Die # 1
A game. Time lost. A group of friends, A party, start a new RPG game and get far more than they bargained for in this new fantasy comic series from WicDiv creator Kieron Gillen and artist extraordinaire Stephanie Hans. To put it pithily, it's like Jumanji, but far more adult...but that hardly scratches the surface of what this comic is (and is going to be) about.
Kieron Gillen has made a successful career in comic writing by mining his own obsessions to fantastic, fun effect. In Phonogram and the nearly-ended The Wicked and the Divine, he plumbs the depths of his own pop music fandom to concoct compelling fantasy stories that explore our simultaneous devotion and revulsion to pop music, celebrity culture and fandom. His new series Die (not dice!), with collaborators Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles, launches another sprawling fantasy tale full of heart, fear, intrigue and, of course, the occasional, well-placed pun, spring-boarded off of another one of his profligate past times: the table top RPG. It would be tempting to pass off the whole affair as simply being ‘Jumanji, but more ADULT’ (though, this may do for an elevator pitch to friends whom you’re trying to convince to pick up the book, which they should!) but stopping there be an extreme disservice to the world and story that Gillen and Hans have launched in this debut issue and my word count. Hence, we continue.
First issues, particularly of comics that one might expect will take a while to deliver some payoffs, often time get a pass for not delivering on the same goods as other kinds of comics one might review. The critique has to be calibrated so the installment might be judged more on the basis of how the issue world-builds, establishes characters, and sets-up plot threads for payoffs later. Die does this and more. All the requisite first issue things are here, but since Gillen and Hans do all this required set-up very economically, there’s also a lot of satisfying, if not complete, payoffs to be had.
Gillen’s introduction of his par….err…group functions well as both of a check-boxed story requirement and a nice bit of meta playfulness. As anyone who’s ever ran an RPG game before knows, it’s important to establish connections between your par…I mean group members and to quickly set-up their persona’s traits and ongoing motivations. Gillen does this quickly in one page and sustains these characterizations throughout, creating arcs and character relationships that I can’t wait to see explored and developed. I particularly enjoyed Solomon’s light-to-non-existent characterization in this first installment. With the exception of some well-placed, well-lit sinister-looking expressions courtesy of Hans, we know next to nothing about Solomon (Sol for short). If he is going to be the big bad here, as seems to be the case, it’s best that Gillen keep all these Sol cards close to his chest. Though, I suspect There’s more to Sol than meets the DIE (Ha, read the issue and you’ll see why that’s funny) and his story isn’t this simple, especially considering Gillen’s track record with another big bad named Ananke.
The chronological time jumps in the first issue may appear a bit of a cheat, but it actually creates large swatches of story real estate to be filled, which I’m sure Gillen and Hans plan (and I hope they) to do. The present time frame of the story only feels like the façade of a much more sprawling epic. What happened to the kids when they entered this fantasy world the first time? What were the effects of this adventuring on their lives in the intervening 25 years? We’ve gotten some hints of this, but there is definitely more story to be had here. Despite the trauma they’ve experienced, the PARTY has managed to create some semblance of a ‘normal’ life for themselves, though I’m sure how things appear aren’t how things really are. There’s a rich world to be explored here, and I for one can’t wait to see more about the ‘Portal of Pain’ (Portal of Pain? This just begs further elucidation), poor Sol’s mom transformation from ‘bourbon biscuit’ to her current sorry, though understandably so, state, and Angela’s turn to becoming a game coder. There are many ways to process trauma, but that’s the one I think I’m most eager (and scared) to see. With the party’s return to the fantasy world they were, literally (and not in a fun way) lost in nearly three decades ago at the end of the first issue, I’m already hooked and want to see how the past 25 years might change how they resolve this current adventure now….or perhaps more tragically…how they might go through the same motions as they did before.
But beyond all the good bits of well-crafted, well thought out storytelling, the issue succeeds because it taps effectively into what may be the purest source of joy that can be had from engaging in this cultural practice called ‘table top RPGs’….that sense of alterity that one creates when you inhabit someone else, that sense of the ‘what if’ becoming real in the span of a game session, if only through the auspices of your imagination, some DIE (not dice!), spreadsheets and the careful preparation of your game master. That tremendous sense of fun is nicely translated in this lovely spread, where our characters get their own ‘It’s MORPHIN TIME!’ moment, shifting into the vestments and body of their previously established alter egos. Gillen and Hans fully commit here, with Dom being depicted as her ‘diplomat with an edge’ as she was initially described, and it is fantastic.
Stephanie Hans’ soft touch and subdued palette lends the whole affair with a hazy, noirish miasma, perfect for this fantastic, off-kilter jaunt Gillen is sending his characters and the reader on. Hans is also able to convey important nuances of expression, which are made even more stark against her impressionistic backgrounds. Each character is given a unique, instantly recognizable look; a feature that is extremely important in a book like this one.
There are some pages could use more details, particularly when we finally enter the fantasy world our characters would presumably inhabit for large swatches of the story. Out first encounter with this realm, near the end of the issue, feels more like concept art, rather than an actual illustration. I suspect/hope, Hans would be sharpening the details of this place more in subsequent installments.
Clayton Cowles should also be lauded for some fantastic lettering work. His distinct world bubbles are indispensable in making the story flow smoothly and clearly.
The thing that makes Die unique and puts it over the edge to ‘recommended’ is the tremendous sense of loss, pain, and unresolved ennui that permeates the issue. ‘This is fantasy for grown ups’, Sol declares. In the present Dom laments ‘and we were sold, because we were deluded enough to think that’s what we actually wanted’. It is a debut issue and the whats, wherefores, whys and hows of this whole business with the glowy D20 dice isn’t quite clear yet. We also don’t know just how things got oh so real in this fantasy realm for our party and how that ‘realness’ made them into their present-day counterparts. But, boy howdy, Gillen and Hans lay just enough pathos and a tremendous sense of a lost 'something' that the characters (and by extension I) want to recover that I’m in for the long haul to see how all these questions get answered.
Die # 1 Die. The word is Die.
Writing - 9.5/109.5/10
Storyline - 9/109/10
Art - 9/109/10
Color - 8.5/108.5/10
Cover Art - 9/109/10
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