Die Vol. 01: Fantasy Heartbreaker by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans (Artist) – Graphic Novel Review

Kieron Gillen has written some of the finest comic books over the past decade. When I heard that he would be penning a new project that sees D&D and Jumanji come together, I was excited–thrilled, in fact! And when the first few pieces of art were revealed, I was ecstatic. Now, nine months after I first found out about DIE, I finally got Vol. 01: Fantasy Heartbreaker. The wait has been more than worth it.

The key concept behind DIE is the kind of idea that’s bound to win most RPG nerds over, and I stick to anything that has to do with ttRPGs like a bee to an unpollinated flower, so it was a match made in heaven from the get-go. But as a self-proclaimed expert on Kieron Gillen’s work, I’m also going to draw a comparison to some of his other work here, since DIE is thematically different and contrasts quite a bit with his other major recent work, WicDiv.

First off, who are our characters? A bunch of flawed, damaged individuals in their mid forties, all of them bound together by past tragedy and trauma but disconnected in every other way that counts. Dominic/Ash is our lead in this group of five, the tall blond bloke in the middle of the last panel from the page above, his character in the RPG gameworld a tall platinum blonde with the powers of a Dictator — “a diplomat with teeth. A cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli” — definitely erring on the side of Machiavelli by the end of vol. 01.

The Dictator class has the power to control emotions with their voice; this power works kind of like Marvel’s Purple Man’s does but with a much greater degree of subtlety; it requires more ingenuity on Ash’s part, too. The other members of the party are Ash’s kid sister Angela, who plays a “cyberpunk” or Neo, which is basically a drug addict but instead of a human on crack, the Neo is addicted to Fae gold and as soon as she gets her hands on some, becomes a high-tech jet-pack wielding heavy-hitter (useless without any Fae gold, naturally); Chuck who plays the Fool and acts like one for the most part but is at the same time a pretty conniving guy; Matthew, who plays the Grief Knight, a warrior/paladin whose power comes from negative emotions; and Isabelle, the Godbinder, who used to be all edge and so wanted to be “some kind of atheist with gods for pets”. They each got a single many-sided die, each of them different from the others. The last one, the d20, went to Solomon — our sixth, the guy who came up with the game and who plays the Master.

Sccccarrrrrrrry, as Chuck would say.

Only, it’s not a game, and after rolling their dice, our party of teens disappears from the face of the world for two years, without a sign left behind. That was then, as the first panel makes clear. Now, twenty seven years later, drinking in a bar with his sister, Dominic gets a little something for his birthday — a certain familiar d20 in a package without a return address, only a criptic ‘happy birthday’ message on it. In spite of his first impulse being to smash the damned thing with a rock, Dominic decides it’s not his decision to make and instead brings the band back together to discuss options. Soon as the die is in the open, however, it doesn’t seem interested in anything the members of our party might have to say. One minute, they’re all in Chuck’s parlour and the next…

“We’re back,” Ash says in this two-page spread in the completed Vol. 01.

Shit gets real.

Now that our characters are back in the fantasy world they lost two years of their lives in, things are markedly different. The world is a hodge-podge of familiar fantasy and sci-fi tropes with their own unique spin; it has some horrifying, bleak parts but beautiful ones, as well. Unfortunately, most of those latter ones are poisoned by the past and the memories that come with it. Seems like in their past stay, our heroes made choices that were less than wise, the kind of choices that have a steep price for everyone involved.

A stark reminder of one such choice comes early on, and I won’t spoil it but let’s just say it shows a lot of Ash’s personality as well as the scope and depth of their powers. It’s a damn good scene and probably the one during which I fell in love with this story. It’s the sort of sequence that

Following the first issue, we’ve got some heavy world building in the second, then some fluffy worldbuilding in the third, as Gillen himself describes it in one of the essays at the back of the volume (Guys! There are essays in the back of this volume! How cool is that?! I hope as all hell that’s something the next volumes of Die will also have!).

More about the world is showcased, and our characters shine in action. What’s there to say about it but…what brilliant, fantastic art! Dynamic, beautiful, downright stunning. Hans explains that she “cut the book into sequences, to which I assigned a colour gradient. Each has a meaning but almost all of issue one is a preparation of the double-page spread with the big reveal of the DIE world with intoxicating reds and vivid pure colours…ho, and space. All the sequences before that are bleak, almost claustrophobic; air is heavy, dark…” See, I was going to try and explain the difference as we build up to that reveal in the first issue myself, but Stephanie does it so, so much better. This is an excerpt from her essay, “The Space Between Words” on p. 181 of DIE Vol. 01. There is a lot there, in just over a page about her artistic choices, as well as the inspirations she drew from in designing this exciting cast.

This book would not be what it is without Stephanie Hans, that’s for sure. My recommendation? Get your hands on it, and do it quick! There’s so much to unpack on your own. What I’m giving this one is a full 5/5 on Goodreads, and a 10/10 in my heart.

Before I go though, I do want to take a minute to talk about the tonal difference between this and Wic/Div. While Wic/Div has always had a feeling of hopelessness underneath its loud, colourful surface (“Every ninety years, twelve gods incarnate as humans. They are loved. They are hated. In two years, they are dead.“), it’s still vivid, filled with neon-coloured characters imbued with a sort of joyful ‘fuck you’ manner towards a world that’s out to get them.

DIE is bleak and brooding, a darker place at its very surface. It twists familiar tropes to a degree that’s barely recognizable, and it asks some fascinating questions about our relationship with RPGs not only in terms of our agency inside these fantasy worlds but also what the effects of that agency are on us. It’s the sort of delightful, “when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back” logic I have a deep appreciation for. The answers…well, I’m looking forward to delving into those, myself.

Thanks for reading!

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