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Die HC
Image Comics

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‘DIE’ HC review

Don’t play yourself – buy this book.

I remember stumbling upon the first issue of DIE back in 2018, and finding myself both entranced by the artwork and confused by the purpose of the story. I understood that it was meant to simulate a tabletop game, but the strange mixture of semi-foreign archetypes and story beats (particularly the seemingly abrupt ending to issue #5) found me dropping it with issue #6. I always told myself I would get back to it, particularly since I’d had such a blast reading Gillen’s other works, like The Wicked + The Divine and Young Avengers (fitting, as both were made by the creative team of Gillen and McKelvie). But as time went on, DIE fell further by the wayside, and media was released that I felt more compelled to read, watch, play, or otherwise explore.

And then I actually played Dungeons & Dragons.

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Now, with the benefit of the glorious context of more than a year’s worth of play, I have plunged headfirst into the world of DIE, written masterfully by Kieron Gillen with equally immaculate art by Stephanie Hans.

Without spoiling too much, the 20 issue series recounts the tale of six friends who, upon meeting up one night to try a new tabletop game of one member’s own design, find themselves whisked away to a dark fantasy land a la Narnia or Fillory. Two years later, they return, albeit less one of their number, and with no ability or desire to speak on where they have been. 25 years after that, they are brought together once again, this time by central protagonist and narrator Dominic Ash, after he receives a D20 that belonged to the party member that didn’t return 27 years ago. Chaos ensues as the party of five suddenly find themselves back in the nightmare they thought they had escaped.

As someone who was (initially) used to almost exclusively Big Two superhero titles, DIE‘s format of five-issue arcs initially confused me. However, once I put together that the entire series was playing with the notion of tabletop games as a genre, the idea of four five-issue arcs coming together to form a 20 issue collection became brutally obvious. But that wasn’t the only brutal element of this collection, as Gillen and Hans not only successfully populate a hellish landscape with memorable locations and well thought out characters (not unlike a good Dungeon Master), but make the world reflect the characters’ own internal worlds, complete with healthy helpings of guilt, shame, regret, mourning, and more.

Each character sounds unique and, perhaps more importantly, real. These are people that have been removed from the lives they know, for a second time, and are struggling to deal with that which they left behind in Die and the real world. Whether that’s the vice-grip of depression, the tribulations of divorce proceedings, facing one’s own mortality, or an unresolved love triangle with an immortal murderous heartthrob, Gillen gives each party member room to breathe and explore their internal darkness, both together and separately. While splitting the party is never advisable in-game, Gillen’s unique character pairings make for thought-provoking dialogue to say the least.

That’s not to say that it’s all doom and gloom, as there are portions of the story that are genuinely humorous (darkly or otherwise), and plenty of well-earned moments of hype and payoff. Suffice to say, Gillen puts this party through the wringer, and Hans is able to realize the party’s trials in stunning fashion.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans. Credit: Image Comics

Moreover, Hans’ art has a strangely dreamlike quality to it in the opening chapter, as well as each character’s flashback sequence that shed light on their respective traumas. I find that this illustrates (ha) the idea that, compared to Die, the real world is less real to the party, not necessarily because they yearn to return to it (at least, not all of them), but because Die has more of a hold on them than they realize. Further, Hans employs an initially limited color palette to great effect, painting the panels with incredible combinations of black, white, red, and gold for the first arc, before introducing more vibrant greens, golds, violets, and blues in the second. And that’s just the interiors; the covers are excellent too, particularly issue #4’s in how it illustrates the dichotomy between the real Angela and her in-game persona.

  • 'DIE' HC review
  • 'DIE' HC review
  • 'DIE' HC review
  • 'DIE' HC review
  • 'DIE' HC review

However, unlike a well-made die, whether injection-molded or cast, DIE is not without flaws. For all the story that Gillen is able to spin (and boy, does he spin a story here), some of the more esoteric elements regarding what the world of Die is, as well as the systems that govern its workings, may be frustrating for some readers and may require more than one reading of a given scene to fully understand. That is not necessarily a bad thing, rather, Gillen’s writing style leaves some things to the imagination, for better or worse, though a re-explanation or clarification is often offered either in the following chapter, or later down the line.

In addition, though none of the writing is explicitly bad, there is a point beginning around the end of the second arc where I feel the narrative lags ever so slightly, buckling momentarily under the weight of the plot and the things happening rather than focusing on the characters and their inner demons. However, as I said, this is only momentary, as not only do these second arc plot elements become important later, but a plot development in the middle of the third arc swiftly reinvigorated my interest, and Gillen does not let up until the game reaches its only logical conclusion.

Finally, and this is really just me nitpicking, there are a number of “British-isms” that Gillen employs that are lost on me as an American. Whether or not these detract from your personal experience with DIE is entirely subjective. They didn’t pull me out of the story completely, but having to wonder what Gillen is saying when he says something like “A-levels” or “battered sausage” (even if I turned my brain on to observe the context of the saying) was, at times, a drag.

Interior art by Stephanie Hans. Credit: Image Comics

A few rapid-fire items that I liked but couldn’t find a place for:

  • LGBTQ subtext (and blatant text) abounds
  • A number of cameos that made me smile are peppered throughout the story
  • Gillen writes a great sibling dynamic between Ash and Angela
  • Issue #7 includes a very clever sidestepping of exposition by Gillen
  • Matt is the GOAT
  • So many quotable lines
  • Minor spoiler: That Gillen is somehow able to tie the COVID-19 pandemic into this is pretty neat

All in all, if you are a fan of tabletop games with friends, you will enjoy DIE. If you like old English literature, you will enjoy DIE. If you can appreciate flawed characters and a story that will have you turning the pages to find answers to questions you never thought to ask, whether about the story or yourself, you will enjoy DIE. Don’t play yourself – buy this book.

Die HC
‘DIE’ HC review
Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans craft a remarkable dark fantasy universe in this 20 issue saga that serves as an exemplary celebration of tabletop gaming at its best and worst.
Reader Rating1 Votes
Excellent character writing and worldbuilding
Breathtaking art to accompany the words
Several moments that left me speechless; setup and payoff out the wazoo
Not necessarily a happy ending, but a very real and satisfying one. Might not even be an ending if Gillen decides to continue the series...
Fun cameos and commentary on the real world, throughout history and into the modern day
Gillen's writing style does not always immediately present information in the clearest way
Drags ever so slightly in the second arc
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