Imagine a group of young and diverse teens get together, and suddenly POOF — through the use of magic, they disappear off the face of the earth until POOF — they return to their world, but with a very serious case of PTSD. One of the most popular renditions of this type of escapist teen fantasy is the 1995 family classic Jumanji. A more recent version is Joshua Williamson’s Birthright, which released its sixth volume in April 2018. Both stories reflect on the immediate necessity for the heroes to mature and survive on their own in a brand new world. Kieron Gillen (of The Wicked + The Divine fame) and Stephanie Hans (in her first major series) tell their own version of this premise in Die. Die uses the classic template, but with Gillen and Hans as the gamemasters, it rolls natural 20s and makes all the saves.
With a somewhat predictable story, Die couldn’t be called very high concept. It features six teenage protagonists meeting up for one of their birthdays, a day to respect and/or celebrate the progress of maturity. Unlike other free-spirited youths who party in a more popular sense, they decide to play a tabletop game. However, to save unnecessary exposition, they don’t play the rules-heavy Dungeons and Dragons or GURPS. Instead they keep it simple and play a homebrew created by one of the party-goers. Every player uses a single die to decide their characters’ actions, and once they have confirmed their personas, they roll for initiative with smiles on their faces.
The thing is, it’s not as simple or fun as they expect. That magical POOF happens, and after a time-skip, they reappear in the middle of the road — battered, bleeding, and no longer smiling. Immediately after their return, the book skips ahead twenty-five years. The group has moved on; some have fared better than others, but for the most part, most want nothing to do with remembering their campaign. Eventually, however, fate does bring them together again, and they are forced to embark on a new adventure where they will have to relive that nightmare they wish they forgot.
As previously mentioned, the idea that a game is actually a portal to a new dimension is not revolutionary; it’s a common trope, and the six characters fit typical archetypes to the letter. Based solely on the very first issue, their personality types can be clearly explained as the [insert adjective] one. The only mystery to their predicament is what actually happened in those two years. In any other context, this is a paint-by-numbers story, but what helps Die is that everyone is written well enough that they end up far from being clichéd. It’s unclear if characters will play eventually their part as their archetype dictates or if there is a deeper hidden depth to each, but knowing Gillen’s previous work, it’s probably the latter.
Hans’ work with Gillen on an issue of The Wicked + The Divine probably inspired them to work together on this series, though it seems like an odd pairing. The Wicked + The Divine uses vibrant and clear colours that match the craziness of music festivals and pop culture, whereas Die goes the opposite route. Its smear techniques and drabber colors suit a world of anxiety and fear. A lot of the environments tend to blend with everything in them, giving the world an eerie mist. The majority of colours are blood reds, various shades of grays, and the sunshine yellow used mostly as light sources. Fortunately, this small palette choice doesn’t take away from the story. Each character is distinct enough so that the reader can identify them at a quick glance, and the heavy shadow work isn’t used to hide inaccuracies or fill up unnecessary space. Though The Wicked + The Divine is still a very serious fantasy, Die has a different degree of grit and toughness. As of the first issue, the drama stems from the characters’ fears after surviving untold horrors.
From here out, Die can only get better. The story is familiar, and the art, with its heavy use of shadows, has been done before. That being said, Die is written and drawn perfectly. Whereas other comics attempt to recreate a genre yet fail to hit the mark, this super team is perfect in its execution. With its likable cast of familiar characters, as well as a curious use of dice as weapons, there is a lot of pressure to make this campaign exciting and consequential. Luckily, with Gillen’s top-notch writing and Hans’s eerie art style, Die brings potential and purpose, and is perfect for fans of tabletop games and fantasy adventures.