“You have no idea how good this will be. This is fantasy for grown-ups.”
In 1991, a group of teenagers were promised a tabletop gaming experience like no other. One by one, each of them described their characters and were handed one of six unique dice by their friend Sol, the gamemaster – this was the last anybody had heard of them for two whole years.
Eventually, five of the six teens were found on a road near Nottingham, with one of them missing an arm. None of them were able to explain what had happened or where Sol had gone. That is, until a 20-sided die arrived in the mail decades later, dragging them kicking and screaming back to the fantasy world they thought they had escaped.
Fantasy-horror graphic novel DIE has not only been one of the best-selling books across Nottingham’s comic shops this year, but also one of the most critically-acclaimed worldwide thanks to the spellbinding creativity of writer/artist team Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans.
From the get-go, readers will be absorbed into the world of DIE by Hans’ gorgeous watercolour artwork, as well as the excellent character designs that blend swords and sorcery with elements of sci-fi. The main cast is memorable and diverse, with interesting abilities that reflect their personalities and parody the archetypal RPG classes, making this comic almost like the Dungeons & Dragons equivalent of Watchmen.
Gillen fills each page with drama and symbolism – beneath the epic exterior, this is a story about trauma, conveyed strongly by exposition from troubled protagonist Ash: “We can survive anything but our past.” Bit by bit, we are shown snippets of events that defined these people even before their first foray in this dangerous dimension.
Not only does DIE acknowledge its influences, it makes them part of the story, so there are plenty of nods to works like Lord of the Rings for seasoned fantasy fans to lap up. Plus, there’s enough gore and profanity to fill that Game of Thrones-shaped hole you’ve been carrying since May.
While it’s certainly engaging throughout, the book isn’t quite as readable as some of the other comics to hit the shelves this year. While each of Hans’ pages look wonderful as a whole, the art lacks the dynamic feel that tighter linework and panel-to-panel action can offer – similarly, the overall plot progresses rather slowly as it mostly focuses on exploring the characters instead of providing twists and turns.
This may mean that readers will be more inclined to put the book down after each chapter, rather than steamrolling through all five in one sitting. Yet, no matter how long it takes to get there, the shocking ending will have you eagerly awaiting the sequel and formulating your own theories about what is coming next.
The back of the book leaves a few clues in the form of essays that put you in Gillen’s head and peel back the many layers of DIE. Along with these there’s some background into Hans’ art, recommended further reading, and even a link to a free 130+ page manual on how you and a few friends can play your own version of the role-playing game.
The graphic novel is just over £8 with a student discount at Page 45 (Market Street), or even less if you subscribe to their monthly book club, making it one of the best-value comics you can buy right now. Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans may well have just kicked off the next big comic franchise – so why not take a chance and roll the DIE?
By Jamie Morris
Feature image artwork by Stephanie Hans, courtesy of Image Comics