The Road Goes Ever On And On In Die #3…

by Noah Sharma

Die #3 is something.

It’s something new for the series but old, almost unendingly old. Detractors will say that it is something new, but only because no one felt the need or the right to say it. Fans will say that it’s a blend of hope and despair in perfect proportion, all too aware of what it is but never slowing for it. Regardless, like the item from which it takes its name, this series is already showing that things can change, go from bad to fascinatingly worse, in an instant.

Cover by Stephanie Hans

Die #3 is greatly aided by an essay in the back of the issue. Here Kieron Gillen can play to his strengths and acknowledge, in that fundamentally Gillen way, what is true and what is meaningful and what is pretentious and that it was pretentious and why that was worth it in the end. Maybe it’s just the Brit in him, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one of Gillen’s stories that didn’t feel saturated with his self-awareness, at worst neurosis and at best Platonic insight. Die #3 truly benefits from the presence of this essay because it does a huge amount to provide context and humility and time to process together what you’ve just been through together and, in doing so, it doesn’t change that the issue absolutely stands on its own.

To be honest, that’s one of the most striking things about this issue. Though I don’t know that you could give this to someone who hasn’t read the prior two, this is a detour and a smart one at that. It metaphorically and literally falls into the lives of those who are the great heroes of our lives but are doomed to be NPCs in our games. Though the details of the world or dictators or grief knights might not be present, the story of Die #3 is entirely self-contained

Now some of the context I alluded to above is barely even in the series yet; a key example of the essay’s benefits being explaining exactly why there is a front and an Eternal Prussia and a Little England and what they are. But, even so, the story makes sense, even if you have to squint and feel the edges of it.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans

We start in media res but not long after the end of issue #2. Nonetheless, there’s a sense of disconnect that only grows stronger as the issue goes on. Before very long at all, readers are thrown into the heat of things and effortlessly flipped into a strange but distinct story with some kind of comic writing judo.

Now, let’s not deny it, there’s something off-putting about satire of this type that’s too obvious about its source material. Part of that is simply that our societies of copyright and trademark have made it foreign and uncomfortable, but there is also a certain arrogance and disrespect about taking someone else’s work and tearing it down to build your own (even if that exact behavior forms some of the core of western literature). To stumble upon some other character in an unexpected place, seen in a way that cuts through their glamour, starts out fun but quickly curdles into something cruel. It’s therefore lucky that Gillen so carefully walks the line between calling out the foundational work of this genre and making an impassioned filibuster as to why it remains relevant, both choices that could easily go bad.

And make no mistake, readers will recognize the “Little Englanders” almost immediately. Even before they start dropping verbatim character quirks or adopting the appearance of their movie counterparts, you’ll know and, if you manage not to, you almost certainly will when the “Master of this realm” shows up and starts outright paraphrasing the text. There’s an almost acid-wash tonality to Gillen’s approach, scarring the classic down to its marrow but no further, to bring out its inherent quality in sharper (and I do mean sharper) contrast.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans

And much as I’ve dwelled on how dangerous this choice was, I freely admit that Gillen succeeds. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Gillen comic if weren’t meta as all get out about it. “You’re just a bunch of references! You’re all just a bunch of fucking references! But somehow it doesn’t matter and I don’t know why,” Ash screams in her head. It’s a compelling way of addressing, head on, an essential problem of this world and it’s seemingly fictional inhabitants, but it’s obviously so much more than that. Confronted with line, the floor of literal meaning doesn’t collapse but explodes into three dimensional space and then beyond. Not only are these characters only references but these ones aren’t even well disguised, they’re just references but it works. That’s emotional world building disguising a discussion of how RPGs engender narrative power and empathy. And then you consider that these four are not only references to beloved literary characters, but, as this issue so pointedly reminds us, those characters are also ‘just references’ after a fashion. And then those poor boys in Flanders must have read the same kind of stories that Tolkien sought to recapture, potentially sending the cycle ever backwards. And the mechanics fail to fully capture the impact. Once you acknowledge that, in many many ways, the Englanders are ‘just references’ you then have to acknowledge that that “doesn’t matter”, which brings the point home to the here and now.

Now that kind of multilayered, eternal observation is often very broad — it has to be if it’s going to remain applicable to that much — but if you can forgive that, you can see how beautifully kaleidoscopic the subtext of this issue is while the surface remains legible.

“Dungeons” walks that tightrope, always on the verge of becoming too preachy or too obvious until it throws you something new or finds an emotional pressure point to hammer in why its broad, timeless truths are absolutely relevant.

It’s exceedingly strange to see this issue so early in the series’ lifespan. This feels like the way that a creator reinvigorates a book around issue #14 or 20, crafting a single affecting tale to remind you why you’re reading once the initial adventure’s come to an end and they need time to build up the next one without the good will you extend a new series. As Gillen himself points out, this is a stark departure from the feeling of finally understanding what to expect that issue #2 provided. It has a certain disruptive power to sidestep your own story before your readers are even confident in what they’re reading, but it seems to come with a promise, one that’s both horrifying and intriguing; we’ve got at least eighteen sides of this world left to see and, therefore, the opportunity for nineteen or more of these genre exploring gut punches.

The writing itself is strong, occasionally becoming truly fantastic. It feels like we’re only getting glimpses at what this cast can do so far, but that’s as much a pro as it is a con, given how great those glimpses are. I do wonder if this story couldn’t have been an opportunity to give another character the spotlight, but, as written here, it did kind of have to be Ash. Chuck and Angela hold onto the awe in awesome in their brief appearances and Isabelle remains a truly expansive concept that quite likely no writer in mainstream comics has a stronger resume to explore. It’s all sprinkled in very liberally, seeking to convince you that this is a full alternate life that these characters lived and are easily slipping back into, as mysterious and arcane as stepping into a childhood friend’s ‘camp life’ or vice versa.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans

The issue seems at first to deliver a complete transition between our protagonists’ quest and another set’s, but Gillen pulls everything together for a false ending that will make this an issue you remember for a long while after you put it down. And then, of course, he gives us a brief true ending that, while not as complete in the scheme of the comic, is just as affecting.

In its writing, Die #3 is an exceptionally ‘Kieron Gillen’ comic. While it’s rich with things to discuss and consider, there is a degree to which you could ask someone to name the best elements of Gillen’s comics and then check off the majority which appear here. I strove to avoid being redundant in discussing this book, however, I admit that there may not be a way, in turning to the art, around simply saying: this is a Stephanie Hans comic.

This is a Stephanie Hans comic and that means that it’s gorgeous.

Hans excels in stunning paintings that mix distinctively intense light and color with creeping shade and the appearance, but not the presence, of realism. It all combines into a sumptuous fairytale nightmare where concepts like power, physicality, and billowing beautifully are key. It should come as no surprise then that Hans is a good fit for Die.

This issue both limits Hans, depriving her of many colors for most of its pages, and provides a welcome showcase for her capacity for textured compositions. There’s always dust and gas and grit and debris and it captures the beauty of each panel without losing how horrific it all is. And when the blazing orange of flame and fury intrude they help to assure that the gloom is broken up just enough.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans

The layers of color are perfectly willing to announce themselves, letting your eye mix them. The way that shadows cling to bodies is palpable and intense. And the way that Hans draws lips in this issue will stay with you, silly as that may sound.

The moments were Hans deviates from the strict restrictions of the war zone are equally, if not more, telling.The flattened, picture book memories of Little England, complete with Uncle Aslan, are entirely different but no less stunning. Its colors and its styles are entirely different but somehow hold the same strengths within them as the rest of Han’s art. And the sudden blast of color as Isabelle consults with Mistress Woe is gorgeous in its own right but immediately provides essential contrast, reminding you that there are worlds available to Hans. It also plays into how much of a side story this is. “High Magic is for high folks, not the low, folks,” our stalwart hero tells Ash and so too, it seems, are colors, options, hope. The powers of a Godbinder, a Neo, and a Grief Knight break through the gloom occasionally, but they are sidelined for half the issue and we are left with what options remain to the low folk.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans

Despite the despair that permeates the issue and the grimy, hateful aesthetic that defines Eternal Prussia, there really is beauty everywhere you look in this issue. The dance of dead dust and the form of Ash’s dress are both sights to behold and even background details, a character not in focus or the piecemeal appearance of the ground, are visual treats.

The only thing that really ever interferes with the overwhelming beauty of the issue is the variable squatness of characters. Whether their true appearance is slim or a bit wider, there are a couple of places where characters, especially their faces, either widen as if flattened out or shrink into slenderer forms. It doesn’t feel natural the way so much of the issue does.

Die #3 is certainly something unexpected, but you can still count on the thoughtfulness of Gillen’s writing and the overwhelming beauty of Hans’ paintings. Caught in a war between different schools of fantasy — between hope and despair, between Warhammer and King Arthur, between even The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings —Ash finds herself in a different story, one you really ought to read one way or the other.

It would have its challenges for them, but part of me honestly suggests this issue to people who aren’t even reading Die. In a worst case scenario, it won’t be the story for you, but, I think if you like fantasy, it will still be something you’re glad you read, or at least that felt like you should have read it. For those following this series, it’s something different than perhaps you even predicted based on last issue, but, for once, not getting what you wanted in no way diminishes the sense that you will get that out of this series, it just adds a world(s) of new territory to the series. “Dungeons” is visually stunning, adept at serving multiple masters, and paired with a fantastic essay; the kind of comic that, love it or not, you remember positively for a long time afterwards.

Die #3 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.

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