I don’t know that there’s anyone who’s good all the way through.
I’m a bit of a romantic and I really do believe that there’s some good in pretty much everyone, but I’m pretty sure the reverse is true as well. And Die is the place where you go to explore who you could be if things were different and, almost always, if things were worse. So at the end of arc two, after something of a vacation from Ash, Kieron Gillen starts asking the big questions. We know she’s doing things for her own reasons, but is she acting for the greater good? If she’s acting for the greater good, does it matter how much good there is in her? Why does she really want to go home? Does she anymore?
The very fact that I can open with that paragraph should remind you that Die is one of the most effective character portraits on the stands today. The fact that all of that is in the text should remind you that this series is dense and thoughtful in a way that even many character driven stories are not. I am very kind to Mr. Gillen in these reviews because I am, truly and sincerely, impressed with the way his mind works, but I don’t think that he is, meaningfully, a vaster or deeper intellect than so many of his contemporaries. Instead, I think what has distinguished a Kieron Gillen comic, what makes them stand out so, is how easily he seems to plug you into these characters, to make you understand both their thoughts and feelings.
This issue, “X-Card”, is structured as a long, slow look at Ash. Izzy is reflected in that cold, red eye and Zamorna is always kept in the periphery, but the Dictator looks directly at the audience and we are grateful when she breaks the tension by glancing away for a moment. That awkwardness, that intimacy, is purposefully undercut by worldbuilding. The issue revels in its misdirection, finding ways to use a coup of Angria to tell us about our cast. It’s a clever and effective way to make your audience overlook the kind of dry ‘tell don’t show’ information transfer that secondary world fantasy sometimes requires, especially in the highly limited format of monthly comics. It’s not perfect–the rules of chains are not fully clear and imply a certain addition to the base rules, as it were–but that makes it interesting. We’re obviously still learning about Die. I mean, why are there vampires in Angria?
Gillen has really made his brand examining youth and the faint line that must exist between it and adulthood. With Die, it’s easy to lose the age of these characters behind their fantasy avatars (some of them are no doubt guilty of it too), it’s easy to forget that they have all grown up twice. But here we’re reminded just how old Ash is, just how mundane, and it feels like a Dictator’s trick. Behind the glamorous dresses and eternal eyes there’s a man(?) who, this issue seems to argue, is either far more deviously complicated than we know or perhaps more horrifically simple.
This issue also delivers some of the insight into Izzy that I’ve been longing for. Here her brilliance and empathy are revealed as deeply disgruntled, unappreciated. We see at once the best and worst of Izzy: how she compensates for her failings and where the many strengths that she uses to do so may fall short against someone like Ash. It’s hard to say if she’s a worse person than we’ve lead ourselves to believe or if her actions in spite of her feelings plant her all the more on the right side of things.
Despite all of this though, there is a faint emptiness compared to the first arc of Die. “Split the Party” has been five more issues of brilliance, showcasing the characters and their world wonderfully, but, while no one can deny there has been significant plot movement, it doesn’t feel as meaningful on its own. One suspects that its true merits will be more apparent further down the line, when the many facets of the characters we’ve been introduced to have room to reflect upon future events. Still, they don’t all glow with meaning in the now. Some provide context, one sets characters on their new path, and others are really their own stories that cross over with the larger narrative. It’s really the endings that are necessary to understand what happened between issue #5 and this one and, with each individual issue being so tightly wound and multi-functional, that can feel odd.
Zamorna remains a fairly archetypical, problem solving sort of character but, man, is his big scene satisfying. There are a lot of questions about he and Charlotte, but he slots into the new direction of the story beautifully. It’s interesting just to watch how his intellect and cunning differ from the player characters’, even as the story encourages you to break down that division.
We’ve seen explicit references to the Bronte’s and the inklings in Die, and it seems that the next phase may well be drawing, in part, upon George R. R. Martin. Izzy and Ash are a team now and, though they’re both being more honest about their faults, they couldn’t be motivated more differently in their desire to be better. Ash’s admission that they “never stopped wanting to play Pendragon” is a lovely bit of writing and one that not only echoes backward and outward into the greater themes of the series, but seems poised to define the character as she goes forward. After all, what are any of us doing if not “playing Pendragon…”
Stephanie Hans remains a rock for this series. The painted aesthetic is a staple of printed fantasy and Hans is one of the premier artists of the form working in comics. Hans’ work draws from the portraiture and religious art that inspired the fantasy greats and that tether to the genre’s origins gives Die an elegant spotlight effect that draws out the beauty of our cast, even as they commit horrible acts. Combined with a restrained, modern goth sensibility, the book finds a sweet spot of unironic fantasy glory, piercing deconstruction, and oddly natural glamour.
I especially love how Hans varies the degree of color in her panels. The interplay between blood red and cyan in this issue is potent, but frequently Ash seems to suck the color out of the room, leaving the scene chilled by the steel in her veins. Sometimes this is even applied unequally within a single panel, giving an even greater sense of focus and drawing the audience’s attention to the way that some people are treated as mindless NPCs.
The appearance of a literal vampire has really allowed Die to be very honest about how it glamorizes horror and this month, particularly, you feel some of the unease of horror alongside the beauty.
Hans also utilizes slightly different hues and styles to represent the party’s past. It’s interesting how their initial foray in Angria, before it went bad, differs from how things wound up. Both are beautiful, but the first act is all rosy colors and blurred lines while it’s only in the second half that the weight and shadow is added back in. Ash and Izzy’s story is sacrifice and pain, what comes before is Zamorna’s story.
This has been a decidedly lyrical review. I apologize for my excesses, but that’s what Die is and what it does to you. Gillen and Hans are playing with fantasy and tragedy as genres and if you’re not looking at how the ideas echo off of one another you’re probably missing a great deal. In fact, as the dust settles on this second chapter of Die, it’s increasingly clear that this arc was all about generating threads that can intersect and grow as time goes on.
Die #10 doesn’t brag about its biggest accomplishment, filling in the history of the Party and their betrayals in Angria, but it is an accomplishment nonetheless. The emotion and quiet horror of these complex relationships are incredibly effective and it’s cleverly couched within a tale of intrigue and magic that will keep those looking for a more traditional dark fantasy adventure satiated. Hans’ art and colors draw Gillen’s story into stark focus that serves to combat the frayed feeling of the arc as a whole. It’s extra sad to hear that Die will be on hiatus for longer than expected, both because this volume was largely in service of future stories and because that criticism doesn’t for a moment change how rich and engaging this world and these characters are. As the party finds itself beholden to its most self-serving members Die moves fantasy away from shades of gray into a beautiful spectrum of colors, but all of them are pretty dark.
Die #9 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.