I got too comfortable.
I reviewed Die more frequently and more casually. I anticipated each character’s spotlight as the party fractured. I even started running the Die RPG. But I forgot that RPGs are about the unexpected, and I forgot how Kieron Gillen loves his meta-narratives, which is, of course, a critical failure.
Of the cast of Die I think Izzy is the one I’ve been most interested in learning more about. She checks a lot of boxes for me: Quiet but brilliant, mixed race, fundamentally caring, exploration of control and divinity. Even her class begs for more time, sharing the screen with her deities. I thought it might be her issue when I started reading Die #7. Maybe, in a way, it was. Because, once again, Izzy is sharing the spotlight this month.
Having willfully gotten the party captured last month, Izzy lacks control for much of this issue. Certainly one can’t ignore the pointed absence of Chuck, but, especially knowing the mechanics of his class, I can’t imagine that Izzy is relying on him. No, instead Izzy is consciously powerless so that we can learn something about Angria.
This is a seismic issue for Die. Undeniably, this changes things and it requires the audience to be on the same page without a trip to the university bookstore. As such, this issue deviates from the established character portrait format in favor of a history lesson. Being a fragmentary and marginalized part of history, it’s fascinating to watch Gillen build around the few tent poles that even some brief research will reveal and to see how his attempts at fidelity are matched by a clear desire to make the story his own…or is that against the spirit of the thing?
Interestingly, Gillen’s position therefore mirrors Izzy’s. He’s giving up his power for the sake of the audience’s understanding, letting a narrative that’s not truly his take center stage. In order to successfully move their gambits along, both of them need to make up time in the moments that belong to them. As such Gillen’s writing is, perhaps, unusually sharp in the framing sequences. A muzzled Ash proves no less serpent tongued and each of the characters have moments to establish themselves in a decisive manner. At times it may almost be too much. Cramming this much interplay into a few pages can give the book a slightly unnatural quality. I mean, Kieron Gillen is almost certainly cleverer than you, but you don’t want to know that reading the book and I doubt he does either. He seems lost in his art, misdirection and puns, and were there more pages, it could have stood to be a little more dilute, but there weren’t and he, correctly in my view, gambled that he would need two complete stories working in tandem to sell this issue.
The flashbacks are less harried, seemingly concerned that readers follow the sudden change in genre. These sections are simple and clear and they relish the Victorian staples they bring to the narrative. They are fully satisfying in the moment, but their care to not compound the surprise or overwhelm readers unfamiliar with the history.
Zamorna’s role is also strange. There seem to be no safeguards in place against his interference and the issue wraps up very suddenly once he is formally introduced. He appears and disappears in a flash, waiting for the next issue to truly become part of the narrative, but the revelations about his origins do raise quiet questions about how his most obvious and dramatic attribute in this series came to be part of his character.
The moody lighting and compelling design of Angria’s Master make the present day segments easy for Stephanie Hans to gift with life. There is immense beauty in these moments, even just impressionistically. The way that the colors of light fall and play against the glass prisons of the cast is stunning by itself and it creates a platonic, almost elemental stage for these revelations, a world outside of the narrative where story is the primary language.
As ever, Hans’ angles and panel choice are also very strong. Fittingly for this issue and for Gillen’s work in general, the forceful compositions feel almost like a reconstruction of fan art staples, with their dramatic close-ups, haunting use of negative space, and inquisitive framing. Hans appeals to the joyous, direct part of your brain that exists in your hyper fixations and then gives it all the polish of fine art.
The issue is also unique for its distinctive deviation in style used to represent the Master’s recollections. For these panels Hans is joined by guest colorist Elvire De Cock. The results are incredibly different. So much of Hans’ work is defined by her colors and the soft gradations of light she chooses. But even using just lines, Hans’ art is unmistakably beautiful. There’s still incredible specificity in the characters and their worlds. The muted sepia tones that de Cock works in are certainly limiting but the subtle differences between one shade and the next feel distinct nonetheless. I don’t know that I would want a full series of this collaboration, but it meets all tasks given to it and looks great along the way. Hair and fire in particular draw the eye whenever they take the spotlight.
Gillen remains an engaging a writer in prose as he is in sequential image. Even deprived of the talents of his artists Gillen imbues wit and pacing into the essays at the back of these issues and this month is no exception. It’s largely about how he discovered the concepts for this issue and how that plays into his ideas of writers and their works spiraling around each other. Fun as it is, it is not one of the more essential glimpses behind the scenes. Perhaps the most fun of it is the eeriness it adds to the whole series, though this will depend on your taste for ghost stories. I, for one, love and hate the way it creeps to the edge of the pages…
We also get a brief supplement for the Die RPG, this time giving some tips on how to incorporate Izzy’s pantheon into your game. Not a lot of mechanics are present but it gives a nice glimpse into the philosophy of the different gods she calls upon. I expect this will be a bonus to would be Masters and invested readers of the comic alike.
Die #9 is actually not a particularly strongly written issue of this incredible series, but it really doesn’t matter. The pacing is thrown by the needs of this story but, for any faults, I think GIllen made the right choices for his series here. Things do remain too vague in flashback, the framing sequences are overstuffed, Izzy doesn’t quite get her due, but it doesn’t change that this is a tremendous development that propels the series deeper into its core themes and into a deeply unsettling horror that Gillen has been all too happy to let simmer until we got comfortable. Die remains moody, intellectual, and utterly unwilling to divide itself into any boxes but the ones its story desires–and perhaps the story does desire.
Die #9 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.