Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Image Comics
DIE #5 bears that trademark feeling that we have come to associate with a Kieron Gillen comicbook: ambivalence. Gillen reminds us in this issue that people can change and yet stay the same; plot lines are never truly resolved in fantasy or reality; and we never get over our childhoods. The story opens back at Glass Town. Ash plans to lure Sol out into the open so that the band of travelers can finally return home. Her plan works. And, yet, somehow it doesn’t.
The open-ended style of narration is the greatest strength of this RPG-inspired comic. Gillen wraps up the first arc by pulling on several plot threads that have been un-twining since the first issue. DIE #5 is about the decisions that friendship encourages you to make, what the rules by which we create fantasy worlds say about us as humans, and the melancholy truth that our youths were never as carefree as we remember them. There is a Wizard of Oz reference that plays on the yearning to be homeward bound. And there are (what I suspect to be) scores of other pop culture, literary, and D&D references that I either did not catch or were beyond my comprehension.
Because, to put it mildly, a Gillen comic is not for the faint of heart. His refusal to write down to his readers is the main reason, I think, why those who so love DIE, love DIE. Unlike recent 80s-inspired stories such as Stranger Things, this comic does not play to the cheap memories of a Gen-X nostalgia wave. No one rides their bikes to the river. No one huddles over Galaga in a hazy arcade. No one fawns over the new girl.
Instead, the writer fills that space with characters, situations, and riffs on ethics, the life cycle, and the pitfalls of sentimentality. We make way for the long-game in this comic, soaking up a slow, dense yarn about coming-of-age in a late-twentieth-century basement. The payoff for patience is a sad love letter to a generation. DIE is a tribute to the dreams, anxieties, insecurities, and, yes, mixed feelings about growing up at the end of the Cold War.
We should celebrate this rare and authentic approach to storytelling. But we should also remember that it can come at a price. DIE has a tendency to sacrifice plot for emotion. It is a maudlin, self-aware adventure without much adventure. A fight scene at the end of DIE #5 fizzles into a discourse about the rules of RPGs. And, the arc can be daunting to follow. I had to skim the prior issues to fully grasp the rules by which the characters must decide whether or not to leave the game.
It feels sometimes as if Gillen writes this love letter in code. DIE is full of subtle plot hints and obscure references that require so much effort to unlock. Occasionally, I wish he took a cue from another indie writer – Rick Remender. Remender also tells big stories about family, loyalty, and loss, but with the relaxed, light touch of high pulp.
But then, it wouldn’t be Gillen. And we would lose out on the artistic team that has made this complex premise come alive. Stephanie Hans’s talent for evoking the reverie of an old-school D&D game is known, but less has been said about Clayton Cowles. The lettering on this comic cannot be easy. The task is to find space among Hans’s lush brush strokes and colors without distracting from them. And, Cowles manages it with quiet expertise, deploying fonts, lines, and shapes to further the mood and presentation of the comic. The result is an artistic accomplishment that leaves us anything but uncertain.