The massive fantasy world of Die returns this week after a summer break, but Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans aren’t letting their players off so easily. Ash, Chuck, Matt, Angela, Isabelle, and (kinda) Sol are back with the beginning of the next arc, aptly-titled “Split The Party."
Now of course, in playing RPGs it’s sort of a faux pas to split the party, but in doing so with Die, Gillen and Hans can give readers a closer look at each member and how they work on their own outside of the group.
Newsarama recently spoke with Gillen about the next arc, the fantasty tropes he uses, the bigger plans he has in store for the world of Die, and if he’s already thinking of sequels for later down the line.
Newsarama: Kieron, after a few months away, Die comes back this week with its second arc. Now with your schedule, you’re able to let stories breathe, catch on with readers, is this something comics should adopt more of?
Keiron Gillen: I like what we do, but I’m also twitchy with just agreeing with this. The idea that something “should” be anything it shouldn’t be something else and my take with comics is that they can be whatever they want to be. They can be powerful and directly driven...but with Die, we are extremely happy that we go to areas that fantasy stories tend not to go.
My joke now in interviews is that Die is Lord of the Rings told solely through conversations in restrooms. I mean, that’s not really true, but at the same time, there’s this huge backdrop with so much going on but we’re interested in the small detail. We drill down and we find a different angle on a scene. We’re not classical fantasy tropes... well, that’s also not true. We do like classical fantasy tropes but always looking for something with another approach.
Nrama: Take us to the events of the finale of Die #5 and how it really looked grim for our party.
Gillen: For the people who have read the first arc, it’s sort of the introduction to what the world of Die is and what drives them. At the start of Die, you have this pretty classical fantasy narrative. We have this baddie, this baddie is in a place, they’re going to get to the baddie and then they can go home, but at the end of the first arc, they basically stop playing the game as they realize they can’t possibly win the game against the person running the game. We sort of set up the first arc being that the good guy and bad guy need to agree to go home, but at the end of it the party actually splits. So now remade you realize it’s not a simple story about a good guy here and a bad guy over here, but it’s more of the story of these six people, one of them an actual monster (except literally in the case of Sol).
There’s this split party now and if you’ve ever played an RPG you never ever split up the party [laughs]. This means we get a chance to drill down on each character, doing the fantasy elements while giving a firm character focus in each issue. With Die #6, we have this juxtaposition of this high fantasy quest and this story of the game industry so yes, we’re moving everything forward but also giving a character focus.
In that way it’s sort of like The Wicked + The Divine in that by the end of Die, it makes it clear why it's different than other fantasy books. You have the main idea of the story out of the way and now let’s take a look at these people and put them under the magnifying glass. You know the retro way of preparing a character for a role-playing game? You turn up with pages and pages of backstory with their characters? It’s a bit like that. We show the backstory, and why it matters.
I’ve known the broad sweeps and large scale stuff but seeing how this affects everyone. I just finished issue #10 this past Saturday. So I’ve seen how everything is executed, but see how Matt’s relationship with pain, Ash’s relationship with power... how are we dealing with stuff like that. This all feels so grown-up... which is such a loaded word because in comics it usually just means being able to say “fuck” a lot. It’s not just that though. Die is what I wanted to write about the quietly awful things about adulthood and trying to do it as tasteful as possible. It’s full of these very real, very small moments with this grand grandeur of this gothic setting. So yes, we do have all these tropes, but also what ends up sticking with you is Matt feeling awful due to him feeling he’s failed as a father somehow.
Nrama: You worked with Stephanie before Die, but have you both sort of felt each other out more with what you both want from this story?
Gillen: Any collaboration between comics, you’re always trying to feel each other out and what works and what doesn’t work with them. So there’s been a lot of that. With the last arc, I felt it was a bit too compressed at times, so I put more splashes in that Stephanie can go to town on. That’s my perpetual problem as a writer.
Also, if you do too much world-building in the script, you disguise what’s important. Like, here’s a bunch of information you might want to know about this and that, but you need to make sure the actual message is clear. When I work with Jamie, he’s more metronomic; it’s all precisely engineered, but with Stephanie, it’s very orchestral. So I say what we need to have on the page, but give her a space to play. She’ll ask “can we have cats in this panel?” or “is it possible to have a giant dead robot here for some reason?” and she’ll just do it so leaving room for that is important. The more we go we figure out what we like and what we don’t like and it becomes more of its own thing.
Scripts do get lighter as you get closer to the end of the series. There’s no way to have a shorthand for something like Die though. There are twenty different regions in the world, each having their own politics, so that’s another ten paragraphs each time we go into a new region. So with that kind of stuff, there’s no shorthand at all, the same way there’s no shorthand to Tolkien’s appendixes. “Shorthand” isn’t something anyone has ever really said about my scripts. I have to remember “what does this world need” and write that.
Working with Jamie, he wants to know what happens in the story like if somebody betrays this other character thirty issues in the series, but they’re thinking about that now. One of the things I do with him is say “Okay, give me one of those panels that break people’s hearts”. That’s possibly the closest to shorthand I get.
Nrama: In the first arc, you had this ultimate betrayer with Ash. Who will the party face-off this time around? Do you think you’re raising the stakes?
Gillen: I mean the stakes are pretty high, I mean it’s called Die so you’re trying to avoid death. It’s less raising the stakes than actually showing what the stakes are. When you’re betting with your life, you’re betting with every single part of you and how you impact the world so it’s sort of It’s A Wonderful Life scenario. What is the weight and impact of a human being in the world? There’s a lot of that in there, especially with the question being do you want to go back to reality or stay in this fantasy world. We’re showing how people weigh those kinds of questions and why they may go one way or the other and dig into that.
I think this is the arc where you have a handle on a good part of the cast by issue #5, at least that was the point of issue #4, when we have the bard tell us stories, another fantasy trope by the way, but also let’s get the cast known well enough so you know why they’re making their decisions. In the case of Chuck, it’s kind of easy because as presented he’s the explicitly shallow one asking why should I return home, and you can believe that, but is he? You need to understand why he would say that at this point.
The other thing about the second arc is that you have to wonder what are they running from. Because the longer they stay in Die, the more they’ll have to deal with their past.
So yeah, it’s a story of only six people, but it also has this conspiracy nature to it where you’re asking what the hell is going on here? What is Die? What is it for? All of those big questions are there too but we moved between those stories, too. I mean we blew up Glasstown and that was a major thing and then also how Die affects these characters. I’m sort of tight planning the third arc now and I’m really excited. With the first arc, we have the Tolkien issues and now we’re headed to the Bronte issues and every arc we have some deep dives and the thing that excites me is that for the first arc we focus on the people but don’t get the larger scale of Die. At some point during this arc we’re going to release the full map of Die. Perhaps after it. But it’s coming.
Nrama: You’ve shorthandely described Die as “goth Jumanji” but as the story progresses, do you think that still holds up or is it something more?
Gillen: Oh that’s never really held up [laughs]. It holds up only if you look at it like some people got dragged into a game and there’s a bleak aspect about it. All the way through this it has been extremely character-driven and what drives the book is how messed up these six people are and how essentially how they externalize their internal conflicts and overcome the odds has always been the structure and the more we get into the story of Die, the more that is.
“Goth Jumanji” was a really good pitch, but doesn’t exactly capture how much is in there. It’s sort of like looking down a mine. It’s just a little hole to start with, but the further down you go, you see there are different tunnels. So that’s how Die works, it’s conceptually a simple way in but there’s much more down there.
And it’s dark.
Nrama: Excuse the pun, but have you seen the long game in Die?
Gillen: Yeah, I know the end of it. For WicDiv, there’s no room for a sequel, they’re deliberately made as a closed work. But with Die, it has a different sort of ending. Maybe I’ll do a sequel to Die, but it’ll probably be the half of WicDiv. I know by the start of the arc, this happens and so on. I knew that the end of the first arc with Glasstown, they kill Sol and them splitting. I know the equivalent of that for the next few arcs, all the way to the end. I mean, it might be too early to talk about sequels to Die, but I’m still chewing ideas.