Die Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker, by Kieron Gillen, has a fairly simple premise. It’s about a gritty tabletop RPG that sucks its players into the game and refuses to release them until they win, die, or decide to leave as a group. The concept alone was enough for me to give the graphic novel a positive review, but the art style, exploration of themes, creative world, and engrossing character stories all elevate this comic to a higher level.
Let’s knock the easy compliment out right off the bat. Die’s art style is fantastic. It has a rich color palette, though it unsurprisingly tends to focus on darker tones given the nature of the story. The story focuses on a ragtag group of dysfunctional friends. One day they all get together for an RPG session and end up getting sucked into the game. After some off-screen time, we see our group manage to pull themselves out of the horror game – greatly changed by the things they have seen and done, and haunted by the friend they left behind in the game to escape. Thirty-ish years later the group comes together to reminisce over the game and how it was the turning point (for the worse) in all of their lives, only to find themselves sucked back into the game. Can the group confront the horrors a second time, and come to terms with what they did before.
The characters and world of Die are an adventure in and of themselves. Each character in the story has a special RPG class with extremely interesting powers that reflect their personality. I want to spoil as little as possible, so I will only talk about one of them as an example. Matt, the Grief Knight, is essentially the Hulk – but for sadness. The darker his despair and misery, the stronger he becomes. It leads to some very fucked up and horrifying situations that you want to end but can’t look away from. The world is also mesmerizing, but the pacing is a bit fast. I found myself wishing that it was a novel because there simply isn’t enough time to give the cast, world, and themes justice in this short page count.
Die’s themes are many, but my two favorites are reflections on the younger self, and fantasy storytelling as a medium to explore the horrors of war. In the story, the party reflects on the choices that they made as children and are forced to confront the damage they have done to others and the world. It’s an interesting way to explore the culpability of children and question where personal responsibility begins and ends. The second theme, exploration of fantasy as a war medium, is delightful. Die breaks the 4th wall sometimes to explore the idea of a story within a story. It analyzes itself and contemplates the power of fantasy storytelling to make war allegories. It’s a very cool meta-conversation about the genre as a whole that really resonated with me. The story of Die was already a powerful portrayal of war, and it is further bolstered by the 4th wall breaking.
Die is a delightful slice of trauma served up in the form of friendship and Dungeons and Dragons. This was the most engrossing graphic novel I have read recently and I absolutely will be reading the rest of the series. The story feels like it bites off a little more than it can chew, but that also is because there is a lot here to explore. I highly recommend Die if you have any interest in RPGs or board games.
Rating: Die Vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker – 9.0/10