Die #1 is a strange beast. It’s part love letter to the fantasy genre, and it’s part puking revulsion and wanting to move on with your life. Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ story begins in 1991 when a teenager Sol decides to run a custom fantasy RPG for his and his friend Ash’s 16th birthday and invites Ash’s sister cyberpunk obsessed Angela and their friends Chuck, Isabelle, and Matt to play. Sol makes a big deal of how the RPG isn’t your run of the mill Dungeon and Dragons clone with the interesting gameplay mechanism of having a character roll a certain “die” depending on their personality. However, once the dice are rolled, scary unseen things happen to the party, Sol goes missing and is presumed dead, and the story jumps to the characters in their forties.
Gillen writing middle aged characters is quite a treat, and Hans’ art is both immersive and tragic. She shows some amazing depths as a cartoonist that I noticed most not in the rain swept vistas or introduction to the RPG turned real life fantasy world, but in the not so pretty faces of characters like Chuck. Up to this point in her career, Hans has drawn badass lesbian angel bounty hunters, problematic white girls dressing up like Japanese deities, Norse trickster gods, and the Father of Lies himself in Vertigo’s Lucifer, but Die #1 shows that she gets ordinary people too while still displaying amazing command of light and atmosphere. Every time a die is thrown, the page is vivisected into points of light, and the barrier between our world and the fantasy one is non-existent. People talking in shadow filled rooms is nice, but Die really reaches another gear when Hans gets to draw panel after panel of fantasy environment and put the main characters into their in-game “costumes”.
However, she doesn’t skimp on the kids in a room talking shit about a game part either, and Gillen definitely takes his time in Die #1 establishing the ensemble of characters and the mystery of the Grandmaster and this RPG world before a big time final page cliffhanger. From his work on well-crafted series like WicDiv and Journey into Mystery, he knows that giving away too much about the world and the underpinnings could lead to disinterest so Gillen leaves out much of the world-building minutia and spends time on the interactions between the main cast of characters and using the game to fill it out like Sol’s pretentious girlfriend Isabelle, who creates a way too cool for school character and chides him for not reading the Mervyn Peake novel she lent him.
Thankfully, knowledge of table top RPG and high or portal fantasy (Think Chronicles of Narnia) ephemera aren’t required for Die #1, which has a simple and accessible core centered around childhood friends who have grown apart and are trying to reconnect after experiencing a tragedy at a young age. It’s like Stand By Me 20 Years Later, but more DnD, or Stranger Things if the main young male cast plus Eleven experienced the events of the show, but no one else did. But, unlike this slowly improving TV show, Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans aren’t really beholden to any kind of nostalgia except for the long lasting kind of the first time you dip into an epic fantasy series, roll a D20 during your first DnD campaign, or wander around an open world fantasy RPG.
Die #1 is a book where you kind of geek out about the formerly drably dressed kids/40-somethings in full epic mode with swords, cool hair, and jewelry and then realize that they’re only in this world because they were transported by an object with the blood of their long lost friend. Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Han don’t treat the fantasy elements of Die like an adventure, but more like a mystery or something freakier. What happened to them at Ash and Sol’s 16th birthday is something so traumatic that they haven’t spoken about it in decades, and it shows even though we only get the slightest of details about what went on towards the end of the comic.
Stephanie Hans shows these unspoken moments through silent panels of people walking, rain falling, and keeps her color palette low before going a little dream world for the die throwing sequences and bright for the scenes in the fantasy world. The group of friends might exchange friendly small talk when they meet up to discuss Sol and the bloody D20, but there is a strain to their relationship that is revealed through Kieron Gillen’s caption boxes and the shadows in Hans’ art. It’s the awkwardness of meeting with people who once meant a great deal to you, but not for some time combined with the dredging of old trauma.
I’m here for Stephanie Hans’ fantasy world construction in Die and Kieron Gillen’s tempering of the joy of fantasy with the horror of loss. Die #1 makes a smart choice by presenting character dynamics in the foreground and cool, scary fantasy world-building in the background. But Hans’ memorable visuals is what will stick with me the most. Never has the casual roll of dice had so much power.
Story: Kieron Gillen Art: Stephanie Hans Letters: Clayton Cowles
Story: 8.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy
Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review