DIE Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

11 November 2019 ยท 4 minute read

Six teens sit in a circle. One says, 'I made this just for us. This is fantasy for grown-ups.'

“Goth Jumanji” has been writer’s Kieron Gillen’s pitch for this comic. In the early 1990s, six teens gather to play a fantasy roleplaying game at a birthday party. They disappear and five return a few years later, unable to speak about what they experienced. As adults, they are pulled back into the fantasy game world they created.

As with most trips to wonderland, the consequences are a complete nightmare.

Spoilers under the cut.

I picked this up after wrapping up the incredible The Wicked and The Divine (WicDiv) and finding that it was Gillen’s new project. The premise sold me, partly because didn’t most adolescent gamers of the same vintage have our own Jumanji or Tron-like fiction going on? Stephanie Hans rounds out the team as the artist for the series.

Volume one puts the characters and the readers right into the action. Dominic and Solomon share a birthday party. Solomon promises a new game “fantasy for adults,” he namedrops Gormenghast and Thomas Covenant to hook his audience, and gives all of them a character class and a singular magic die that fits their real-world personas. Within a few pages, we’re fast-forwarded from the early 90s to the present day. The adult survivors struggle with experiences they can’t talk about, until they’re quickly whisked away back to DIE. Solomon, the boy left behind, has become Grandmaster with an entire world to control, and wants to play.

That turns out to be a maguffin for another layer of conflict. Fantasy on DIE isn’t just wish fulfillment, it’s a way for the players to act according to their inner flaws and neuroses. We get a clear sense of that with the development of the character classes. Dominic/Ash, the POV character for the first six issues, changes gender and becomes the Dictator, with the power to compel other people. She has a symbiotic relationship with Matt the Grief Knight, who gets power from depression and sadness. Isabelle the cynic becomes a Godbinder, a cleric who barters with rather than believes in gods. Ash’s sister, Angelica asks to become a cyberpunk, and becomes a magic-powered cyborg who must pay in fairy gold that vanishes each morning. Chuck appears to be a jerk, and becomes The Fool, a character who is invulnerable as long as he does something foolhardy.

The world itself seems to be a reflection of Sol’s anxieties and wish-fulfillment. Monsters wear the faces of Sol and Dominic’s bullies, and NPCs wear the faces of their adolescent crushes. One chapter covers a popular interpretation of Tolkien as informed by WWI experiences. The world DIE is stuck in an endless meatgrinder of conflicts created by a person who apparently has never really grown up.

WicDiv was an exercise in playing the long game and shattering a few assumptions with almost every story arc. DIE seems positioned to work the same way. The first volume poses far more questions than answers. We’re just given peeks at how the protagonists have failed to cope with trauma as adults, and a few peeks into the nature of the world. It is almost certain that things are not quite how they appear. But in spite of metagaming the heck out of each other, the players seem committed to taking the world as given.

That said, Volume 1 feels like it’s throwing a few too many concepts at the reader at once. It’s an explosion of psychodrama and genre-aware metafiction with a half-dozen mysteries introduced and left for development later. This is in contrast to WicDiv, which started simple and became more complex over time. The first chapter feels very rushed to me, and I feel like I’m making a bit of a leap of faith on future development.

Hans’s art for DIE reflects incoporates the horror-comic aesthetic. It reminds me a great deal of the Dave McKean Black Orchid, with lurid colors and shadows bleeding across the panels. The artwork sacrifices some legibility for expressionist impact, but overall I think it works well.

Overall, it’s hooked me although I have some reservations about how well all the various themes and conflicts are going to pull together.