[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Designer: Rian Hughes
Editor: Chrissy Williams
Premise Rejection. The players don’t want to play anymore and are willing to do anything in order to quit this game, including break the rules. If you’ve been on the fence about this transformative take on the fantasy genre, get ready to buy in with Die #5, the first arc finale.
What happens to an RPG when the players don’t want to play anymore?
Continuing one of the most intriguing and captivating takes on the fantasy genre, Die #5 explores the constantly evolving and unexpected nature of the RPG. Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles’s exploration into the realm of Die continues in this final installment of the first arc, deconstructing the very foundations of the RPG. Diving deeper into Sol’s psyche and picking back up with the party’s plan’s to shatter the Glass Town, the issue asks the reader, “How easy would it really be to give up the world in which you’ve become immersed?” We know that the party members want to escape this twisted form of torture and get back to their real lives, or… at least that’s what we thought. It’s the slightest hint of an unexpected turn, a small glimpse of an element that may be awry, that encapsulates the lure of the series. One can almost see Gillen, Hans, and Cowles in a tall tower somewhere with Sol’s devilish grin on their faces and his determined look in their eyes, and it’s just the thing to get your blood pumping with excitement.
Issue #1 gave us the party, a few rules, and asked us to watch them play. Issue #2 broke the party down into individual players and gave us a real look at the characters, classes, strengths, and weaknesses that lay before us. Issue #3 gave us the world. You know, the entire landscape our party members inhabit and the vibrant elements that allow the characters to thrive even when they’re struggling to survive. The Tolkien issue, if you will, reminding us the NPCs in a role-playing game are not the unthinking, unfeeling robots we assume them to be. Issue #4 gave us the mission, the quest, the journey, the goal, and the inevitable resting stops that occur on the way because no RPG is as simple as going from point A to point B without having a little fun in a tavern along the way. And here we are with the final issue of the first arc. What else is there left to give other than a great story? Why the mechanics of course! The little details and intricacies in an RPG that give it flare, turn the tiny gears, and make the game tick at a fundamental level. Filled with tiny quirks, subtle references, and intentional language, the issue continues to embody the idea of an RPG existing as a comic book.
Since this is the mechanics issue, it is important to focus a little on the players as well, not the ones within the story, but those reading it. Mechanics in an RPG can often be some of the most fascinating elements usually because there’s nothing mechanical about them. The smaller elements the make the game tick need not have any sort of rigid shape, structure, style, or form and can therefore afford to go wild with all of them. The same holds true for the reader. The reader is just as essential to any story and has as much variety as any game mechanic could, so a comic book has to acknowledge the varying perspectives among its readers while not losing sight of what it is. There is no comic or creative team that does this better than Die helmed by Gillen, Hans, and Cowles.
Robin D. Laws is a pioneer in the world of role-playing games and an influence Gillen has often mentioned when talking about the series. He has written numerous essays and guides on the construction of RPGs and has also outlined the core types of players one often sees when playing a typical RPG. Die #5 turns these player archetypes into reader archetypes and creates a unique, satisfying read for each one.
First we have the Power Gamer, always focused on acquiring new powers, abilities and loot. The Power Reader is drawn to exciting scenes and explosive moments that showcase cool and inspired new powers to behold. They’ll be drawn to the captivating beauty behind the power of Ash’s voice, the unstoppable, unrelenting urgency of Matt’s sword and grief and the grueling cost of using it, the limitless potential of the Gods and Goddess that Isabelle can summon at her fingertips and the limitless power those deities can hold over her, and the staggering ability to literally change the game and its world that Sol alone commands. Die allows Gillen to do something the traditional RPG does not and turns what many consider to be skills, weapons, and acquisitions that enhance the core character into extensions of one’s personality and twisted reflections of their hopes and wishes. The ability doesn’t hold the power, the people do. This is brilliantly reflected by Hans’s stunning visuals. When Matt uses his grief as a weapon, we never see it in action, only Matt’s pain before and numbness after. Hans’s bold reds and impressive work with silhouettes conveys the savage, unfeeling destruction that Matt wields without actually having to see it. Whether it be the enchanting purple and blue word balloon’s of the Skywatcher or the unsettling pink and black requests from Mistress Woe, Cowles gives a unique temperament and verve to everyone in the book while still revolving the attention around the core characters.
The Butt-Kicker, normally focused on the combat aspects of an RPG, will be drawn to the grandiose, wide action sequences present in the issue. They love witnessing the carnage and destruction around them in this chaotic 20-sided world. There are a few phenomenal action sequences in Die #5, but not in the traditional sense. Unusual as it may be, Die #5 does not contain any full splash pages. The reader is left to build the action in their own minds. Gillen and Hans provide us with a starting point such as a burst of fire, flash of light, or opening of a portal, but it’s up to us to finish the rest on our own. It’s the kind of staccato, quick-cut action that’s often criticized in TV or film but holds weight in comics because of their ability to command space and time. What feels choppy or rushed when watch a film carries an entirely different effect in a comic because one can linger on a single panel for as long as they choose. The reader can fixate on Sol’s expression as he casts a spell, immersing themselves in his world, for hours if they so desire. It is the beautiful temporal manipulation Hans is able to bring to life as she draws the flying dragons, frozen in the fiery sky.
The Tactician tends to fixate on the world’s tiny complexities and, as a reader, would gravitate towards the references, easter eggs, and hidden story elements because the devil is in the details. They might focus, for example, on the statue displayed at the beginning of he issue, looking through Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions with one eye, and covering the other eye with its hand. Plutchik’s wheel has been a very interesting tool used throughout the series due to its unique take on the emotional spectrum. Sadness, anger, and fear are common feelings that we often include in a core list of basic emotions, but anticipation, trust, and surprise are ideas that we sometimes don’t consider as emotions at all. It allows the creative team to play with a unique palette where they can draw out some of these more unique feelings in the reader as opposed to something more simplistic than just happiness, sadness and anger. Those unfamiliar with modern psychological theories on emotions may not be used to a comic that tries to draw trust out of the reader as opposed to simply asking for it. Die #5 flirts with the idea of betrayal and never ceases to surprise, which impulsively compels the reader to trust the series as it moves forward.
The Specialist is going to latch on to a particular aspect that stems from Die’s incredible world building. Perhaps they want to see every unique side of this 20-sided Earth. Maybe they want to learn more about the history of the Glass Town or the area of Die upon which Angela’s Neo character is based. Gillen, Han’s, and Cowles create such a magical world by providing a slice for everyone. Die has it all whether it be steampunk, sci-fi, fantasy, or adventure. It’s got mechanical dragons a perpetual world war, and a town made of glass. Hans is able to give each location and style a unique feel through her dynamic use of color and light, from the radiance of the Glass Town to the cold, mechanical grays of Eternal Prussia. There’s a feeling, quality, or mechanic to love for every specialist out there.
The Method Actor is going to keep reading because they identify with a character, which isn’t hard due to the sheer about of universal truths that Gillen and Hans fit into one issue. Whether it be Angela’s lost arm, which never draws attention but is always there, Matt’s mental illness turned into a weapon, a tool for destruction that only feeds the disease further, Ash’s compassion for others in constant conflict with her heart of iron as she commands the will of others, or Isabelle’s constant relationship with debt, and the pain that can cause. As warm reds balance with icy grays, Hans is consistently able to capture all of these dynamics beautifully.
The Storyteller is anxious for the plot to move forward, turning every page with urgency as they await the next twist and turn. The thrill of trying to predict what’s about to happen and coming across something you’d never see coming is something Gillen accomplishes so well, especially with his compelling and impactful one-liners. “Die. Still lying. Not the word. Never was. The word is murder.” How could that be anything less than jawdropping? It’s the precise ending that will leave readers on the edge of their seats for four months as they await the next issue with Sol’s fallen eyes and devilish grin burned into their brains.
Finally we have the Casual Gamer, or in this case the Casual Reader. While often forgotten and silent in the background, these readers are never forgotten by Gillen, Hans, and Cowles. Those just looking to have a good time will have it without any additional knowledge, textual analysis, or love of RPGs required. All of the prior things add to the experience of course, but the series is still complete without them. They are vitally important to the survival of the comic medium. They’re the ones that pull it off the shelves for the first time unsure of the journey that lies ahead. They may be reading their first comic or branching out from their usual choices, but that doesn’t make the reader any less valuable. The creative team knows that, and that’s why at the very core of this series is a damn good story.
But there’s one more reader that deserves to stand apart as an archetype: The Learner. The Learner tries to go beyond the story and acquire knowledge of the craft itself. Maybe they have the desire to create their own RPG or comic, and in this case, the reader can watch Gillen, Hans, and Cowles as they masterfully do both. Gillen spoke in the back matter about how, in his eyes, “while everyone is flexible most writers have a core genre they gravitate towards.” Gillen admitted that his core genre was obviously fantasy, but there is more to the idea of gravitating towards a core genre. Because it’s those who are called to a genre, those most familiar with it, that are able to break new ground as they write. Gillen is making such subtle inversions, subversions, and manipulations to the fantasy and RPG genres that we don’t even notice some of them. Imagine you’re in a fun house surrounded by plane mirrors each with a small scratch, warp, or imperfection in it. In the loudest, most prominent mirrors with original images, it appears as though there are no alterations, but as you gaze upon the reflections within reflections within reflections, the distortions compound upon each other until you realize that the smallest images, the details in DIE, are almost unrecognizable to anything we’ve seen before. A key example of this is Gillen’s imagining of the “final boss feeling.” When playing an RPG and you get to the final boss, you know it before the battle is even over. There is something permanent and ultimate about a fight like that and, when it’s over, there are usually a very limited number of paths to take. Perhaps the game is over. There is nothing bigger left to fight, nothing grander left to accomplish, and the campaign has finally ended. Maybe the final boss is not the final boss at all and an even larger journey has just been revealed. Finally, maybe a cataclysmic event occurs that forces your characters to begin their journey almost anew. Gillen gave us the feeling of fighting a final boss. He dangled Sol in front of our players and gave the readers the giddy anticipation anyone who has played and RPG has felt while fighting the final boss. Then he yanked Sol off the board before our very eyes. The players didn’t beat Sol, not really. Sol may be fallen, but he accomplished his mission because the game continues. Gillen, Hans, and Cowles are the DMs, and we’re anxiously awaiting the next installment in their story.
No negatives here. Die #5 is a fantastic ending to a brilliant first arc.
Die #5 is a superb manipulation of the fantasy and RPG genres that will keep a lot of readers anxiously waiting until August for the next installment.