The setup for this one shot is the 1923 Pantheon, in their final weeks, find themselves in an Agatha Christie And Then There Were None scenario. Talking about the plot of the book more than that would be unfair, and not all that interesting, but how this issue goes about doing all that is. The Christie novel is just over 270 pages, if the creative team had made this purely as a comic it would likely have been about that long and required an OGN or miniseries length. Instead this comics/prose format sees Gillen write what is essentially a novellette in terms of word count and mix it together with the page count of normal single-issue, making for one of the most interesting single issue reads I’ve had in a very long time.
Written by Kieron Gillen
Illustrated by Aud Koch
Lettered by Clayton Clowels
Basically, a bunch of 1920s gods based on major modernist figures stuck in the middle of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, done in a comics-prose hybrid that’s clearly trying to start a fight with JONATHAN HICKMAN. (Yeah, you heard, Jon. Come at us, bro.) It’s high art versus lo art, with the most beautiful AUD KOCH artwork the world has ever seen. We’re so excited, we may have to have a lie down.
When is a comic still a comic? Like Plutarch’s thought experiment about the ship of Thesesus, that is one of the questions puzzling about in my head after reading “The Wicked + The Divine: 1923” special. The main creative team have always been one to experiment with form: issue #23, the Pantheon Monthly magazine issue, comes to mind. This special, though, is something different when it seems dominated not by words and pictures, but just words.
As its referential solicit notes, it claims to be a comics/prose hybrid but it isn’t like other exercises of that sort I can think of. The work by Alex Ross and Paul Dini, eventually collected in “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes,” always struck me as more like a picture book. You had Ross’s large pictures set against a paragraph or two by Dini. There was a bit of a remove, with each telling the same story in different ways. One that strikes me more as a true hybrid is the work of Matt Wagner in “Grendel: Devil by the Deeds.” Wagner surrealistically plays with prose and sequential art as he retells the duel between Hunter Rose and Argent. Instead of one part of the medium being placed over the top of the other, Wagner integrated the two more directly. “1923” isn’t really like either of those examples. While they did it in different ways, they still dealt with some amount of balance between text and art. “1923” is cleanly bisected between the prose, written by Kieron Gillen, and the traditional comics created by Gillen, Aud Koch, and Clayton Clowels. This slightly over 50-page issue is cleanly cut between 24 pages of prose and 23 pages of artwork (counting the chapter pages).
This hybridization allows for the creative team to play towards the strengths of each medium to the betterment of the narrative as a whole. In the case of the prose, it’s Gillen’s use of limited second person narration, with slight modifications every so often. This allows for the scope to be limited to just the cast while still describing the ornate surroundings of Lucifer’s mansion. This also allows Gillen to narrate character traits and desires quickly in a matter of sentences instead of pages. The comics sequences by Aud Koch don’t work in this manner. Their illustrations give an emotional indications, shifting it maybe, but his pages are placed in such a way to maximize the visual spectacle of the moment. The issue turns to pictures when things are about to get real, violent. Like the most effective comics, “1923” is an exercise in narrative efficacy and impact. Would it be more impactful to describe Dionysus divine Cubism in all the gory detail or have Koch draw all that gory detail as Cubism?
In a way, the divided labor between these two sections illustrate the tensions and contradictions between the high and low art paradigm that runs through this Pantheon. A paradigm that doesn’t work anymore and from this perspective understandably leads to their downfall. This book is separate but whole. Koch’s art primarily deals in moments of action and extremity but there is also an ornate quality to it. The opening prologue pages with Ananke are beautiful, she doesn’t just look “old,” but beautifully old, in the Romantic sense. How they balance these figures with the grey wash against heavier black lines and large spots of black, with a piercing but low red spot color, give it this air of class. The balance of those colors in this issue and the subject matter create an obvious sense of noir, but it more reminds me of masterclass black and white cinematography.Continued below
I’m going to be straight up, if you’re looking for some insight on the quality (or lack of) Kieron Gillen’s prose, that is not my forte. I’m not even smart enough to be a danger to myself with that sort of thing. It is an area that my brother is vastly more qualified in and his reaction was “it’s fine and pretty good.” I found everything easy to read and moving at a pleasing pace. That sense of pace is a byproduct of how the prose is broken up between chapters that form an overall scene and the subscenes that add up to that larger one. These subscenes feature whatever grouping the Pantheon happens to be in as they work their way through it, with physical divisions baked into the page. These division made it feel like this was a quick read as there was always something new to consider with each sub-scene slowly adding up to some explosion of one kind or another.
As a long-term reader of “WicDiv,” it’s been interesting to note how the creative team use these one-shot specials. Barring the holiday special, prior historical issues have been used as moments that allow for some thematic rhythming and foreshadowing. In this case there are surprisingly clear parallels to events in the main series and foreshadowing to what may come compared to previous ones. But more interesting is to note the intense sense of mounting tension and anxiety that runs through these one shot, everything is so desperate. Like the modern world born out of the WWI and the artistic movements this Pantheon embodies they seem betwixt and that state is something they can no longer abide by. There is commentary and references to larger philosophical ideas I don’t fully understand yet, but as an avenue to deliver and representation of them, “1923” might just be a masterpiece.
Final Verdict: 9.0 – There’s a lot to chew on in this beautifully dense book, comic, hybrid of the two.