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‘Die’ HC (review)

Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Designed by Rian Hughes
Published by Image Comics

 

Kieron Gillen pivoted from video game journalism to writing comics in 2006 with the urban fantasy Phonogram with artist Jamie McKelvie.

Over the course of nearly twenty years in mainstream comics, Gillen has established himself as a solid storyteller with an aptitude for nuanced characterization and rich world building. Both his independent efforts and work-for-hire on Marvel’s X-Men, Young Avengers, and Star Wars books have garnered numerous awards and nominations along the way.

Gillen’s most celebrated work to date has been DIE, a twenty-issue series in collaboration with French artist Stephanie Hans published by Image Comics from 2018 to 2021.

The series twice received the British Fantasy Award for “Best Comic/Graphic Novel” and was a three-time Hugo Award finalist for “Best Graphic Story or Comic.” Gillen tapped his roots as a gamer for inspiration for this horror-fantasy set within a role-playing game made real.

The series was previously collected in four trade paperback volumes. However, the 2022 hardcover collection of DIE transforms the series into a graphic novel in the truest sense.

DIE begins in 1991 as six teenagers vanish during a role-playing game at a birthday party. Five of them reappear two years later unable to explain their whereabouts or what happened to their missing friend Solomon. More than two decades later, the prospect of locating their lost friend reunites the group and transports them back inside the world of the hellish game that claimed two years of their lives. Within this game-turned-world, the players become their characters on a planet shaped like the iconic RPG twenty-sided die and mysteriously populated with the fantasies and nightmares of Charlotte Bronte, H.G. Wells, and other notable writers.

Artist Stephanie Hans employs a painterly style with a flat, muted palate to realize Gillen’s story. Her approach brings a distinct visual unity to the book, whether rendering the bizarre landscapes of the icosahedron shaped world of DIE or reimagining the creations of Tolkien and Lovecraft amidst steampunk war machines and cyberpunk zombies. But a world is nothing without people, and Hans’ expressive character work does as much of the storytelling as Gillen’s words.

Characters are the heart of DIE.

Gillen is a strong ensemble writer, and each of the six main characters are given equal space to grow and develop as he weaves their personal journeys and their interrelationships consistently throughout the story. Gillen fully embraces the possibilities of his characters as role players to explore the uncomfortable and difficult struggles they each face.

While the six characters and their story are fully engaging, Gillen’s carefully conceived world building allows him to explore and comment more broadly on the nature of fantasy and the utility of games and role-playing. The world of DIE and its various lands and people are drawn from the work of some of the literary forebearers of modern RPGs providing a bit of a history lesson along the way.

This hardcover edition of DIE demonstrates that Gillen and Hans set out to make a true graphic novel filled with vivid personalities, a robust world, and big ideas. “This is fantasy for grown-ups,” Solomon, the teenage gamemaster, tells his friends before they play. DIE is a fantasy with real insight into the human condition.

This well-crafted story is as multi-faceted as its titular twenty-sided die and rewards multiple readings.

 

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