Kieron Gillen knows what he’s doing.
Well, obviously, but I really do mean it here. In every respect I can think of, he knows what he’s doing. And, if you’re lucky, you won’t when you start this issue and you more or less will when you put it down.
Die’s first arc comes to a triumphant end this week, all thanks to Gillen’s confident mastery of his craft and Stephanie Hans’ breathtaking painting.
Naturally at the end of this first chapter, with a hiatus that’s as much an indie publishing reality as an Image comics storytelling/brand marketing tactic on the horizon, I find myself thinking about what the collections of this story will be like. Certainly this book is aligned perfectly to benefit from book stores and trade waiters, even more so for the promise of a playable RPG when the trade lands, but each issue of Die has stood remarkably on its own, and this one is perhaps the most strident in this regard. Gillen wastes not a second throwing us into another stable of tabletop gaming: the heist.
Perhaps it’s not a literal heist, but not only is that concept widely applicable to the time honored traditions of devising a complex web of plans, enacting your part of the strategy, and discovering what survives contact with the GM, but Gillen delivers it with a harshly-cut Ocean’s Eleven energy that absolutely earns the comparison. Each member of the party plays a part and each one deals with it in their own way. As Gillen himself acknowledges in the backmatter, Fantasy is ‘supposed’ to be a travelogue, a point a to point b mission where the real adventure was the friends and pronunciations we made (up) along the way. Not here. And that gives it immediate power.
The pacing of this issue is essential as it keeps an engaged reader from dwelling on what many should know is happening: Gillen and his characters are flipping the script. Perhaps the goals established up front remain relevant, but they’re not what you thought they’d be and that’s great. Watching each member of the ensemble effortlessly, if not guiltlessly, put their plan into action is mesmerizing and tells us a lot about who they are. Seeing Ash routinely crush Matt only to rebut his own doubts shows why Ash is still a good person, or at least can still pretend to be one.
The script keeps ramping up and, when the plan is in place, it crescendos again and again, giving us twists more than enough to hang an issue on before spinning them into another. Each one builds off the last one cleverly and leaves Die in a place that’s tantalizing for readers and creative yet deliciously limited for gamers waiting for the full rule set and, best of all, aligns what each wants so that they essentially become one and the same until more content arrives. It’s a clever comment on writing, possibly unintentional but not likely, from one of the few fantasy writers in comics with the triple knowledge of craft, gaming, and fandom to make it so elegantly.
Speaking of which, it’s the little things that make this feel like a real RPG world. The GM’s palpable need for the players to appreciate their cleverness, that awesome thematic ability that the designers left visually intriguing but lacks for practicality, they’re small and they’re not littered about, but these details ring true for anyone who’s played tabletop games.
Now there are some moments that don’t play out quite as cleanly as Gillen expected. Chuck doesn’t feel nearly as clever as the other characters (even taking into account his very different type of cleverness) and, despite being a delightful character, Skywatcher’s introduction is rushed and doesn’t explain itself quite well enough to paper over that harriedness. The twists are masterfully delivered but the second one similarly rushes a bit and conflates some very different places that characters are at in order to make good on that delivery. You could also say that Gillen is so eager to move onto the next phase of this story that he squanders the remaining potential of the first arc’s status quo, but it’s going to be an actual RPG world where players can fill in those kinds of blanks and, compared to the way he links one twist into the next or the slow realization in the Chamberlain’s response as he makes sense of what’s happened to him, it’s hardly damning.
I won’t waste my time building up how gorgeous Stephanie Hans’ art is again, save to say that it should be clear to anyone looking at it. It feels like every page of this issue offers Hans something special and breathtaking to render. This is the finale of the first arc and it’s clear that she is paying it special attention. But before I praise Hans too much, attention and time are not the same thing.
Though I can’t claim to be privy to Hans’ process, it can feel as though some of the time used to give so much of this issue its incredible visual flair had to come from somewhere. There are a number of subjects and panels that are below Hans’ average output. Overall I’d say that the issue more than breaks even, but it’s true that Chuck and the Eternal Prussian intelligence, among other scattered inconsistencies, are somewhat lacking. The flip side of that coin is that Ash’s abilities and Sol are almost universally breathtaking in a way that even this series doesn’t offer as standard.
Hans’ strengths are perhaps the clearest where one color fades into the next, rarely mixing but often blending, and this issue is no exception, even if it does offer a slightly different look at this talent. The contrast and intensity are fittingly turned way up for this issue and Hans really goes wild with her luminescent colors. Even the most mundane scenes are positively bathed in light, color, and dramatic shadow, but the issue is full of big moments that allow her to cut loose. Panels dominated by harsh reds or gradient purples are commonplace and Hans constructs nearly every panel around the flashes and interplay of her colors.
There’s really just so much of this issue that is striking and memorable and, if Hans had to pick panels and moments to focus her considerable talents, she chose perfectly. The big moments of this issue read well and look incredible, all leading to a truly outrageous final panel that overwhelms its simple composition with enormous impact and textural potency.
It doesn’t hurt to mention that Kieron Gillen is a talented writer even without an artist and this issue does nothing to change that. Perhaps it’s not the best of Die‘s supplementary essays, but much of that falls on the requirement of the piece to discuss the book, the game it’s spawned, and their future rather than delve deeper into process or lore. Even so it conveys an admirable insight into Gillen’s writing and history. Gillen has made a career on being not just a writer of comics but a professional comics fan – a distinction that is admittedly limited but, in this case, somewhat artificial. He knows what to provide to give his fans the sense of meaning and access that backmatter is meant to add, but he never gives his game away either. Comic fans will find some delightful musings on a pet theory of Gillen’s and there are some fun ideas about writing that are well communicated through the lens of fantasy and genre fiction, but, at its core, this essay is a wonderful mixture of necessary marketing and sincere excitement from a game creator.
Die #5 bets big on its exhilarating pacing and literary puzzle box of a climax and it pays off. The incredible artistry and style that Hans brings to the title is on full display as the party bounces around Glass Town and makes the final horrible discoveries that propel Die into its next story. Gillen brings an awakened balance of authorial power and respect for the reader/player’s creativity to bear on this series and leaves the series in a place that pushes all the right buttons to get you excited to return to this world, in two different ways, no less! It’s really incredible how this five-issue run functions as a narrative guide to the possibilities of a fascinating storytelling game but functions as a comic on par with any of Gillen’s work, whether you read it without care for the tabletop adaptation or actively avoid it to enjoy the game. This concept is brilliant and seeing it borne out in this manner is wonderful, but Hans and Gillen are both incredible creators and they elevate Die far beyond a pitch for an intriguing gaming system. I don’t know that I’ve ever been as aware or as happy to be aware of Gillen’s craft as I am in this series, with all its expanding fractals of intent and possibility. Whatever else there is to say about this series, Kieron Gillen knows what he’s doing and, by the time you put this issue down, you’ll want to as well.
Die #5 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.