THIS REVIEW OF ‘DIE’ #2 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Mickey Rivera. Comics and tabletop RPGs have gone hand in hand for ages, sister realms inhabited by a particular subset of geekdom that, for whatever reason, is drawn towards speculative fiction for the chance to inhabit a new reality. Die is Kieron Gillen’s attempt to merge these two worlds. It’s a comic about a group of kids that are thrown into a tabletop game that becomes real, and what happens when they return to that fantasy world as full-grown adults. It’s also a tabletop game created by Gillen in which players roleplay full grown adults who are reuniting to play a tabletop game called Die. Though the concept is strange and meta and honestly incredibly interesting, as of issue #2 this comic has yet to give readers much outside some cool ideas and a pretty color palette.
Die is narrated by Dominic, who in the fantasy realm takes on the female persona Ash. In 1991, young Dominic comes to a birthday party for his friend Solomon, who’s promised all his friends a wild night with a strange new game. The group is composed of mostly typical snotty teenagers, with the exception of Matt, whose mother died not long before. As the game begins the teens disappear, then reappear two years later with Solomon missing and Dominic’s sister having lost an arm. The experience haunts them all through their lives. As Dominic grows older someone or something from the fantasy world begins to follow him, sending him messages and threatening “presents” to come. Twenty-five years after their original return from the game world, Dominic reassembles the party. A force from the other world has given him the chance to go back.
This issue takes place entirely in the fantasy world. Each party member has a character class, like in a typical tabletop RPG, and we get to learn about what each can do. These aren’t your typical fantasy or cyberpunk TRPG classes. Gillen’s created class hybrids or adaptations specific to Die. He’s brewing some clever ludo-alchemy in terms of a game about gaming. There is a lot of action here, and overall it’s much darker than the first issue.
Stephanie Hans is Die’s artist, and is amazingly talented. You should check out her cover to X-Men Blue #21 or really any of the work on her website to see for yourself. But it feels like she’s saving her best work for the covers. For Die she focuses on bodies and faces, often ignoring backgrounds entirely. This works on some level, emphasizing the traumatized haze these characters inhabit as a result of their shared experience. Other times it made the world feel ill-defined and unreal. At one point the book’s major villain commands the team: “Look what I’ve done to the Realm of One!” He gestures out around him to the great destruction he’s wrought, but we can’t see much other than the hazed out shadows of some blood red ruins. We can’t look! It mutes the impact of what would ideally be an oh damn! moment.
The biggest problem with Die thus far is that Gillen has pushed these unknown, undeveloped characters in harm’s way without first giving readers a reason to give a damn about whether they get hurt or not. This might be a side effect of the monthly format. Maybe Gillen is playing with indirect ways of connecting readers to characters, and maybe it’s too early to tell if it will work in the end. All I know is I finished the first issue wishing I felt more than pity for these characters, and found myself in the same position by the end of this issue. This is especially frustrating in regards to Matt, the Emotion Knight, who suffered through an immense tragedy as a child even before entering the fantasy world. His character class derives power from these intense emotional experiences, but when he actually uses this power it produced little emotional effect on me because I just don’t know the guy that well.
What may eventually save this book is its potential. Gillen is a brilliant writer, and his involvement in the New Games Journalism movement suggests he has some ideas about the sociology and psychology of gaming. The premise is golden, and could speak to a maturing population of gamers whose lives have been affected by this burgeoning new artform. Hand in hand with a story about gaming comes questions about what kind of people we are when we choose to play pretend. One conceptually juicy quote from this issue sticks out as likely to be prescient: “If it’s fantasy and we treat it like reality, there’s no loss. If its reality and we treat it like fantasy, we become monsters.”
All that’s missing so far is something to fear losing, someone we don’t want eaten by the monsters. That’s a pretty crucial piece. Maybe it’s coming down the pipeline. Regardless of how the book turns out, when Gillen finally releases Die‘s RPG rules come find me. I’m down for a game.
Written by Kieron Gillen.
Art by Stephanie Hans.
Letters by Clayton Cowles.
Design by Rian Hughes.
Edited by Chrissy Williams.
6.5 out of 10
Check out this four-page preview of ‘Die’ #2, courtesy of Image Comics!