The Gods Are Queer and Racially Diverse in 'The Wicked + The Divine'

The Wicked + The Divine is the best comic book you're probably not reading (yet). The instant cult classic was co-created by Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen of Young Avenger fame. The premise, as explained on the back of the comic's first trade paperback, is simple: "Every 90 years 12 gods return as young people. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are all dead."

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Lena Dunham and the Renaissance of Archie Andrews (He’s Not Dead Yet)

First published on The Daily Beast, April 9, 2014. Read the original here.

Archie, that lovable doof, and his sweater set posse from Riverdale—Betty, Veronica, and Jughead—have long been bywords for the idealized adolescence of the Baby Boomers. What Norman Rockwell was to oil painting, Archie Andrews was to comic books. But with Archie himself slated to die this summer, and Lena Dunham (yes, that Lena Dunham) onboard as a new writer, Riverdale is undergoing a radical transformation.

“I'm always shocked when I hear some people think Archie the comic books are set in the ‘50s,” says Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was recently named chief creative officer of Archie Comics. Last year, he created the critically acclaimed zombie-apocalypse-in-Riverdale themed title Afterlife With Archie. As of last month, he is the first CCO in the company’s 75 years of existence.

Aguirre-Sacasa has a long resume on the illustrated page, including many years at Marvel, perhaps the biggest name in the industry right now. But you’re more likely to recognize him as a writer for the TV shows Big Love and Glee. In an era when comics are a bigger business off the page than on it, Aguirre-Sacasa is Archie’s ambassador to Hollywood. Or as Jon Goldwater, publisher and co-CEO of Archie Comics, affectionately calls him, “Archie West.”

If Aguirre-Sacasa is the public face of Archie’s rebrand, then Goldwater is the mind behind it. He is the grandson of John L. Goldwater, one of the founders of the company, and for the last five years, he’s been working tirelessly to bring Archie back into the public consciousness. “My mantra coming in was: We have to take chances. We have to modernize,” says Goldwater. Audiences were hungry for new stories with deeper emotional resonance. This drove Goldwater to push for plots that brought familiar characters to unexpected places (like Archie marrying Veronica and Betty), as well as plots that introduced new characters that embodied the modern Archie ethos (like Kevin Keller, Riverdale’s first gay resident). “All the characters, the core of their integrity is the same,” Goldwater says, but “Riverdale has changed” to keep up with the real world.

Being a small, family-owned company, Goldwater believes, has been instrumental in Archie Comics newfound success. “We have an advantage over companies like Marvel,” he says, “because we can move and react very quickly.” He offers Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife With Archie as an example. The idea was jokingly tossed around over breakfast by Aguirre-Sacasa and Goldwater’s son Jesse. By that afternoon, the company had given Aguirre-Sacasa the greenlight to develop it.

In some ways, hiring Aguirre-Sacasa could be seen as the biggest chance Goldwater has taken so far. In 2003, Archie Comics issued a cease-and-desist letter to Aguirre-Sacasa, when he mounted a play called Archie’s Weird Fantasy, which imagined the eponymous hero moving to New York City and coming out. “I know this seems like sacrilege,” he told the company at the time, “but it really comes from a deep, abiding love of these characters.” Nonetheless, he still had to rename the show.

Now, he says it feels a little bit like he’s living in “a bizzar-o universe” where these characters are finally his to play with. “You have a blank canvas,” Goldwater told him when they created the new position. “You fill it in.”

The kind of changes Aguirre-Sacasa will bring to Archie can be summed up in two words: Lena Dunham. The same day that Archie Comics announced his hire, they also announced that Dunham would be writing a four-issue arc in the mainline title in 2015—a deal Aguirre-Sacasa was instrumental in making happen. “It's going to be both a quintessential Archie story and a quintessential Lena story,” he says, revolving around a reality TV show that comes to film in Riverdale. It’s a sign of the bold moves Aguirre-Sacasa says we can expect from Archie moving forward. “We want to bring that kind of excitement and that kind of event out on a monthly basis,” he says. Imagining Lena Dunham writing Archie is like imagining my grandmother in a cameo on Girls. But it’s a deft move from a rebranding perspective. What better way to announce a new Archie era than via the pen of the Millennial It girl? Other big projects are also in the works, including a Sabrina the Teenage Witch movie (and accompanying comic) that’s currently in “very active development” with Sony. Although Archie is their flagship, Goldwater and Aguirre-Sacasa are eager to promote many of the other intellectual properties the company owns, from familiar names like Josie & the Pussycats, to less well-known ones like the Red Circle group of superhero titles. Taking a page from others in the comic book industry, they plan to push their characters in every medium possible: books, television, movies, perhaps even musicals. (Aguirre-Sacasa worked on both Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and the musical version of American Psycho.) So far, this aggressive modernization has been able to win over both fans and critics. “Thank god for the change!” laughs Goldwater. “It's really expanded our audience.” Last year, the company won a GLAAD Media Award for their handling of Kevin Keller, and a Diamond Gem Award (given for the “the pinnacle of sales achievement”) for Afterlife With Archie. This is a big change for Archie Comics. Although the company does not release sales numbers, they’ve been trimming their actual comics book offerings for years. In 2011 and 2012, about 40 percent of each published Archie comic went unsold; to date, every issue of Afterlife has sold out. Archie Comics has made a few splashy forays into the modern entertainment market over the last few decades: the hit TV show Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the mediocre Josie & the Pussycats movie. But a sustained rebranding initiative like this is entirely new, which makes Aguirre-Sacasa’s role as chief creative officer all the more important. If he cannot guide Archie to a larger, more youthful audience, it may well become the yesteryear comic book brand some people already believe it to be.

Wonder Woman Makes a Triumphant Comeback in a New Comic Series

First published on The Daily Beast, March 13, 2014. Read the original here.

Amid all the recent kerfuffles at DC Comics—the Batwoman lesbian wedding that wasn’t, the brooding big screen reinvention of Superman, Ben Affleck’s controversial casting as Batman—it would be easy to overlook the most exciting reinvention in recent comic book history: Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman. Her epic two-year inaugural story arc wrapped last September, and War, the final graphic novel collecting that arc, came out yesterday.

It’s been a decade in the wilderness for Wonder Woman. She’s the only one of DC’s iconic three without a recent film franchise (though Joss Whedon wrote a script in 2007). In 2011, David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal) attempted a new TV series starring Adrianne Palicki, but it died in the pilot phase. And earlier this year, the CW finally killed Amazon, a Smallville-esque origin show that had been in development since 2012.

On the page, she hasn’t fared much better. Allan Heinberg briefly wrote Wonder Woman for four poorly reviewed issues in 2006. DC temporarily replaced him with bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult, whose brief run fared even worse. In 2008, super-fan-feminist turned comic book writer Gail Simone took the reins, and for a time, Wonder Woman flourished. While not the most brilliant run of all time, Simone’s arc was interesting, smart, and consistent—in fact, with 30 issues under her belt, Simone is the longest-running female writer in Wonder Woman’s history.

But eventually Simone moved on. Though she continued writing two WW related titles (Birds of Prey and The Secret Six), the main comic passed to J. Michael Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame. The new run featured Wonder Woman’s first major costume redesign in decades (created by Jim Lee), and debuted in 2010 to fantastic sales … only to collapse amid a morass of missed deadlines and mediocre reviews. Straczynski left with six months to go on his contract. After that, the Princess of the Amazons spent months bouncing back and forth between various writers and artists.

Then came the major event in the DC Universe: The New 52. Starting in September 2011, DC cancelled all of its existing titles, and debuted 52 revamped versions—Wonder Woman included. WW’s new writer, Brian Azzarello, had spent time at the helm of both Batman and Superman, and he was also the co-creator of the hardboiled detective comic 100 Bullets. Illustrator Cliff Chiang, however, was a relative newcomer, having moved to the art side of DC after being an editor for years (Tony Akins, another lesser-known talent in DC’s illustration stable, also provides some artwork for the comic).

From the beginning, the New 52 was plagued with concerns about the representation of women and the fact that the new Wonder Woman was the work of two men. But Azzarello and Chiang’s excellent work defused most of the criticism. By turns gorgeous and grotesque, issue number one featured intelligent modernizations of the Greek and Roman myths that make up Wonder Woman’s baggage. Unlike Superman and Batman, prototypical sons of the 20th century, Wonder Woman has always struggled to stay relevant to a young audience that often cares little and knows less about her storied mythological history. She has so much past, it’s sometimes hard to see her future.

In that regard, Azzarello and Chiang are visionaries. In the first few issues, Wonder Woman’s old origin story literally crumbles before our eyes, as she learns that she was not made from clay by Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. Instead, she is the natural daughter of Queen Hippolyta’s brief but passionate dalliance with Zeus, the king of Olympus. This instantly humanizes Wonder Woman, while also making her divine. She learns her true history at the same time we do, allowing readers to experience her all-too-human feelings of betrayal upon discovering that everything she believed about her life is a lie.

This seamless melding of modern humanity with epic divinity is realized on the page in Chiang’s beautiful representations of the Olympiads. Whether portraying withered, root-like Demeter or drunken colonialist Aries, his artwork brilliantly captures the essence of what a god among modern mortals might look like. Thus, the story and style work in delicious harmony.

From this simple new back-story, the rest of the two-year arc flows naturally. Wonder Woman becomes enmeshed in the ultimate family feud, as the gods of Olympus vie to replace Zeus as king, and she seeks to protect her numerous half-god siblings—one of whom is prophesied to kill an Olympian and claim their throne. In this final installment, Wonder Woman ends up somewhere completely unexpected, and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in forthcoming issues.

And yet, for all the superpowers and divine beings that flit across the pages of Wonder Woman, the arc is most successful because of its humanity. She slams out her aggression in a London punk club when she’s upset. The Gods of Mt. Olympus squabble like eternal children. If this arc has a central theme, it is about love, family, and betrayal—profoundly human emotions that make Wonder Woman sympathetic in a way that Justice, Peace, and Divine Creation never could.