A role playing game gone horribly wrong comes back to haunt the original party in Die #1
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Publisher: Image Comics
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: December 5th, 2018
Collected in: Die volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
In 1991, six teenagers sat down to play a role-playing game.
They disappeared without explanation. There were no clues. They had vanished.
They were found two years later. In a forest. Over fifty miles away. When asked where they’d been they could only respond… “I can’t say.” No one ever found out where they had gone or who could have taken them. Everyone was just glad they had escaped.
The year is 2018. The teenagers are now adults. They are about to discover… no one escapes.
In recent years Kieron Gillen has established himself as a writer of weird and mystical books. He wrote an excellent run on Journey into Mystery years ago that redefined the comics version of Loki as a proper trickster instead of a villain. He followed that up with notable work on Iron Man, Uncanny X-Men and Young Avengers, among others. While these books are entertaining (I am particularly fond of his Uncanny X-Men run) his real calling has always been in quirky indy books.
In more recent years he has made waves with his independent titles like Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram. His books tend to be a bit niche, but if they fall in a niche you enjoy they are often among the best in their field. This all brings us to his newest title: Die. The name itself refers primarily to the singular form of the word “dice”, but there is no doubt it is also a play on words meant to invoke its more common meaning. Word play, you may find, is something Mr. Gillen excels at.
The main plot of Die #1 is probably familiar to most fans of fantasy stories, particularly those who enjoy the more recent subgenre of LitRPG tales. A group of kids in 1991 gather together to play a homebrew role-playing game. As tends to happen in such stories the game becomes entirely too real and bad things happen (TM). Two years later they appear in the middle of a road with one member missing and another having lost an arm. The twist here is that none of them can talk about what happened, and that includes informing the reader. We can only infer details by what they refuse to speak about rather than by what we are told.
The mystery of what happened is at the core of the story, but wisely is largely left out of focus for now. Instead we get a brief rundown on what each of the survivors have been up to in the years since their adventure, and how they (are not) coping with the fallout. There is a dark sense that what they went through has left deep scars in all of them.
The story of Die #1 unravels slowly throughout this extended first issue, and it largely benefits from that. This is a tale that is largely concerned with the psychological fallout from events that we don’t yet know about, and that works fairly well. We are allowed to see the damage that has been done without context, and that means we are conjuring up our own horrors.
Things twist around in the last few pages of Die #1 when we finally get our first glimpses into the truth. There is enough of a hook here to make waiting for the second issue rather difficult. The book has laid out many questions by this point, and the ending merely expands on them. This book is clearly being setup for a slow burn, which may work against it in the monthly format. We will have to wait and see in that regard.
Not everything is sunshine and roses for this book, though. Most notably a lot of characters are introduced quickly, and keeping them all straight throughout the tale is tough. This is exacerbated by almost immediately dropping most of them out of the story after their intro, only to slowly bring them back in. I had to flip through the book several times to keep the characters straight. Only Chuck, the one character seemingly unphased by their adventure (and thus probably the most damaged by far), stands out, with the others being mostly blank slates.
The slow reveal of the plot also will not win some people over. The book withholds anything even resembling an answer at this point, and that can be frustrating if you do not like having threads dangled just out of reach.
Thoughts on the Art
Stephanie Hans has primarily been a cover artist according to her professional pages. I don’t know if Die #1 is her first proper interior work in American comics, but if it is it does not show. Her work is moody and dark, while still retaining enough color to keep things visually interesting. Each of the main characters is distinctive, although in a stylized way that can occasionally be off-putting. There’s also an intentional lack of definition to her work which can make things hard to identify at times.
What her style lacks in definition it makes up for in expression. Of particular note is a splash page late in the comic where we get our first glimpse of the alternate world personas of our heroes. While the poses are traditionally heroic their expressions tell a different story. The way the paladin-esque character looks at his sword in utter dismay is heart breaking, and beautifully rendered. I’m not sure that Stephanie Hans’ work would be at home in most projects, but it is well suited for this book.
Die #1 is an easy book to recommend to people looking for a mature take on the dark fantasy genre. This is a book that will make you think and stick with you after you have put it down. There are layers to the story as presented, and probably even more we cannot see yet. It has been a while since I have been so disappointed to reach the end of a comic because I want to know more.
Stephanie Hans and Kieron Gillen are excellently paired on this title, and they are showing what a well matched team can do. This initial outing is not perfect, and the lack of answers will be frustrating, but it has done its job of getting me interested. Tabletop role-playing game fans who want a tale with a little meat and grit to it should definitely give this book a look, although you may want to wait for the trade so you do not have to suffer waiting issue to issue.