Die, from the brilliance of Kieron Gillen's writing, Stephanie Hans's art, Clayton Cowles's lettering, and published by Image Comics, is a dark, gorgeous, haunting and enchanting ride through this fantastical, and yet very human, fantasy, literature and D&D inspired world.
Back in November last year, a glorious hardcover came out collecting this whole series, and after hearing so many fantastic things I'm so glad I finally got a chance to check it out. I won't spoil anything about the story itself, but there is loads of extra content to absorb at the back of this oversized, complete collection, which is where I want to start this review.
I love when you can clearly tell a comic is a passion project for the creators involved, whatever that might be, and it's incredibly clear with each issue, page and panel of Die. That heart, love, passion and excitement seeps through the page, and makes an even better reading experience than you might have had already.
Most of the mini-essays in the backmatter (taken from the individual issues it seems) are written by the writer Kieron Gillen, and it was fascinating to hear his thoughts and inspirations behind the book. Everything from how the D&D classes inspired the different roles in the world of Die, to various RPG and literary influences, and then just generally how his own background impacted the story, and how much he researched for it.
Some of my favourite comics are relatively simple ideas (meaning that in a positive rather than reductive way) taken and developed to extremes that may end up being deep and dark. I've seen the phrase "Goth Jumanji" used to describe this book, and that's a very quick and easy way to convey it. It barely scratches the surface, of course, but it's a start.
As Gillen talks about in the backmatter I keep mentioning though, and as becomes very clear, this isn't your normal generic fantasy adventure story. It's a twisted world that is intensely personal, with reflections of not only certain inspirations I won't spoil, but also elements of the characters themselves.
Without spoiling anything, I thought it was so interesting how the first arc is presented and structured, seemingly giving you some idea of what the book is going to be like, until after that it completely spirals into something much deeper and more complicated for the other 15 issues. The politics of it all, from the inspirations to everything involving the characters from how they interact with the world of Die, how they reflect on themselves, and the arcs they all go on. Especially considering the central premise that is setup in the first issue, it's all so incredibly compelling, entertaining and thrilling to watch unfold.
I've talked very generally about the book itself, and Gillen's work with the writing, but now I absolutely need to spend some time praising the glorious work of Stephanie Hans, the spectacular lettering of Clayton Cowles, and the brilliant design work of Rian Hughes. Before I do that I want to shout-out the editor of this wonderful, magnificent comic book, Chrissy Williams.
There are so many great artists I love, but I can't think of any that would have pulled off this specific vision of the story as well as Hans did with her art. From the very first page, to the first introduction we have to the world of Die, and all throughout, it's simply so, so beautiful. It has this painted, majestic dream-like ethereal quality to it, amplifying the mystical nature of the world of Die, which makes it all the more disturbing during the many times in the story it feels surprisingly grounded in drama and emotion.
It's all executed to perfection, and like Gillen, there are some mini-essays in the back detailing how she went about creating this world, as well as many character sketches and designs, which are equally fascinating to read through and learn about. The colors are rich, I sometimes mention about "soaking the art in" when reading a comic, but here I truly mean it. The paint still looks wet, like you can actually reach out and lose yourself in this world.
There's a decent chance Clayton Cowles has lettered a significant amount of the comics you read (looking at my own stats he's my most read letterer by over 200 comics) but here his work is truly special. That's not to downplay anything else he's lettered, but to highlight how effective his work here is. Any normal speech is clean, efficient, and just generally easy to read, but it's how different scenarios are differentiated that makes it so special. For one example whenever Ash uses their special ability there's a special color scheme (and maybe font as well I can't quite remember) for the speech bubbles there, which is so visually distinct it's striking, in a good way, and fits gorgeously perfect with Hans' artwork.
Like everything else with this book, the design work by Hughes is impeccable. I love the idea of the net of a die on every single cover for this series, including of course the hardcover. It feels like such a neat, simple but effective way to constantly reinforce that motif, bringing it all together in a way that's so satisfying and cohesive. This hardcover itself is also very conveniently done, with covers, issue breaks, numbers and titles, and just generally it's such a delightful collection I'm so glad I have.
It's so clear how much thought, care, effort and passion is put into every aspect of this book. It creates such a unique, special, and phenomenal reading experience, especially when all read in a beautiful hardcover like this one, and I can't recommend it enough. I know some people aren't as into it for how deeply RPG based it feels and I get that, so maybe it's something to be aware of, but in any case I think it's at least worth a try if you get a chance!
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