Somehow, I let Die amass two volumes before I caught up to Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ hit RPG comic. Part of me is happier for the binge; another part is let down. In that first volume, I delighted in this very dark, very adult fantasy epic. Then I realized I’d seen this world before.
Fantasy is our oldest (arguably first) genre. Swords and sorcery, a recent subgenre. Those of us that play Dungeons & Dragons, World of Darkness, or Magic the Gathering will recognize ourselves immediately. Those of us with a penchant for the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and lesser known but well referenced Charlotte Brontë immediately recognize the inspirations. Gillen acknowledges these connections in quote headers preceding each issue.
Fantasy, particularly following the sword and sorcery tradition, is woefully beholden to tropes and their creators. So much so that despite Hans’ awe-inspiring artwork, Clayton Cowles inventive lettering, and Gillen’s flesh and blood characters, we fail to see anything new. Die casts an unmistakably English-borne fantasy world: ethereal elven queens, charming vampires, an order of Arthurian-cum-Game of Thrones knights, fascist robots perpetually fighting World War I, and merry dwarves with drinking problems.
Despite this, Die does it’s best to take down a few of those stereotypes. Zamorna, the dashing deposed vampire leader of Angria, is revealed to prey upon the fantasies of teen girls. As he did with Isabelle and Ash during their first foray in the game. Issue #11 features Ash acknowledging sleeping with her word-bound husband as rape.
Still, in seeking Isabelle’s approval of her awareness, it rings disingenuous. I wonder immediately, in the spaces between those words, if Ash only realizes this now. Then again, Ash used their dictator-binding powers to make Zamorna their helpless lovestruck King. Ash hasn’t quite gotten the brakes on consent.
Die manages to uphold more than it seeks to undo. Dominic’s Ash is a queer villain who resents Isabelle (the one woman of color) for stealing their best friend. Matthew’s Grief Knight is the only brown face I’ve seen in two issues. He’s robbed of his adulthood joy, and subjected to the whims of a game that manipulates long healed wounds for power.
It doesn’t end there. Solomon occupies the familiar space of tormented Lost Boy and colonizer, a role he shifts onto the party. Gillen flat out explains the worlds that inhabit Die as the works of fantasy gods themselves, established in text as Masters. All Die manages to tell us thus far is that fantasy tropes are less fun as adults. Specifically, white-centered fantasy created for and by white people (for example, N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler invented rich, diverse worlds, but don’t get a seat at the table here).
Despite all this, Gillen gives readers rich, complex and thoroughly human characters. I couldn’t have asked for a better team in Gillen, Hans, and Cowles. Rian Hughes’ design is entirely unique to comics and accessible enough for mass market appeal. I see a TV series in addition to the tabletop game. Yet, I fear it’s mass market appeal that robs Die of imagination. In eleven beautiful, well designed issues, Die fails to subvert any expectations of the world, of Solomon’s revised game, of the party itself. At least it does it with style.