It’s a brand-new series written by Kieron Gillen! With art from the immensely talented Stephanie Hans! And it has a literal fantasy RPG setting! What could possibly prevent me from declaring this one of the best comics before I’ve even read it? Common sense really -- having little is not the same as having none at all. So I actually decided to sit down and read the first volume of “Die” before waxing even more ecstatic about it.
Good thing I did. “Fantasy Heartbreaker” is certainly an interesting and even at times compelling start for this series. What it is not, however, is the grand-slam home run that I was expecting from this creative team.
It all starts innocuously enough in 1991, with a dual birthday party. That of Dominic and his best friend Sol. To celebrate the occasion, the latter has created a custom pen-and-paper role-playing game for the former to experience along with their mate Matthew, and Dominic’s little sister Angela. As well as Chuck, the Brit who walks and talks like a Yank, and Isabelle, who is Too Cool For Any of This. They each come up with their characters, are given a personal die, the game begins, and none of them are seen again for two years.
It’s now 2018, twenty-five years after Dominic, Angela, Matthew, Chuck and Isabelle finally reappeared in our world. They’ve done their best to put those two years behind them, some of them to better effect than others. Chuck may have channelled his experience into a bestselling book and film deal, but Angela is facing two failed relationships and a messy divorce that will likely see her children taken away from her. Dominic and the rest are just trying to shuffle by as best he can, until he gets an unexpected package delivered to him at the local bar.
Inside is a twenty-sided die. Not just any die, Dominic recognizes it as Sol’s. Fearful of what it means he gets the old party back together to figure out what should be done. Before they can make up their mind, the dice makes it up for them. Now they’re all back in the fantasy RPG game world that Sol created for them. Because while they may have thought they were done with the past, the past certainly isn’t done with them.
It’s a solid setup -- “Jumanji” with a goth makeover as Gillen phrased it. So why didn’t it grab me in the way his other work has? Part of it comes down to the world of “Die.” There are certainly some unique sights to it so far, but it hasn’t emerged as a cohesive world yet. I know that the story has it as the creation of a 16-year-old’s favorite influences, and that’s really how it reads so far. Like a lot of interesting stuff slapped together because someone thought it’d be cool.
Gillen’s a smart and self-aware enough writer to know that you can’t have that as an in-text reason as to why your world isn’t interesting. I’ve also seen him to smart worldbuilding in his other titles to know that it’s worth being patient here to see if he can build it up as things go on. I was just expecting the world of Die to emerge fully-formed right from the start based on what I’ve seen and come to expect from the writer.
Then there’s the fact that the goth style of the series really puts a damper on the overall entertainment factor of the series. While the doom and gloom which pervades the series feels appropriate given the main characters’ own feelings about their situation, it leaves me wondering as to what kind of story this is meant to be. It’s got some of the writer’s trademark wittiness, but not nearly enough to make it into an adventurous romp. The premise kind of feels like it could be played for horror, yet the abundance of fantasy action keeps the terror at bay. As for being a straight-up drama, well… it probably comes closest to that, except the wittiness and the horror distract from it. Rather than enhance the writer’s style, the goth stylings are muting it so far.
Not that Gillen can’t write a series that focuses on the drama -- I’ll refer you to the currently-on-hiatus “Uber.” There’s also the fact that most of “Fantasy Heartbreaker’s” best moments have a solid dramatic core to them. Instances like Dominic/Ash’s encounter with a mysterious man whose symbolism is keenly felt in the trenches of Endless Prussia, or Matthew recounting the bravest thing he’s ever done. These moments land and give you a look at what “Die” could wind up being once it starts firing on all cylinders.
It’s also fair to say that the writer does a good job fleshing out the main cast in these five issues. Their main traits as teens are effortlessly conveyed at the beginning, making it easy to see how they’ve changed/lost themselves as adults later in the same issue. They’re also interesting for their own reasons as it’s fun and not just a little bit creepy to see Chuck’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to conflict and the world itself, while the respective abilities of Matthew and Angela are as fascinating as they are disturbing.
Then there’s Dominic/Ash who has the most interesting role of all. Not only is he the only transgender character in the series -- in that he was a man in the real world, but a woman in the world of Die -- but her character’s power is effectively to get anyone to do what she wants. Even the reader when it comes to believing what looks to be a significant part of the series’ backstory. Really, that flashback with the Grandmaster might as well have had Gillen standing in the background waving a sign which read, “DON’T BELIEVE ANY OF THIS!” Rather than see it as a flaw, I’m more intrigued by the idea of what actually happened during that scene.
That it’s drawn in a slightly different style than the main story is just one reason I think it’s not to be believed. It’s quite nice, though, as is the entirety of the first volume. Hans contributes some wonderfully moody art to the opening scenes in Britain before diving headfirst into the wild fantasy of Die itself. Even if the world itself doesn’t feel cohesive yet, it’s hard to begrudge the opportunities its patchwork self gives to the artist to show off.
Steamwork dragons. Cyberpunk rogues. A summer fling turned to literal rot. A grand city encased in a D20 that has to come down in awful fashion. There’s so much to appreciate in this first volume that you won’t mind the bits where the art occasionally comes off as looking just a bit too dark.
Even if this first volume of “Die” didn’t meet my lofty expectations, it still offers plenty to warrant a recommendation. The memorable characters and storytelling hooks from Gillen and the frequently amazing art from Hans -- along with their essays at the back -- are absolutely worth the price of admission. It’s just a shame that this volume didn’t hit the ground running right out of the gate.