [to place it where it was]. I’m trying to remember when that happened, it was quite a while ago you decided to change it, Kieron.
Gillen: It was around issue eighteen I think.
McKelvie: Yeah, yeah.
Gillen: I originally planned to kill that character at the end of the first part of the Imperial Phase, but then I realized I hadn’t delineated how she had fucked up properly. She didn’t have a few issues to really show how she’d gone off the rails. You know what I mean?
This is why weaving an outline is so…you have the big things, like how, at the end of issue five, Lucifer dies. Then in issue eleven…those big things you have planned out. And then you have all these kind of individual arcs, and they’re the ones you kind of weave in and out. They’re the ones you look at and say, “oh no, they rub against each other interestingly.”
And those have changed. In particular, the intersection between certain characters was not originally planned but [became] increasingly clear. For example, Sakhmet and Amaterasu’s relationships with their parents. They dovetail interestingly as a couple [in that way]. So the work remains the same but your understanding of the work becomes much clearer and better.
[Over time], you understand your own story better. And you get that by thinking about it for five fucking years.
Lu: Was Dionysus’s relationship with Cassandra always intended to blossom like that?
Gillen: Not always.
McKelvie: Certainly by the third arc, I think.
Gillen: Yeah, third arc. Because basically, I think I’ve said before, there was the time when I was considering Cass being asexual. It was either that, or the lesbian triad. Those were those two ways I thought they might be… I said something really early in WicDiv and a reader took to it badly…not badly, they took it in a completely reasonable way but I just didn’t mean it that way. People ask about [the characters’] sexualities, so I said I needed to have room for the cast to discover themselves. And they took as something like “you’re just going through a phase, you need to explore your options.”
So it sounded patronizing…but I didn’t mean that, I meant [I, as the writer, needed time] to discover how [my characters] really felt like. I’ve come to know some core things about characters…even very specific sexual things about them. But that has only come through knowing them for as long as I have. And you can’t plan that [knowing]—or, at least, I don’t think it works for me—you can’t plan that in advance. You can get some core things, and then you push and pull.
Sorry, back to the actual fucking point– there was enough stuff in the book about Cassandra that she could have been asexual. The foreshadowing was there. And then I realized [that I’d written a] knot. People would have read her asexuality as a metaphor for her inability to understand the Gods. The moment I realized she can’t be asexual is when Persephone is performing for her and Cassandra suddenly feels it, because [Cass being asexual then would] just mean asexuals just haven’t met the right girls yet. And I’ve said it explicitly—there’s no way around that knot, so that meant me going the other way.
Once I got that though…that was the moment when the stuff I wanted to do with Dionysus came more to the fore. Because Dionysus is all about self-sacrifice and being a good person. Dionysus’s fundamental problem is he thinks he can help everybody and he will give anything of himself to help anybody. He’s as altruistic as anybody gets. That really ends up fucking him up, as we’ve seen.
Dionysus is a good guy. Not a “nice guy” internet meme, but he’s actually genuinely a good person. And he’s unfortunately trapped in this fucking book.
Lu: Zooming back out, is there a way to read WicDiv as a response to its own success? In previous interviews, you’ve talked about how the series was very purposefully crafted in a certain way. You’ve talked about the memetics of calling it WicDiv and having the recurrence occur every 90 years instead of every 100, which makes the book itself more unique and memorable. And Kieron, you’ve also talked about how your work, to a great or lesser extent, tracks your own feelings about aging. About your growth and development. So, given the way this book was crafted and given your own autobiographical streak, when you, Jamie, Matt, and Clayton watch yourselves assemble as a group and become this monolith, do you see yourselves in your story?
[editor’s note: this interview was originally conducted in October. Kieron’s answer, below, was tweaked from its original form in a follow-up conversation this month]
Gillen: That’s a really good question. I wish you’d asked me in, say, slightly later in November. How to phrase this? Imperial phase, of all the arcs, is most about tracking the experience of WicDiv. The gods made a move to be free from control at the end of Rising Action. Imperial Phase is about what they do with it – which is, generally speaking, not exactly positive. I’m responding to the sensation of WicDiv having succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, but explicitly examining that: ‘what’s it like to win and what the fuck do you do then and does it make you any happier?’
WicDiv was planned to sort of mirror a creative’s life (and life generally) but the actual experience of doing the book changes the specific execution. The third year of WicDiv would have always been our take on the hoary old trope of What Bands Do Once They Are Successful And How Everyone Hates Their New Material As It’s Just Whining About Their Coke Dealers, but the personal stuff shapes it. And the guilt. Persephone got exactly what she wanted. Persephone is in hell. These aren’t even the different side of the same coin. They’re the same side of the same fucking coin.
Lu: So, what is it like to win?
Gillen: It’s weird, it’s definitely better than losing. But it’s not better than anything. Do you know what I mean? There’s so much work we talk about, we have the opportunity to do stuff…we can get away with stuff, and that is what an imperial phase actually is. I don’t know. And we try to use that as much as possible [in the work].
Lu: Well, I mean to some extent that was crafted though, right? You talked about how you knew that after the Young Avengers you would have a certain number of fans following you to whatever you did next.
Gillen: Yeah. That’s completely crafted. So WicDiv is meant to be a creator’s journey. The albums are paced to reflect the ups and downs [of that]. The fourth trade, Rising Action, was the big crossover hit album and then they have this period where they can get away with more stuff and by the end [of the Imperial Phase, the creators are] probably being very decadent. That’s the structure. But of course, the specifics are stuff that we’ve experienced, you know what I mean?
McKelvie: No, I was just thinking, there are things…the variant B covers, for example. Because we’re in the position that we are, we use those to be able to provide a platform for our artists to be seen by several thousand people. But that wasn’t always the plan. Our original plan was to just have variant covers for the first five issues and then stop doing them. But what happens a lot of the time is that if you have an A and a B cover for a comic and you stop doing the B, a lot of shops won’t switch their orders to the A so you just start losing all those orders. So then we were just sort of trapped into doing more B covers.
And because we were trapped in it, we thought “what can we do with this to make it a kind of worthwhile thing to do?” Because a variant cover by itself is whatever. But if we used that as a method to promote artists we think are great or to tell a story through the covers or to just see other people’s versions of the characters, that would make it a wonderful thing.
So yeah, you make the decision about what you want to do with the success.
Gillen: Exactly, yeah. I mean like, we want to do –
[At this point, a fan walked up to Kieron’s and Jamie’s table. They chatted for a moment and before she left, she told them…]
Fan: Oh, cool. You guys are great, so just remember that.
McKelvie: Thank you very much.
Gillen: Thanks so much.
McKelvie: Make sure you transcribe that bit.
Gillen: We are great. She said so.
Lu: That’s the tagline.
Gillen: Team WicDiv are great! …ugh god, we’re monsters. But yeah…
Lu: So this is a weird question because it’s a little bit of a hypothetical, but while WicDiv is definitely a tragedy and it has a lot of characters with deeply tragic flaws, it is at the same time presenting, while perhaps not an optimistic view of the world, a representative one. You’re putting a lot of minority characters, queer characters, asexual characters…people who are rarely represented, really, in comics, at the forefront of this story.
And when WicDiv first started, the media landscape seemed hospitable to these ideas of inclusion that seem even more more divisive now because of the rise of populism and totalitarianism…the rise of Trump, yadda yadda. Personally, I think the air seemed a bit more idyllic, then. How do you think WicDiv might have changed, if at all, if you were starting it now?
Gillen: That’s a good question.
McKelvie: I’m not sure if it would have. I mean, our argument always was, you know, when you’re working on the superhero stuff— and it’s great to work on the superhero stuff— you’re still working in universes that were created fifty, seventy, or eighty years ago when the dominant interests were different. So when we had a chance to start our own universe in 2014, we very much wanted to represent the London we live in…the people we know, that kind of thing. So on that level, I don’t think that’s changed since then, so I don’t know if that would be different.
Gillen: What has changed is that when we were starting, the primary question in the conversation of diversity was “we need to have more diverse characters”, and now it’s much more “we need more diverse creators”, which is of course, predictable, because you know, back then we were fully aware that’s where the conversation was going to go and should go, because frankly…what difference does it really make? Yes it makes huge amounts of difference in lots of ways, but at the same time, hire some fucking people.
I don’t know, maybe we’d feel reticent to doing some of it. And WicDiv was a book of its particular moment, so maybe? The problem is, I was thirty-eight then and I’m forty-two now, so I would not be doing that now. That is to say, things have changed apart from the world. Yeah, I might be more reticent about it. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I would just dive straight in.
Lu: I’m sorry, this is a bit of a downer.
Gillen: No, no, it’s not. This is the shit we ask ourselves all the time. “Idyllic” is interesting in like, WicDiv is such a fucking depressing story but at the same time it’s like there’s no reason why these kind of big stories can’t be told around a more diverse cast. It’s fucking London. I don’t know. I’m still optimistic they’ll damn me.
Lu: What are some of the best parts of being able to have done this for so long, to such success?
McKelvie: The best parts of the success? Being able to put out issues and covers by [creators] we think people should be more aware of. [Stemming from that], every six months, we get the cheques for the trades. Being able to give some of the money from the third trade to those artists…the trade sells really well and we get to send a bunch of artists a considerable cheque every six months.
Gillen: When you get a fan and [the book] really hits them, that’s amazing. I’ve said this for Phonogram, but we are both people who have been fans, are fans, and we’ve had our transformers. And to see that actually happen to some people who really like WicDiv, that’s lucky. We feel incredibly privileged to be like…what’s it called? The person who helps people give birth?
McKelvie: Where are you going with this?
Gillen: You know like we are a useful part in somebody’s life as them transforming themselves into… Midwife! We’re a midwife to their own birth.
Ugh, that’s wankered!
Lu: Does that weigh on you?
Gillen: Yeah, definitely, it obviously does. We take this shit really seriously.
McKelvie: Yeah. Sometimes you get someone who comes to our table and says “thank you for this issue, it helped me come out” or “thank you for writing this character that I identify with.” that’s incredible. But it is weighty…
Gillen: We’re used to people coming and crying at the table. It’s not every five seconds—it’s not a Gerard Way sort of situation— but it’s common enough that we know how to deal with it, or at least we try to deal with it. It doesn’t freak us out when it happens; we try and help people through it. But…that kind of stuff? That’s a heavy weight. You just worry about fucking up all the fucking time.
Lu: What was it like the first time that that happened, though?
Gillen: I don’t know. The Dionysus part of me is entirely fine with [crying at the table]. If someone’s upset, I’ll make sure they’re okay, but I’ll worry. And you know it’s not because of you. It’s the art. And you’re like…that’s what I mean by being the midwife. You did something they like and they know it’s come from a person and that’s weird for them. And you know it’s not about you. You are the person who’s just somehow involved in this process for them.
Lu: I guess we’re at the point where we should start talking about the future. After WicDiv, where do you both go from here?
Gillen: As far away from each other as possible.
McKelvie: Yeah, that’s true.
Lu: This is your Black Parade?
Gillen: Yeah, yeah. WicDiv is core to The Black Parade.
McKelvie: Yeah. I don’t know, is it too early? I mean we’ve still got another year.
Gillen: I mean, I talk about “spangly new thing.” You say you want to do your own stuff.
McKelvie: Yeah, I mean I want to be working on my own thing next. It’s pretty formed, but how I’m going to approach it in terms of logistics…of issues and trades or whatever…is still far away in the future because I’ve got to keep drawing WicDiv for another year and a bit. Me and Matt are doing a thing, too, but beyond that can’t really say too much.
It’s still…we’re using the word fluid a lot this weekend. The future’s fluid. There’s some moving parts regarding various different things that would affect how things happen in the future. Like we’ll definitely still be working together. Might not be comics, but sadly we’re stuck together.
Gillen: Originally, WicDiv was planned so that every second arc would have a different artist than Jamie. I wanted to leave space for Jamie to do his own thing because Jamie’s a fucking writer/artist. People forget that, but you know. I feel like I’ve kept him for far too long, so I feel guilty about that. But then…I tell you, one of the best bits was when Jamie said, after the third volume, that he wanted to do the rest of WicDiv. That was incredibly touching because it meant that I knew that Jamie liked the book. And that’s weird.
McKelvie: Generally I hate everything!
Gillen: No, that sounds like –
McKelvie: I know what you mean.
Gillen: That’s a very sincere “I want to do this. We’re in this together.” And that gets you.
Lu: As opposed to chaining him to a desk for Phonogram?
Gillen: Yeah, exactly. [laughs] That was just unfinished business. But you know what I mean, Jamie going off and doing his own writing and drawing his own stuff is very exciting, and that’s the thing. And you know, I’m just going to sleep. It’s going to be fun.
But yeah, so I have “spangly new thing.” Ludocrats will be out like next year, hopefully.
Lu: “Spangly new thing” is different from Ludocrats, right?
Gillen: Yeah, yeah. Ludocrats is the hilariously perpetually delayed project.
Lu: I remember that was announced in 2015 or so, right?
Gillen: Yeah, it’s a story about the infinite possibility and unchain-ability of human imagination and it’s been delayed by paperwork. So that’s what we call irony! Also thematically appropriate.
“Spangly new thing’s” a new thing. It’s a short form ongoing. It’s not as long as WicDiv…probably half as long as WicDiv. I think most people have to do that because, if anyone’s done a fifty to seventy issue run, they never do another big creator owned thing immediately. I’m going to do this short form thing instead.
Lu: And when you say working together outside of comics, are you referring to the television show or something else?
McKelvie: Things we can’t talk about.
Lu: Anything new about the TV?
McKelvie: Fluid. Again, that’s the word.
Gillen: Yeah, no, we’re not really on set. It’s just TV stuff. It’s not that we don’t take it seriously because we do. But it’s like TV stuff happens at TV time and we have like another twelve issues of this fucking book to do.
Lu: Is that including the specials?
McKelvie: After issue #33, twelve issues plus the specials. And there’s three more specials. At least.
Gillen: Three or four. After #33, there are twelve issues in the main series, probably. We’re not going to cram it if we don’t need to, but it’ll probably be twelve issues. There’s the 1920s special, and another special between arcs seven and eight. There may be another special, depending on our scheduling too, because I’ve got a couple of ideas in the pocket that might be fun to do if we want an extra month, but they’re not necessary…as in, it’s not necessary in the best possible way. As in like the Christmas special, “this is good, this is fun, but it’s not necessary.”
Lu: Finally, what can we expect in the upcoming issues of WicDiv? We have the great darkness looming, the gods are dying, and there’s still a Frankenstein’s Monster roaming about.
Gillen: Yeah, there’s all that. Basically, almost everything will tie together in the final year. And the stuff that we don’t tie together explicitly will be tied together if you guys want to work it out. But, every year of WicDiv is something completely different and the final year…
McKelvie: We’ve not really talked about it yet.
Gillen: It’s as different as any of the years, and it’s probably the year of WicDiv that’s most different from any of the previous years. As we start getting to year four, I’ll be so relieved. Because it’s like “guys, you know, we’ve blown our shit, now what do you guys make out of this?”
I just want to just talk. You get to like two drinks away in a pub from telling people the whole plot. It’s fun, it’s so much fun, and I can’t wait to see the noises people make and the various things that happen down the line.
[Editor] Chrissy [Williams] was going through it…Chrissy is the only person who’s read the outline, her notes came back saying “yep, teared up at this bit, teared up at this bit…”, and it’s like yeah, this job’s a good’un. They are really fucking sad bits.
Alex is the Managing Editor of the Comics Beat. He is also a freelance comics editor with previous credits at Papercutz. He is your go-to fella for creator interviews, conversations about comic book structure, and general DC Comics nerding. Currently geeking out over movies, too.