Doctor Who review won’t be up until Tuesday at the earliest, as I spent most of Sunday running my Werewolf: The Apocalypse game and didn’t watch it until late. But speaking of my gaming habit, I got a chance to read the first issue of Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’s forthcoming comic Die, so I can at least tell you all sorts of interesting stuff about that. Well, sort of. This is my first time in the weird realm of embargos and “spoiler-free” reviews. So I have to tell you how awesome this thing is without actually telling you anything about it that hasn’t already been spilled in interviews already.
Let’s start with the obvious. This thing is awesome. It’s a fascinating book that has all the signs of being a major statement on the nature of fantasy and escapism. You should definitely pre-order it; if you buy physical comics, call your local shop. If you’re into digital or haven’t really bought many comics and just want an easy way to do the thing, you can pre-order it on Comixology. Pre-ordering is massively important with comics because it is an insane industry where nothing is done in a remotely rational manner, so really, if the following sounds like your thing, please go do the thing.
Right. So Die. The premise is simple enough: in 1991, six kids sat down to play a roleplaying game. They disappeared. Two years later, five of them reappeared. When asked what happened and where they’d been, their only answer was “I can’t say.” Surprising nobody who’s consumed any contemporary fantasy media whatsoever, what happened is that they were transported into a magical realm. And now, twenty-five years later, they have to go back.
The most interesting element here, for my money, is the twenty-five years later bit. This gives us middle-aged characters. This isn’t just interesting in terms of Kieron’s work, which has focused on teenagers and young adults to a degree that has been a defining bit of style for him. It’s also interesting as a lens on both roleplaying games and fantasy. I mean, the middle-aged geek is obviously a thing in popular culture, but it’s not actually a perspective represented within it very often, and when it is it tends to be in the Hook/Christopher Robin vein of “reawakening a lost sense of wonder.” Die has the same sense of melancholy implicit in that, but the emphasis is in completely different places; there’s no assumption that growing up involves losing some vital connection to the fantastic. The wounds being confronted are very different from just not being sixten anymore.
The other interesting thing is the suspicion of fantasy. I mean, it’s still the hook of the book, and you’ve got fantasy worlds rendered in lush glory by Stephanie Hans, who’s one of the great painter-artists working in comics right now. She gives the book a opulent, emotional moodiness that’s well worth drooling over. This is a book that relishes the iconography of fantasy. And yet it’s also a book that, in a typically Gillen-esque theme drop, proclaims the game they’re about to play in 1991 to be “fantasy for grown-ups,” then muses “we were sold. Because we were deluted enough to think that’s what we actually wanted.” Fantasy is seductive, beautiful, worth obsessing over, and something that will destroy your life. Die doesn’t just want it both ways, it insists that both ways are the only way to have it.
Kieron has said that the book has a strong Planetary influence, and so it’s clear that as things go on we’re going to get a forensically knowledgeable dissection of gaming and fantasy in terms of influences and secret histories. Having geeked out with him about RPGs, I’ve little doubt he can do this with thrilling exhaustiveness. But this is also clearly a book that is set to work if you don’t have that knowledge. It knows its stuff well enough to do a good job, but also well enough to explain. (Indeed, the first issue at times takes pains to, making explicit even relatively basic things like that the title is the singular form of “dice.”)
This is also Kieron’s first big post-WicDiv project, and the mastery of craft shows. The first issue, at least, lacks any of the formalist fireworks that WicDiv can indulge in (which is for the best, as those things really require a super tidy artist in the Dave GIbbons tradition such as Jamie McKelvie, as opposed to the suggestive and painterly quality of Hans), but there’s a wealth of small touches that speak to the fact that the writer is extremely confident in the form. We only get patches of how the characters have changed in twenty-five years or how the fantasy world works, but the details chosen for revealing are fascinating, suggestive, and gesture at lots more story to tell.
All in all, it’s a cracking first issue of a book that’s clearly worth getting in on the ground floor of. If you care about fantasy as a genre or roleplaying games as a medium, it’s essential reading that deftly works the theme from both ends. It’s absolutely mad with ambition; Kieron has apparently written a rulebook to actually do the setting as a functional game, which is possibly the single most insane comic book tie-in I’ve ever heard of. I can’t wait to read more of this. I can’t wait for other people to read it so that I can talk spoilers. It’s another fucking masterpiece from Kieron Gillen. Buy it.
Die can be preordered at Comixology or at your local comic book shop.