Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Image Comics
What do you do when your best friend creates a tabletop game for your sixteenth birthday and it results in your entire friend group disappearing into a fantasy realm for two years? In the first issue of Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ Die, elements of Jumanji combine with Dungeons and Dragons to birth a creepy, fantastical story about trauma, death, rebirth, and friendship. The story is, thus far, exquisite. Hans’ hyper-realistic art style lends an air of urgency to the story that is emphasized by the breakneck pace of the issue’s time jumps.
Die follows Dominic, a.k.a. Ash, who receives a mysterious gift 25 years after his best friend fell victim to the fantasy game he built for their collective entertainment. Ash, his younger sister Angela, Chuck, Matthew and Isabelle barely survived their roleplaying experience as teenagers. As traumatized adults who’ve each dealt with what happened to them in vastly different ways, confronting those memories comes at a cost, especially since their friendships haven’t managed to last the test of time or grief over what happened that fateful night in 1991.
There are several elements at play in Die #1 that deserve special attention. First, as mentioned above, is Hans’ hyper-realistic art style, which makes the story hit just a little too close to home. There’s something deeply unsettling about the blurred lines, muted lighting and ghostly pallor of the characters as they navigate their lives, especially because the art style doesn’t change when they enter the fantasy realm — the color palette just brightens exponentially, the saturation turned all the way up to 100. Reds, blues and whites contrast to set the mood of each scene, defining the emotions of the characters as beautifully as their lovingly-rendered expressions.
Second, of course, is Gillen’s writing. He’s proven that he’s adept at writing ensemble stories, from his work on Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men to his other Image Comics series, The Wicked + The Divine. In Die #1, Gillen deftly crafts a narrative that relies on magic and mystery to build tension, all without losing sight of the emotions his characters are feeling. This premier issue is gloomy and gothic and frightening, but it’s also real in a way that left this reviewer feeling like her skin was on too tight by the time she finished reading.
To make projections about what will happen next in Die would be an exercise in futility, because the story has already taken unexpected twists and thrown its characters directly into the fire with hardly any exposition at all. Whatever Gillen and Hans have planned for the long haul will surely be a breathtaking, heartbreaking mess of a story that will leave people talking for years to come.
I cannot emphasize enough how breakneck the pacing of Die #1 is, nor how deeply it will get under your skin. If ever you’ve played a TTRPG and though, I’d love to just live in this world, this series is for you. Just be careful what you wish for.
Samantha Puc is an essayist and culture critic whose work has been featured on Bustle, The Mary Sue, SheKnows, The Tempest, Rogues Portal, and elsewhere. She mostly writes intersectional pop culture analysis with a particular focus on representation of LGBTQ and fat characters in fiction. Samantha is also the co-creator of Fatventure Mag, an outdoors zine for fat women and non-binary creators who are into being active, but not into toxic weight-loss culture. She lives in Rhode Island with her partner and cats.