A group of kids. A magical world. A realm of adventure.
We’ve all seen it and read it. It’s a premise that goes back ages, reused, refurnished and refocused by a number of creators across various mediums. It’s a universal idea and therein lies its appeal. It speaks to the period of youth, for those experiencing it and for those who will not do so again. It’s about a time when everything is still uncertain, more so than ever. A time where in so much is heightened and huge, where in dreams and great hopes prevail. You don’t quite know who you’re going to be, what you’re going to do and what you truly want. And that’s exciting, because you get to venture out and find out. There’s a world of discovery ahead. But at the same time, there are those who are terrified by all this, the not knowing, the impending arrival of eminent change, where in choices must be made. Thus an escape is desired. In either case, the realm of fantasy and kids venturing out into it to discover a whole new world and maybe themselves and what their relationship to it is, remains a powerful idea.
For those beyond that time, it’s almost nostalgia, it’s a lens on a time gone by, it’s reliving the experience and spirit of that youth, where in everything seems possible, where in you feel if you push hard enough, the world will shake. A world can be saved by a single youth or a magical artifact. The greatest troubles are either a literal cruel monster or an arch-villain garbed in all-black. It’s all so…simple, but it’s also symbolic, heightened and idealized to speak not to strict reality the way regular stories do. It’s power fantasy or wish fulfillment and in the most unfiltered, raw fashion. The ultimate ‘What if?’; what if you and your friends could just go off to this other magic world unlike our own, where in all of you are special and get to do the impossible? It’s a conceit even more liberating than that of the superhero, which, conventionally, is built around navigating our own world. You don’t need to trouble yourself with the hassle of homework the way Miles Morales does if you just go off and live whatever life you choose, in a world where you are everything and where you get to make or control the rules. It’s that imaginary world within us all, given life, letting us share it with our peers to experience something together.
Except, it’s not.
Crafted by the creative team of Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, Clayton Cowles, with Rian Hughes on design and Crissy Williams editing, Die follows a group of kids-Sol, Ash, Angela, Chuck, Isabelle and Matt. Sol makes a game for Dominic’s 16th birthday in 1991 and then they all vanish into the game. Inspired by numerous things but with its genesis in asking the question ‘Whatever happened to those kids in the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon? Did they ever make it home? And if they did, how were their lives after?’, it’s a narrative steeped in both the fundamental appeal of the fantasy genre and its root premise as well as the joy of games. Specifically, role playing games, ones where in you participate with your friends by picking classes and defining a ‘character’ to inhabit, where in you’re part of a shared story.
As thrilling as fantasy and RPGs are, they both come with a price, as with most things. Most obviously, the price of time. And so Die first sets that up, with the kids losing 2 years of their lives and just going completely missing. Then add to that the fact that one of the kids, Sol, their Dungeon Master, never makes it home like the rest. And even those made it back haven’t gotten off easy. Angela lost her arm. Ash has a scar on his chest. Now, throw in the fact that the kids just cannot even speak of what happened and what they experienced. And thus 25 years pass, with not a word being spoken on what truly happened, with their friend never returning, with the damage from that period still intact. How terrifying is that? You’re in your 40’s and you’re still wrecked by this thing from when you were 16, you still can’t talk about it, process it or move past it. It haunts you, eternally.
It should be evident what Die is by now. Fundamentally, it’s a deconstruction of the beloved premise and story discussed at the start, grounding the conceit in great emotional verisimilitude and honesty. ‘What would it really be like for these teenagers to go through all this and to keep it secret and go on living?’ All the wonder and luster of fantasy suddenly curdle until only horror is the dominant force here. Trauma, anxiety and pain are the key ingredients. We love fantasy because it can be both possibility and escape for us, it’s whatever we want it to be. But it’s also not free, it has a price, as all things do. You don’t get to just slay a dragon and walk away scot free. And that’s part of why Die explores – what has the love and obsession with fantasy and games really cost? It’s taking a hard look at yourself, your life, the people around you and your obsession and asking yourself what all you may have lost in pursuit of it.
At its heart, it’s about returning to the fantasies of your teenage self and being trapped and lost in there, having to desperately reconcile those fantasies, those hopes and expectations with the adult realities of your current self. It’s as impossible as reading an old diary where in you wrote down the most embarrassing things, notions which now make you wince, hopes that make you sigh and thoughts that make you cringe. It’s a hard look at nostalgia, the things that once were, that which you once loved to some degree and now you’re no longer that same person. It’s who you thought you were, would be and wanted to be vs who you actually are and ended up as. It’s taking stock of your life and the things that take up so much of it.
And thus our heroes, in their 40’s now, get plunged right back into the reality of Die, where in their friend Sol still lives. The boy whose whereabouts they can’t even convey to his poor, broken mother, who they turn away and call the cops on, because they can’t even mouth a word. And it’s looking at that boy, who no longer is a boy, who has been trapped all along in this fantasy world and never came back and seeing the worst nightmare of one’s heart. The loss of Sol is literal here, but the ‘loss’ can be figurative as well, people can be lost and they can change due to their obsessions. That’s kind of the point. And thus Die becomes a meditation on grief, on loss and what it is like to want things and maybe even get them, but they’re not quite what you imagined. Things did not line up with your expectations. For is that not fantasy? Wanting something. And then it all comes true, you get it, but it’s all oh so wrong. Not like this. This isn’t how you wanted it, this is never how it was supposed to be. This wasn’t meant to be the cost, this is is not what you dreamt of.
Fantasy and reality, identity and stories are the key themes of the book, which is why the world of Die is a massive 20-sided world forged to the liking’s of the youths of yesterday. Their made up personas in the role-playing fantasy world as opposed to who they are in the real world is part of the journey here, exploring who they are, who they were and what they can be. Are they truer to themselves in this world, set free from their inhibitions with little to no judgement awaiting them? Or are they better put together in our real world? It depends and varies with each individual character. Even the ‘classes’ and the definitions of who their characters are, serve to highlight the theme of identity. Ash, who is a man married to a woman in the real world, is a key example. In the world of Die, Ash is a woman and is attracted to men and is quite comfortable with it. Thus identity, in a number of ways, is a core part of the book.
And the world-building of Die very much aids the team in exploring the characters here. It’s extensive and perhaps far too much, with Gillen even going as far as designing an RPG, which has a beta out right now. A new mix of classes and ideas have been developed for the entire enterprise and that depth and texture is evident even in the comic. But despite all that, it’s personal. It’s reflective of teenage dreams and it’s a world designed around these kids. Thus the Elven princess looks like the popular girl from sixth form, the monstrous guard is the bully from that period, a young girl’s diaries are religious texts, so on and so forth. All your fantasies are made real and laid bare, both in the best and the worst ways. The series almost operates like a fun-house of mirrors, distorting things to perhaps get to a truth or strip away a lie. Although you could replace the ‘fun’ there and dub it a ‘dread-house’, since with every passing moment, it builds and builds in the book. With Stephanie Hans’ dashingly dreadful palette that relies heavily on reds and blacks, it’s like a constant emergency siren and an alarm, gleaming far more crimson than any alarm. Every second the characters are here, they’re losing time. That’s every minute, hour, day or week they won’t be with their families and friends, who they have obligations to. There are people out there who need them, expect them, rely on them, love them and trust them. And here they are…just gone. There’s a distinct sense of urgency and tension to the book as the characters desperately wish to get back home, or at least some do.
The chief antagonistic force who doesn’t wish to? It’s Sol. He’s that obsessive lover of fantasy and games, who wants to eternally indulge and be trapped in this story he’s made. And that conceit isn’t particularly new for Kieron Gillen. If you take a look over at The Wicked + The Divine, the antagonist there, Ananke, is very much in that same boat. And if you take another look at Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt, the chief foe, Thunderbolt is not all that different. Both are characters who are storytellers, but they’re selfish, stagnant, repetitive and indulgent ones. They’re very good at what they do, to be sure, but they’re obsessive perfectionists with only one design and when that crumbles, they’re left with nothing. They are nothing. They are hollow, utterly empty, unable to change or evolve beyond what they’re caught up with. Sol is very much cut from that same cloth here, a man in his 40’s who is still effectively stunted and trapped in this fantasy, this single design he’s made. Another notable comparison with Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt is that while Cannon is a fictional, fantastical character that travels to the real world and gains perspective, becoming better, Die is an inverse of that. Die is real people entering a fantasy world, interacting with fantasy figures to find something, a way home, their friend and perhaps even a part of themselves that they left behind or have repressed.
All of these three books are, if you’ll notice, about stories being traps and being trapped in them and exploring the damage or loss incurred by them and how people may move past that and forge forward. Amongst all of them, nostalgia is a vital ingredient. In a world full of nostalgia culture, with Watchmen sequels, prequels, movies, TV shows and hundreds of Tolkien-tryhard works, Gillen’s work here ruminates on how much that nostalgia, that obsessive inability to let go and move forward has truly hurt us. And if Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt was a specific critique and assessment of superhero fiction, Die extends beyond to the specificity of fantasy fiction. While setup to be a Planetary-like exploration of genre, the book also has a lot in common with Planetary‘s dark inverse, Injection, which is also by Ellis. The deeply damaged characters who have a history and must deal with the mess of their own making from the past in a book that always skews to horror, with the book shifting storytypes and influence every arc, that is very much present in Die.
However, none of that could ever be possible without Stephanie Hans’ gorgeous work here, matched with Gillen’s beloved collaborator, the stellar letterer Clayton Cowles. Hans renders the world of Die in gorgeous abstract beauty, where you may not see every detail, but the sheer aesthetic power is almost overpowering. Deconstruction is a hard task, as if you miss the mark on what it is exactly you’re deconstructing, it all falls apart. That applies especially here, when a book is aiming high. Hans is why the book succeeds, as she perfectly and succinctly captures what it is about fantasy that was so alluring in the first place, encapsulating why we ever loved it and chased after it. From mechanical dragons, giant gods, she imbues all of them with life in her lush painting-esque style. Then jumping the other way entirely, she makes the book’s core sensibility of dark fantasy real. Horrific zombie-armies, creepy grins and carnage feel as visceral as needed, as the emotions running high in each moment from fear to passion to rage all explode in a glorious splash of color.
Then comes Cowles’ lettering, bridging Gillen’s vision and voice with that of the mighty creative explosion of Hans’ work. The work is a lot different from what Cowles did on WicDiv, having to serve a lot of Gillen’s captions here, as the writing exerts a certain control to provide perspective and anchor the flowing art, which fits with Ash, the lead and perspective character. Ash tries to exert that control at any given point, guiding the reader through this impossibly imaginative world. That’s Cowles’ task, amongst other things, being the careful navigator and the bridge. However, much like with WicDiv, he gets to establish a whole new set of balloons and fonts to depict specific ideas visually through the text, whilst marrying them to the art. And so his red-black balloons, which whirl like thunderclouds and have serpentine tails perfectly represent the terror of a powerful dictator spell. Now add Rian Hughes’ legendary design sensibility (most are likely to be familiar with his work with Grant Morrison on The Multiversity and that extraordinary map) to the mixture and you have the winning combo that makes this book so unique and special. There’s a real contemporary and stylish sensibility the book evokes, from every single cover image to the trade itself and that really sells what it is effectively.
Die: Fantasy Heartbreaker is a glorious start to what is one of the best and biggest books of the year from an all-star creative team. Marking the first time Hans has done a proper ongoing, being Gillen’s first new creator-owned project since WicDiv, it’s an exciting exploration of why we love fantasy at all. There’s a lot in this volume, from extensive essays discussing each issue, each component of the work, the influences and many more, providing insight on the project to a plethora of designs by Hans, which are all lovely to see. The book is a screeching howl of mid-life crisis rolled up into a dark fantasy. It’s a gigantic piece of criticism forged into a D20, made to be rolled, with results dependent on the audience. So just roll and watch, you may very well be in for a surprise.