Written by Kieron Gillen
Art by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Designed by Rian Hughes
Published by Image Comics
Review by Pierce Lydon
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
“If you’re looking for a simple answer, you’re reading the wrong story.”
With Critical Role and Adventure Zone gaining more momentum and mainstream success than ever before, it’s clear that tabletop RPGs are having a bit of a moment. And thankfully, Die isn’t a call for a bitter march back to the basement for the hobby. Instead, creators Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans embrace that tabletop has gone popular and in their own way, they seek to further demystify it while still delivering something a bit different than those other works. Gillen has mentioned it before, but Die is borne of obsession, and the same way that his past work has dwelled on his love of music as a way into a story, he dives deep into his love for RPGs and fantasy for this one. But four issues in, what does that look like, and how does it separate itself from just being another story about someone else’s D&D campaign? Well, Gillen is lucky to have Hans’ illustrations on his side as well a knack for threading meaningful character work into the tropes of the genre.
On its face, this issue is little more than our heroes stopping at a tavern in order to obtain some sort of guidance for the next step in their mission. That’s pretty standard roleplaying/fantasy fare. But Gillen inserts some little vignettes about each of the characters that opens them up to readers. What can the atheist summoner do to pay back a god that she owes? What was the bravest moment in the Grief Knight’s life? Why has the cyberpunk Neo been so quiet? All of these questions flow pretty organically from the narrative so even in a quiet issue with nothing in the way of real action, we still feel like we’re moving forward.
And Gillen teases out a big question - why Dominic has opted to be a woman in the game - a little bit further. We’re not going to get an answer here, but Gillen’s aware that it’s a detail that by now has drawn some attention to itself. But the way that the characters broach the subject is what’s really impressive. They talk about not talking about it. Isabella says, “We didn’t have the words to do it then. We do now.” We don’t yet know Dominic’s whole deal yet, but there’s a warmth and maturity that’s exuded by these characters. This is a story about the bonds that are forged during a life that’s been lived. And there is so much humanity in Gillen’s writing here that really makes this book a touchstone for his career, even only a few issues in.
And really, what can be said about Stephanie Hans’ art that hasn’t been said already? Her painted approach brings the world of Die to life in a way that is echoed by Rian Hughes’ design work and Clayton Cowles lettering. This is an art team that’s found a certain level of synergy. But we’re used to seeing art like this in more static illustration that’s not necessarily meant to show motion and there are a few times throughout this issue where Hans seems to lean into the dreamlike quality of her work and let the captions and dialogue do the acting for her. But I’d say that’s a feature more than a bug. It allows Gillen and Cowles to control the pacing and draw your eye to specific details within each panel rather than force the art to do all the work.
The secrets of Die are really only just beginning to reveal themselves, but the heart at the center of it all is still beating strong. Maybe for some readers it’s not a tabletop game, it’s a sport or a band or a video game - but we all have these connections to people. And no matter how much life gets in the way, there’s always a way to come back. And we’ll get together again, maybe have a few drinks, and we’ll talk and we’ll play. And it’s like no time has passed, but we’re older and wiser than we ever were. And suddenly, we’re home again.