The Queer + The Divine

NOTE: This article is a reprint from Comics Alliance

Queer characters in comics have had a slow burn. There are more LGBTQ characters appearing in comics narratives than ever before, but there's still room for improvement, and rather than being content just to see queer characters represented at all, readers want to see series that explore a range of LGBTQ identities and stories.

The Wicked + The Divine (WicDiv) by Jamie McKelvie, Kieron Gillen, Matthew Wilson, and Clayton Cowles is one of the best representations of the queer community in comics. The characters are complex, multi-tiered, sexual — and even permitted to be strange and disturbing. Near half of the WicDiv casts falls under the LGBTQ umbrella, yet they’re all fiercely differentiated from each other. (Note: This article contains spoilers for the series.)

Take, for example, Inanna. The character is the modern genderqueer incarnation of a Sumerian goddess of love and fertility. Female divinity is a powerful touchpoint in gay culture; even in the form of pop culture icons like Grace Jones or Madonna, worship of the feminine has been absorbed and redistributed through the black queer community in particular. We refer to each as other as "queens" (sometimes spelled "kweens"), and refer to our friends as "girls" and "sisters." When praising our fellow queens, we utter phrases like, "slay mama!" And every bit of this vernacular was conceived in the underground drag scene, one of the principal places of worship for feminine divinity in the queer community.

Inanna by Jamie McKelvie

Innana, whose pre-goddess name is Zahid, is not black, but he is a person of color — a queer male of South Asian descent — and he peacocks his non-binary identity. (According to writer Kieron Gillen, "he/him" are his preferred pronouns.) He flaunts his chest hair with rock star bravado, surrounded in an ethereal, fuschia-drenched glow, a trademark of his beautiful queer essence. The parallels to the late artist Prince are unmistakable. Both stars armed themselves with sexuality and a desire to perform their art in an eroticized way; an arousing and often disarming display of male pop stardom, adorned in various shades of signature purple.

Outwardly "femme," Inanna is not the only member of the pantheon to blur the lines of gender expression. In fact, he's shared a bed with fellow pantheon member Luci/Lucifer, another non-binary queer character.

Yet the real yin to Inanna's yang is Baal, a hot-headed lightning god with off-the-charts machismo. Baal is real. I grew up with men like Baal on the south side of Chicago, and it's clear that part of his archetype derives from Chicago-born rapper Kanye West. Yet the biggest difference between Baal and his real-world counterparts in rap and hip-hop is that Baal doesn’t care about the perception that he has a sexual interest in men.

Baal's relationship with Inanna is never explored in full, but we are privy to the depth of Baal's love, and the devastating impact of Inanna's death. The power of their love represents a depatrure from "down low" tropes associated with black masculinity. (These tropes explored in Virgil, a black/queersplotation comic by Steve Orlando, J.D. Faith, Chris Beckett and Tom Mauer, about a cop in Jamaica, where homophobia is perhaps as rife as it is in any culture, trying to save the life of his man).

Baal by Kate Brown

Baal's love is reckless, arrogant and assertive — but public. He mourns Innana's death for all to see. This is critical for a reflection of queer black love. So often this type of love is relegated to the shadows, so it's refreshing to see a take that doesn't emasculate him as a queer, black character, yet still gives him enough vulnerability to make him human. (Or as human as a lightning god can be.)

The hubris is still there, of course, but the representation of Baal should be applauded for the sheer emotional complexity afforded to the character. He embraces elements of the hip hop community — the fast cars, the heart-stopping swag, the sea of groupies at his disposal — but he is unwavering and unapologetic about his sexuality.

The pantheon also boasts strong queer female characters, and one of the most distinctive is Sakhmet, with her casual and distinctly feline approach to sex — and just about everything else. In the Sakhmet-centered issue 17, illustrated by the insanely talented Brandon Graham, we’re given as much insight as we'll likely receive into the mind of the lion goddess. Sakhmet is one of the most powerful of the pantheon, driven by carnal instincts of passion, rage and lust, but underneath those instincts, Sakhmet has been rendered emotionally numb. Early on issue 17, it's suggested that Sakhmet experienced some form of abuse by her father, and it's clear that she copes by living in a perpetual state of indifference — a trait she shares with her feline sigil.

Sakhmet by Brandon Graham

Sakhmet's intensity manifests in various ways, whether in taking a Valkyrie (one of Woden's cosmic-powered consorts) to bed before responsibilities beckon, or killing her father in a blood rage. Sakhmet is no angel, nor is she meant to be. But she is a reflection of a queer woman who has owned her vigor, her sexuality, and ultimately her state of being. She's meant to be a tragic character in many ways, but Sakhmet reminds me so much of my own mother, and of other queer women of color that I've encountered through the years. That ability to simply live her truth without fear (though often aided by alcohol) is central to why readers love her so much.

Perhaps one of the most important figures in the pantheon is Cassandra Igarashi and her goddess incarnation Urdr, one of the three Norns of Norse mythology. Cassandra is a transgender woman of color who spends most of her time in the first arc dismantling the glamor and divinity associated with the pantheon.

Cassandra's gender identity isn't a plot point, but it does affect the way the characters interact with her. For example, in issue 14, Woden offers Cassandra a spot among his Valkyries, assuring her that he's "many things but not transphobic," and even in the first issue Luci refers to her as "Cassandra" — the derisive air quotes are evident. Yet in these moments Cassandra is more than a token. She's written and presented with a distinct identity. Her willingness to call BS when she sees it is perhaps her defining trait, and it feels serendipitous when she ascends to the pantheon and is empowered to better challenge the ideals and perceptions of those around her.

As Urdr, The Nordic goddess, Casandra continues to challenge the ideals of her fellow pantheon members, but does it with the aid of supernatural insight. In one of Urdr's finest moments she confront Amaterasu on her misappropriation of Japanese culture. When Amaterasu exerts an impressive but offensive display of power as a literal sun over Hiroshima, Urdr is the voice of reason, bluntly bringing Amaterasu down to earth by explaining the ignorance in her display of divinity towards Japanese culture. It’s one of many examples of Urdr/Cassandra speaking to the injustices of marginalized and ill-represented groups, and she is heartfelt in her conviction, grounded in the real.

In fact, each and every one of WicDiv's characters is grounded in the real, despite being presented as fantastical. Too often LGBTQ readers are presented with diversity in the form of tokenism; characters are given one axis of diversity (race, gender, sexuality) and otherwise act within norms of a cis-gender white male perspective. How many times have we seen a fierce female character like She-Hulk presented in ways that only seem to reflect a straight male voice and perspective?

But WicDiv pulls from the world around us. The party addict Dionysus helps us find solace on the dance floor; Inanna shows us a beautiful world filled with grace and gender-fluidity; Luci tempts us towards sin. The Wicked + The Divine is probably the queerest comic on the stands today, and it reflects the dazzling diversity of the true LGBTQ community.

on July 7, 2016