By Zack Quaintance — Many comics—often comics I like—start with explosions or death or some kind of absolutely nuts narrative hook...often before we know anything at all about the characters. I understand wanting to open with excitement, like most films or TV shows, but the thing about a comic is the engagement comes slower. There is room, in my opinion, to be both intriguing and smart.
Readers (obviously) must turn the pages, making time pass as they process what’s happening in a deliberate way, deciding for themselves whether protagonists deserve interest or sympathy. With TV or movies, time passes irrepressibly, automatically engendering interest in whatever character an audience sees most (usually). Anyway, my point is that Die #1 is slow and patient at its start, giving us brief quiet time to meet our characters—and, more importantly—to like our characters before the stakes and action and magic begins. It does this, and does it well, and the effect is very engrossing, a comic that reads like a smart fantasy story for adults interested in thorough self-reflection (more on that later).
Die #1 is an all around patient and assured debut, often feeling as if Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans (what a combo, btw!) know just how good their comic is, how well-realized their characters, and how interested readers will be in their story. These creators, of course, do the narrative work necessary for fostering reasons to care, and they do it in a way that completely negates any sort of need for flashy trickery. There’s a pleasant lack of insecurity throughout this comic, a sense of freedom that shows through in the work.
At the start, we’re given just enough info to know who our characters are and what they care about. When action does arrive, we’re in suspense, enthralled by the story’s mystery. There’s also an in-story reason some info is withheld. Basically, we know what that the characters’ know...until the characters don’t want us to (or, more accurately in this case, can no longer reveal certain things). The inherent mystery lends these proceedings a sense of grandiosity, doing wonders for Gillen’s writerly voice, which is generally quite strong (see another favorite of mine, The Wicked + The Divine).
The artwork is also absolutely wonderful. Hans excels at facial expressions, and she uses that gift to convey extra layers of meaning here. It’s one thing to draw a superhero wincing from an impact. Even without a clenched face, we get it—being blown up hurts. Hans uses expressions in Die for subtle inflections and added meaning, showing characters who may be saying one thing while feeling another. The conflict between the dialogue and appearances is both telling and true to life. Really, Hans attention to detail is just all around fantastic, applied to everything from shoes and to backgrounds, adding realism and making this story all the more absorbing.
Die #1 feels like a book its team has been thinking about for some time. It’s a fantasy story to be sure, delving into some familiar tropes (in the preview text, Gillen calls it goth Jumanji, which, perfect), but it’s also literary and smart. It’s not quite a deconstruction (not yet, anyway), yet it still seeks to approach the genre it operates withnin from a more intellectual place than is typical. Die #1 also incorporates RPGs directly into its plot in ways Stranger Things doesn’t. There’s a tendency in 2018 pop culture to fetishize D&D and the late ‘80s/early ‘90s. I haven’t seen another property do so as effectively as Die, though, which I think bodes well for its long-term viability. What also bodes well for this book is the complexity of its themes. A character says at one point: You have no idea how good this will be. This is fantasy for grown-ups. By the end of the issue, that quote sure does ring true.
Overall: One of the best debut Image Comics this year, which is saying a lot. Die #1 sees veteran writer Gillen operating in a story that demands to be told and also plays to the ample strengths of rising star artist Stephanie Hans. This book features nostalgia that fosters engagement without ever becoming a crutch. Read this comic, and enjoy. 9.5/10
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Image Comics
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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase.