DIE Volume 1: A Whole New World With Just One Roll

by Richard Bruton

DIE is Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans doing Dungeons and Dragons, the old cartoon series where a group of kids were sucked into the fantasy land of a D&D RPG, with more than a dash of CS Lewis and Moore’s Miracleman thrown in for good measure.

Thing is, by doing it right, doing it straight, and doing it with incredible style, they’ve created a fantasy horror RPG comic that’s one of the most dense and readable comics on the stands right now.

And the title? Yes, its double meaning soon becomes obvious. This really is a D&D horror comic. What happens when your youth goes? What would you do to live a fantasy? And what would happen if you stayed in that fantasy for far too long?

The whole idea of the series came from a throwaway conversation Gillen had and the nagging question of “Whatever happened to the D&D cartoon kids?” But there’s no irony here, no sardonic digs at the idea, no sarcastic tone. Gillen loves gaming and DIE is all about gaming, about what it’s like to get into the world you create.

It all starts in 1991…

Six young friends get together, to play a game created by one of them, Solomon, fuel for their rich young fantasy lives. The players pick their characters and settle down for a simple night of gameplay… except Solomon’s game is something different…

This isn’t a dungeon bash. This isn’t 10×10 rooms of orc genocide bullshit! This is Thomas Covenant! This is RPG-Watchmen! Hell, this is Gormenghast.
You have no idea how good this will be. This is fantasy for grown-ups.

And we were sold. Because we were deluded enough to think that’s what we actually wanted.

One roll of that die is all it takes to start the game and change their lives forever…

The next thing we see, with a wonderful turn of the page, is five of those six, broken, lost, genuinely unable to say what went on, as they return to the real world, two years later.

Another turn of the page and we’re suddenly 25 years later, the timejump for us nearly as disturbing as it is for them, the sense that none of them can forget what went on in the fantasy world and, no matter how horrible it was, the trauma of the real world is just as bad, in its own grey, mundane fashion.

But, of course, they’re always going to go back, everything thus far is setting up the moment when they find themselves back in the game, back to the world of DIE, where things have transformed from a fantasy land into a nightmare.

And then, we’re jumping from D&D and CS Lewis’ Narnia to something that almost nods towards Alan Moore’s Marvelman/Miracleman, that same sense of exploring just what would happen if a child with powers beyond imagining had free reign to do just what they wanted, shape a world just the way he wanted.

The rest of this first volume is all concerned with exploring the realm, with the five transformed into heroes, healers, warriors, all the old standards of RPG gaming characters, recast here as Dictator, Grief Knight, Godbinder, Cyberpunk warrior, and Fool. We follow them as they go after the Game Master, discover what happened to their sixth member, and attempt to return home.

Gillen’s structured it so beautifully, keeping me as the reader totally invested in the story, really dense storytelling that unfolds with ease, unpacking so much in what is really an epic, world-building beginning.

And there’s darkness here, of course there is, it’s a fantasy made real and then given 25 years to go wrong. The knight bound by eternal love who can’t rest even once dead, his eyes eaten by maggots, yet still his heart calls out, the Prussian Steel Dragons, all ‘chlorine and cordite‘ across an endless battlefield full of canon-fodder creations. Gillen and Hans make them real and brings the horror of war to life in a magical unreal place.

Or, as Ash says, later in the tale, as we’re discovering just why and how Dominic became Ash in this place…

I always envied people with simple answers.
If you’re looking for a simple answer, you’re reading the wrong story.

DIE is one of those most marvellous of things, a comic of real, true collaboration, where writer and artist work as a perfect team. And with Stephanie Hans, the art comes to life on the page, giving a good, well-written idea the wings to become brilliance, allowing these beautiful, horrific, fantastical worlds to unfold, just as they should, and it’s all thanks to Hans’ amazing talents.

There’s a particularly illuminating essay from Stephanie Hans in the back of this collection, alongside Gillen’s always entertaining writer notes, where she talks of the artist’s job of delivering delicate feelings and raw emotions, how she added a theory of colour to bring meaning to scenes. And how the bleak, claustrophobic reality breaks into the wide open spaces of the fantasy world. She talks of the relationship between writer and artist as a dance and the book as a musical score, a melody that she organises, and on every single page of DIE, you can see just what she means.

As an illustration of just how brilliant I think Hans’ work on DIE is, I’m going to leave you with my two favourite pages in the entire first volume, two pages that, I think, capture everything she talks about in how the artwork is constructed. We’re still in the real world, but it’s a moment where the DIE returns, where Dom/Ash realises they have to go back to the fantasy land, to see what remains, to see what happened to Solomon.

The way Hans fills those two pages with striking colours, overwhelming the previously dour, dark, muted shades of the real world, as the fantasy colours leak through, the perfect representation of Dom/Ash making the decision to go back, to change all their lives all over again – it’s just gorgeous and clever and beautiful, all at once.

And here’s that first panel blown up, just to prove a point…

Hans’ artwork really does elevate DIE to the level of the superb, and I’m certain Gillen agrees.

DIE is one I missed in the initial issues. But, thanks to catch-up with Volume 1, it’s not a mistake I’ll make again. DIE is a wonderful, wonderful comic that’s highly recommended.

DIE – Volume 1 – Fantasy Heartbreaker – released 5 June – written by Kieron Gillen, art by Stepahnie Hans, letters Clayton Cowles, design Rian Hughes. Published by Image Comics, collecting issues 1-5 of DIE.

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