Welcome To The Desert Of The Real – Die #7 Reviewed
by Noah Sharma
Never underestimate how frustrating it is for bad people to not realize that they’re wrong. I just don’t appreciate karmic justice the same way when it passes and the shithead who deserved it is just as loathsome as ever and eager to continue victimizing others. We, or at least I, don’t wish that assholes would “know what it’s like” to briefly balance scales but in the hope that they’ll understand how horrible they are and maybe even stop. It’s just that we tend not to specify and know the score well enough to accept that irony is frequently the most we get out of such reversals. It sucks to watch good things happen to bad people but never underestimate how frustrating it is for bad people to not realize that they’re wrong. And never underestimate how potent an incitement to read on it can be either.
Kieron Gillen certainly has. With the party in tatters and a cyberpunk warlock burying her dog, Gillen turns to the other half of the group for the second issue of Die‘s second arc. Izzy and Chuck were, in some ways, the quietest members of the party, present and meaningful, but largely confined to their roles as intermediary with the deus in deus ex machina and sarcastic comic relief. This issue presents a fine chance to break out of those shells, but Gillen knows better than to give the people what they think they want. Isabelle, who momentarily appears to be the issue’s star, remains a quiet and largely passive character, with Mistress Woe filling in for her, but Chuck does get a significant and surprising amount of time in the spotlight. It’s just not what you might expect.
This issue does a lot to explain Chuck and get readers comfortable with him, but it does not humanize him. Instead we discover, in an impressively twisting and thoughtful way, just how inhuman he can be. Chuck’s power is that, as long as he doesn’t take things seriously, things won’t get serious, that is for him. It’s a great concept and one that some of us have seen in the best and worst people we know. It’s the sort of thing that can be very charming in a damaged, nerdy teenager who needs ways to cope, but, in keeping with its premise, (and without acknowledging if it was used in this fashion during Chuck’s first trip to Die) Die explores the trope once it and its owner have grown old and the charm has worn off.
You’re so ready for that moment when Chuck has to reckon with whether his power and his safety is worth the person he has to be to keep it up, but, page after page, opportunities pass him by, making you question whether this is the one that sparks a human response or if one is ever coming.
Perhaps the most interesting moment in Chuck’s development is the one where he admits that he doesn’t consider anything that happens in Die real. It’s a familiar trope and one that is not entirely without validity. The series has done some serious world-building but there hasn’t been a lot of information about where Die came from. Did Sol make it? Did he just discover something bigger than him? The legions of Fallen imply the latter, but then who did make it? An enormous d20 populated with twenty fantasy archetypes doesn’t feel like the sort of thing that comes into being without contact with tabletop gaming culture, after all. Who’s to say this isn’t all fake, that these people aren’t just characters written by a single Dungeon Master consciousness? Chuck chose to stay here, maybe he just wants to be somewhere where things don’t have to matter…
This issue works in cycles — Chuck acts like an asshole -> Chuck’s choices come back to bite not only him but the innocent people around him -> Chuck has to use his powers to make things right and recognize his role in how things played out -> Chuck learns nothing -> Chuck acts like an asshole — and I think the most potent of the “Chuck learns nothing” moments is right there, when he shows us that, deep down, this is who he is in the real world too.
The spiraling structure of the issue is impressive. There are so many of these repetitions in this twenty-five page story and each one feels full and complete, like it might be the one, which only makes you wonder if there will ever be a one. That’s a concept that needs space to play out and finding that space in a single issue without rushing is not easy, so hats off to Gillen there.
The biggest problem with this issue is that, clever as it may be, many readers may find Chuck’s conscious avoidance of moral development to be tiresome. The power of this story to frustrate readers may draw some in, but other will find it tedious. Cramming so much into this issue leaves only a little room for ideas outside the strange parable that reveals Chuck’s nature and, if you’re not up for taking that ride, this might not be the issue for you.
Izzy isn’t completely absent though. While I wish that she could have been more of a character in this issue, what space remains outside Chuck’s trials and hateful victories are given over to her attempts to actually help people. Her story seems primed for exploration in another issue and most of her time here is spent setting up that future glimpse. Zamoma is an archetype that I, personally, find immediately tiresome, but it is a rich one that I’m sure Gillen will make fine use of. I feel like it’s a slightly basic direction to take Izzy, but it definitely challenges her core conceit that she’s the one good member of the party in interesting ways and the ending seems to promise that that will be a core question going forward.
That concept is also used very subtly throughout this issue as well. Isabelle refused to leave Die because she couldn’t turn away from the consequences of the party’s actions. The only person to explicitly side with her was Chuck, seemingly because he was happier playing in his sandbox than going home, but, as we learn more and more about Chuck, the idea of Izzy aligning with Chuck in the name of responsibility becomes increasingly outrageous. I think we all can respect the idea of refusing to walk away from the hurt you caused, but pretending that she has an ally in Chuck seems increasingly difficult. In fact, this issue might actually take things to the point where her most responsible option would have been to go home, if only to remove people like Chuck and Ash from Die.
It remains a dull and obvious task to insist that Stephanie Hans’ art is beautiful. Of course it’s beautiful, and I won’t pretend to be a smart enough critic or a good enough writer to capture that better than the experience of seeing it and knowing that it’s stunning.
This issue offers a surprisingly wide array of ways in which the art is beautiful. The shrouded setting of the issue means that plenty of scenes and panels are beautiful in Hans’ standard fashion with particular and lovely attention paid to the light. However, frequently, there’s also a fieriness to the linework that’s really quite amazing. So much of Hans’ work reads smooth and real when compared to most comic art, so it’s immediately apparent when she introduces sharp, cracking energy into her compositions. There are also moments where Hans leaves subjects feeling unfinished, still harsh and not blended but gorgeous just the same. The colors deserve special attention as well. And then there’s the titan.
I suspect that the titan was one of Gillen’s gifts to Hans. Its place on the variant cover attests just how powerful Hans is able to make the fairly simple concept of an alien giant. Though there are many moments that have greater impact on the story by virtue of Hans’ work, the degree to which the titan remains in memory is a brief testament to how cool and how effective it is.
So there’s really no denying the aesthetic appeal of the issue, but that’s not to say that it’s Hans’ best work, only that it possesses the beauty that she brings to every book she works on. This time there’s a slightly choppy feeling to some of the page compositions. There isn’t as much of a flow between panels, with many depicting staccato jumps between important ideas rather rather than giving the illusion of a single moment. Some transitions feel too drastic, while others are too similar to feel so separate. It doesn’t harm the issue overall, but it feels as though this might have been able to be a stronger issue were it not the case.
Chuck is also not always the most interesting character to look at. There are a couple of moments where his gapped teeth and strong features become a little too much, but even these are still strong panels with a sense of both wonder and reality. And, of course, Hans is a master of capturing the little moments that bear out the strong character focus of this issue. One panel of a smiling Chuck in particular suddenly breaks through his bravado and makes you want to believe that you’re seeing the real person underneath the bravado.
The colors of this issue are incredible. There’s a valid complaint about movie color grading that modern blockbusters have universally adopted a blue and orange palette. This has come about for a number of understandable and fair reasons, but it’s become a mockery of itself. Die shifts and alters that aesthetic by holding onto the orange, but defining its color sensibility around seafoam and purple. It’s a beautiful choice that captures the dramatic power of that blue/orange dichotomy while also feeling fresh and saying a bit more about its ideas. Mistress Woe’s appearances are some of the most obvious examples of the seafoam/violet spectrum and they’re some of the most immediately dramatic of the issue, but before long we start to see a deeper meaning. With violet representing Mistress Woe and Chuck claiming that Hollywood orange as his champion, we start to see a war mirroring the content of the book play out across this issue that casts shades of teal as both black and white. It’s a really lovely effect and one that feels very thoughtful. Chuck even gets the blockbuster blue, as it mingles with the Elf Queen’s pink to represent his soap bubble memories. Rounding out the palette, bright, hungry red ever waits on the outskirts, picking its moment to bring disaster.
Also, these panel exists and I couldn’t think of a way to mention it, but I feel it needs to be mentioned. This rocks.
Like all issues of Die, this one ends with an essay by Gillen. This one is just as clever and seamless as ever, but it’s notably brief, making room for a different kind of bonus content: a scenario for the Die tabletop RPG! This dials the meta nature of a writer writing about writers up to eleven and asks the players to assume the role of the creative team of a successful comic that has since ended meeting up again at a comic convention. It’s a brief but evocative scenario that really shows how malleable the system can be without deviating from its very specific intentions. Being a comics journalist who just interviewed Gillen at one convention and is beginning to plan another, it was a trip to read, but I think that the experience will be fairly universal and bizarre for anyone who follows Gillen’s work and even most comic readers who don’t otherwise. The scenario really just sets you up and turns you loose, which may make it difficult to run for a new GM but it packs a lot into its two pages.
Die #7 is another worthy character portrait that demonstrates just how deep into both the snarls of the genre and the reader’s own head the series can get. Chuck is a difficult protagonist to follow, which will likely either ensnare or alienate readers quickly, but it is a rewardingly difficult trudge through the sandstorm of his ego. Stephanie Hans makes any comic she works on spectacular and this is no exception, though some of the storytelling doesn’t feel like her best. Even so, the colors alone are a magnificent accomplishment and she and Gillen are working beautifully together.
I think the fundamental quality of Die is how deceptively simple and seamless it is. Kieron Gillen is structuring powerful thought experiments as character studies and he keeps the parameters of the experiment simple so as not to confuse the matter. That’s strong writing, but what makes Die stand out is how it connects these clear ideas to other clear ideas to other clear ideas into a web of concepts that flow effortlessly from one into the other and back. The result is a series of stories that are, frankly, unacceptably clever and well crafted. This book really will surprise you page after page with how smart it is and how human it is in spite of that. This is not the most human issue of Die, in fact it might be one of the least, but it knows its reader and how to target their heart as much as their head. This is a simple book that is cleverer than you, and that makes a character like Chuck delightfully insufferable.
Die #7 is currently available in comic shops from Image Comics.