Updated: Jan 25, 2020
DIE VOL.1: FANTASY HEARTBREAKER
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Designer: Ryan Hughes
Publisher: Image Comics
Self-described by Kieron Gillen, himself, as DIE being "Goth Jumanji", I could not be more excited about this series that's been enamoring the comic community for months. So many people have recommended this title to me and with the trade paperback finally released I sat down and read it. More like... I binged it every free moment I had. "Goth Jumanji" is such an oversimplification of the grand story this RPG fantasy horror Image title brings us.
From page one, the art is enticing. Stephanie Hans work looks like oil paintings on print. It's gorgeous, to say the least. Unparalleled in form, each panel is saturated in detail and coloring. For instance, the first page presents two members of the party, Ash and Angela outside of their friend Solomon's house. They are facing it, their backs to us. The lighting Hans has chosen is minimal with a soft gold peering from the top right of the page signifying it's late afternoon (probably early evening) with soft yellow lightning coming through the windows of Sol's house. The symbolism achieved by Hans brilliant artistic vision resonates deeply. As a reader, you can ascertain that where these characters are going isn't going to be fun. Their backs facing us showing they're headed into danger as signified by the dark shadowing of them and the house. So much is said by this one piece of the puzzle. What's astounding is that every panel is like this. As our story progresses, on page 16, the party members are all looking at a magical D20 die that had once transported them to the fantasy realm of their creation. The die is drenched in red seeing as there are blood stains on it. Not only that but it's also shaded with red while laying on a red background. Red universally symbolizes adventure, danger, violence, fire, and blood. The characters facial expressions are reflected on the D20, as well. Looks of horror and sadness are shown through shading that offers us depth into these characters psyches. Again, in just one panel, Hans has managed to identify the pains and fears of these characters about an item that will take them back to a dangerous world. It’s sheer brilliance the amount of symbolism running rampant in this piece.
The art is just one half of the equation. Kieron Gillen's skills as a storyteller are some of the best the industry currently has to offer. Without spoiling too much of the plot, the central conflict of this story is that a group of teenagers gathered together to play a tabletop RPG game, much like Dungeons and Dragons, and were teleported into the fantasy realm they were playing in. They stayed in that world, called DIE, for two years; upon their return, they discovered that what had occurred to them had occurred in real life and their friend Solomon did not return with them. 25 years later, a D20 that was Solomon's shows up in the real world and then they are all sucked back into the world of DIE. The premise of this story isn't anything new. Plenty of fantasy pieces have explored the idea of, "what if we existed in this fantasy game?". However, Kieron's writing shines through his subversion of the fantasy genre. One would expect this to be action-packed and heavy hitting. While there is action that takes place, that is not the forefront of this narrative. Instead, he presents us with severely flawed and emotionally complex characters. The realm of DIE is how Gillen explores the characters relationships, who they are, and their deepest desires. So many fantasy pieces offer us character tropes with basic hero progressions. This is not that type of story.
Firstly, there is Ash; he's one of my favorite characters. In reality, he's just a regular married man trying to live his life. However, in their fantasy realm, his character is Lady Ash, a sharp-tongued diplomat. In this realm, she (Lady Ash) lived an extravagant life with a multitude of boys. I found this so incredibly compelling because character interactions were discussing why it was that in DIE, Ash only pursued men. When asked about it, the response was, "I always envied people with simple answers", "Being Ash was always easy. It gave me so many permissions. I always enjoyed it. That's all I can give you. Make of it as you will." There's so much to unpackage there with so little. Lady Ash gives him the means to express himself and do as he pleases without the innate consequences of his reality. The indulgences he can pursue in this fantasy realm was criticized by his party members unanimously. Interesting since as readers, we barely know anything about his real-world life. Not to mention, as the leader of the party, he is incredibly guilty for all of the pain and suffering the crew has experienced due to his planning and decisions or lack thereof.
Difficult to believe there's so much complexity woven into just one of many characters in this book seeing as all the other characters are just as intricate. Matt is another one of my favorites. In DIE, he is the Grief Knight able to wield his sadness into incredibly power and strength. In real life, he's a statistics professor at a local university, married with kids. Through the fantasy realm, he explores his character through Ash's control. Ash wills him to be sad and through that, we learn about his past traumas. His mother died because of an operation mishap when he was young. Even as a child, he always had a knack for stats and math. The odds of her dying in that procedure was 1 in 100,000. Ever since then, he was riddled with grief and bad luck. Fast forward into the future and he has a daughter named Dot. She came down with a sickness where the chances of her death were a lot smaller than that of his mother. Knowing his luck, she did come to pass. It was a poignant moment in the narrative. Spoken about because a knight had asked Ash to tell a story about bravery and Matt answered instead. Isabelle is another character I care for immensely. She can wield power through the bidding of Gods. She is a character that reflects the overall worldbuilding of this universe. We learn the most about her character through her interactions with the Gods. She goes to the Temple of Mourners to discover what it is that she must do to regain strength. A favor for a favor is how these interactions work. The Gods ask her to read to people in the temple from a book. When Angela begins to read, she realizes that she is reading from her diary and is instantly mortified. She iterates that she is not a good person, has done nothing of work. She speaks of her deep-set self-hatred with herself and her life. She frequently mentions how miserable her real life is as a school teacher.
The characters in this story are so fascinating. In just the five issues that this trade collects, we know so much about these characters via explored trauma. Yet we're left with many more questions about who they are and their journey with each issue. Kieron Gillen's writing stands out from the hurdles and stereotypes most fantasy pieces crumble under. With Stephanie Hans art, a more perfect pair could not have occurred. Each page is colored with a clear purpose and intent. There is special care taken for each character, location, and plot. You can tell that the creators love what they're working on. Further evidenced in the letters by the creators at the end of the book. A clever subversion of the fantasy genre blending horror and character driven, DIE is easily one of the best, if not THE best comic coming out this year. At only 9.99, don’t miss out on this book.