We seem to be in the midst of a Dungeons and Dragons revival. In case you missed it, tabletop role-playing is back in a huge way. With some of the most popular podcasts and web-series centered on role-playing games, it seems like everyone’s trying to roll that natural 20. Comic books are no exception, and book likes Die Vol. 1 from Image Comics, written by Kieron Gillen with art by Stephanie Hans and lettering by Clayton Cowles, bring the tabletop to the floppy pages.
In 1991, six teenagers sat down to play a role-playing game. They disappeared without a trace, with authorities fearing that the group was dead. Two years later, five of those teens were discovered in a forest fifty miles away. When asked where they’d been, they could only respond with “I can’t say.”
In 2018, those teens are now adults, living adult lives far removed from their childhood trauma. But when a mysterious D20 arrives on their doorstep, this party of wounded souls must finish what they started 25 years ago. They must return to the land of Die and hope that they roll high enough to survive.
The “trapped in a fantasy game” story type has been around for a while now. With books likes this more accessible than ever before, creators have to bring something new to distinguish their work from everything else. In Die Vol. 1‘s case, that would be its artwork. Hans made her name doing interior work for The Wicked + The Divine, a series known for its aesthetic flair. Hans brings that experience to her first ongoing comic with a passion. Beautifully illustrated with style for days, Hans’s pages call to mind the lavish detail of rare trading cards.
The only place where Hans’s artwork doesn’t shine is her character’s faces. Hans’s painterly style captures light and shadow beautifully, but on a form as complex as a human face that style sometimes reads flat and blocky. Comparatively, Die Vol. 1 makes excellent use of splashes and spreads. The blocking in these panels is gorgeous, with bold colors to match the world’s otherworldly aura of dread. These fantastic backdrops layout as much detail as they can, which certainly dials up Die Vol. 1‘s impact.
However, the same can’t be said of Die Vol. 1‘s story. The book has a sharp edge with a heavy emphasis on emotional trauma. At least one scene in every one of Kieron Gillen scripts focuses on the brutal reality of fantasy warfare.
Our heroes’ actions have horrifying consequences that even as hardened adults they are ill-equipped to deal with. Gillen paints that pain with broad impressionist strokes. But since so much of our characters’ shared history remains a mystery, the nuances of the story are sometimes lost in translation. And with so many variations on this setup out there, Die Vol. 1 needs to bring more new ideas to stand out from the crowd.
Still, I’m excited to see where this team takes Die from here. The world of Die has the manic patchwork energy of a home-brew D&D campaign, while our party’s eclectic power sets and personalities have a lot of potential for complex storytelling. For now, Die Vol. 1 delivers enough to keep me interested. So roll the die and take a chance on this comic.
Die Vol. 1 is available everywhere comic books are sold June 3, 2019.
The world of Die has the manic patchwork energy of a home-brew D&D campaign, while our party’s eclectic power sets and personalities have a lot of potential for complex storytelling.