Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans Subvert Fantasy Escapism in Die
December 3, 2018 | Toussaint Egan
Die, the new ongoing fantasy comic from writer Kieron Gillen and artist Stephanie Hans, follows a group of five adults forced to revisit the horrific world they fled in their youth after playing a mystical role-playing game.
What purpose does fantasy serve? The term refers to a body of speculative fiction, with epics set in fantastic universes inspired not only by medieval history, but the folklore and myths of countless cultures and generations. For many, the utility of fantasy lies in its affordance as allegory: the genre’s potential to refract reality through the prism of fiction, revealing the inherent truths within the stories we tell ourselves. One of the genre’s bedrock works, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, can be viewed as a sweeping war epic divorced from reality. Those who recognize Tolkien’s tour as a second lieutenant in World War I (including such brutal events as the Battle of the Somme) know that his pantheon of hobbits, orcs, and elves ascend from a far more visceral and haunting foundation.
For other fans, fantasy offers a means of “escape,” a genre that affords a suspension— rather than refraction—of reality, providing distance and entertainment from the parade of troubling headlines causing global dissonance. As Stephen King once so eloquently said, “A good story has the power... to take us away to worlds that never existed, in the company of people we wish we were… or thank God we aren't."
But what happens when fantasy, the means through which we mask and escape, becomes the very thing we’re so desperate to escape from? This question and more haunt the pages of the first issue of Die, the latest series from The Wicked + The Divine writer Kieron Gillen, digital painter Stephanie Hans, and veteran letterer Clayton Cowles.
One night in 1991, six teenagers sit down to indulge in a role-playing game session at a joint 16th birthday party. That same night, the sextet disappears without a trace. No clues, no explanation, no leads to suggest their whereabouts. Two years later, the so-called “Stafford Six,” minus one, apparate on the outskirts of their hometown, either oblivious or refusing to acknowledge what transpired since or how they disappeared—or why one of them is missing an arm. Die is the story of these five friends, now adults in their 40s, as they descend backward into the world of high fantasy and despair that stole them away so many years ago on a quest not only for resolution, but absolution from their respective traumas.
An intensely meta horror-fantasy epic of deeply personal stakes, Gillen has half-jokingly described Die as “Goth Jumanji” by way of It, a whimsical yet apt description that offers only a sliver of what the series has to offer. The first long-form creator-owned series from Gillen following his work on The Wicked + The Divine and Hans’ first ongoing series, Die finds its creators at a crossroads—both in their respective careers and lives—as they channel a story that balances the promise of what fantasies can offer with the perils of what they can take away.
“The Wicked + The Divine was designed as a ceremonial end to chapter one of my life. Die is the start of chapter two,” Gillen says. “It’s the only book I’m currently writing, which I’ll be writing by this time next year. I know that one way or another, my life will be completely different by then. Die is a lifeline, both in a support to myself, but also a literal line of my life, stretching onwards and back. I’m going to hold onto it, white-knuckled.”
Die is a lifeline, both in a support to myself, but also a literal line of my life, stretching onwards and back. I’m going to hold onto it, white-knuckled.
For Hans, a gifted cover artist with interior work on comics such as The Wicked + The Divine 1831, Die represents a necessary challenge to grow as both an artist and creator. “I am now at a strange moment in my life, where I’ve become the exact contrary to who I was a few years ago,” Hans says. “I am more confident and more focused. It is my nature to want to grow as an artist alongside the trends, to stay in the move. With this kind of temperament, it was just a matter of time before I found something difficult and new and decided, this is the next mountain I wanted to climb. It took me a decade to feel confident enough, but here I am, and I found a very good team to go with me on this adventure. I am ready to put all I have on the table, finally. I waited a long time for that.”
The origins behind Die stem from Gillen and Hans’ shared love of tabletop role-playing games. For Gillen, who remembers when the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box launched in 1983, role-playing games were as aspirational as they were elusive in his youth.
“You simply couldn’t get ahold of most of this stuff in Stafford, my hometown, and you had to search for even glimmers of it,” Gillen says. “And yet, I craved it. It was another world, and I wanted in. I didn't know this until researching Die, but, via Jon Peterson’s excellent book Playing At The World, I learned that David Arneson's proto-D&D Braunstein games were based on the ‘players are actually the real-world players but transported to a fantasy world’ set up. In other words, through a certain filter, this is the original D&D plot. It's been there all along. And in a real way, getting lost in a fantasy world for a while? That's what RPGs are.”
Hans’ formal introduction to tabletop role-playing didn’t come until she was 22. “We were playing Warhammer, the imperial campaign with rules of Advanced D&D. I had this character that I really loved, a sorceress with a huge amount of power who was mostly good, but courted a dark side. I still have vivid memories of her and the moments we shared. For me, RPGs have always been about thinning the walls between worlds. It is not only telling a story with different voices, it is living a story that you can remember as vividly as reality, sometimes more even.”
A love of gaming isn’t the only fuel behind Die’s creation, but it has manifested as a related—yet distinct—game itself. In the comic, the Stafford Six are inexplicably transported into an otherworldly plane through the crystalline dice (singular, die) gamemaster Solomon assigns. In the process of researching for the comic, Gillen designed that RPG himself.
“Yes, I’ve done a classical me and went in far too deep, designing the RPG system of the comic and developed it in parallel. I plan to release the first take of the RPG as a PDF when the first trade comes out. It’s designed to be played across a couple of sessions and basically gives you a chance to do your own version of the first arc of Die. Not in a you experience what the cast does way, but in a you will create something, which works like the comic, but entirely in your own way that’s magical and unique.”
An aficionado of the medium, Gillen pulls from his experiences with such games as Monsterhearts, Fiasco, Dungeon World, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, Cyberpunk 2020, Vampire, Paranoia, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd Edition) to define the mechanics of his game and, by extension, the world of Die.
Yes, I’ve done a classical me and went in far too deep, designing the RPG system of the comic and developed it in parallel. I plan to release the first take of the RPG as a PDF when the first trade comes out.
“But it’s really a conversation with all these games. There’s a lot about the fetishism for the form that’s been turned into mechanics. It’s a fun time. Playtests have gone well. It’s additional content I hope that even folks who don’t play RPGs will find amusing.”
Even with all of this effort diving into hardcore mechanics, Gillen impresses the accessibility of Die above all else. “This is an accessible fantasy comic. You can read this as easily as you could read a book about Narnia or any other secondary world. I haven't lost it entirely. Yet. I think.”
One element that sets Die apart is its striking, contrast-heavy visuals. “It's astoundingly good-looking. Stephanie has outdone herself,” Gillen says. “Frankly, a fantasy world as visualized by Stephanie Hans justified the project.”
Nothing else looks like Die on shelves right now. Hans pulls from an immense wealth of influences, cultivated over her decade-long career. “First of all, it is a tribute to the illustrators from the ’70s and ’80s who were working for the French comic market where fantasy was huge at the time. I first read [The Quest for the Time Bird] when I was 23, and Régis Loisel’s art was so beautiful it moved me to tears,” Hans says. “There is also the work of Angus McBride, who was a fantastic technical illustrator, mostly for Osprey [Publishing’s] military books. For the covers, I have to thank Marko Djurdjević, whose early work was a heavy mix of illustration and graphism. It was so inspiring. I certainly can also pick some works from Yoshitaka Amano and yes, John Howe, art director of the The Lord of the Rings and official illustrator of Tolkien. What you draw is always only the continuation of whatever made you an artist. It’s a life plus these drawings.”
At its black heart, Die is a series that aims to probe the question of what fantasy even is, what fantasy does for us, and how it can shape our perceptions of the world. Between the two, Gillen and Hans offer their own respective answers to these question. “Fantasy is a misapplication from a survival mechanism we have as a species… to conceptualize events other than as they are happening,” Gillen says. “When nature wanted us to be imagining whether there may be a wolf in the forest, we use that gift to, well, imagine anything. Fantasy is us bunking off on evolution. As such, we use this gift in endless ways. It makes life better. It makes life worse. The characters in Die use fantasy in various ways, and I hope that by seeing them together, we'll work out ‘What Fantasy Is For’ by the end of it.”
When asked whether fantasy could be harmful, Hans’ answer was more optimistic. “I guess I never really thought about it. I loved fantasy because it was real in a way that life isn’t. Life is very often a hard place to be and difficult to understand. Fantasy makes sense. You remember the old navigator maps from Medieval times where—when people didn’t know what would be beside a certain point—they would draw monsters? The reality today is that there are no places anymore for monsters to hide, beside some folklore, disappearing fast, and frankly, I find the world sadder and smaller without them. People need enchanted creatures, they need magic—they need to believe that there is more than this. That is what brings fantasy. I don’t know if it can really harm you, besides the sadness that comes with the end of a book or a game, but for me, it provided me a space where I was allowed to shorten the distance between dream and reality. There is magic in that, too.”
You remember the old navigator maps from Medieval times where—when people didn’t know what would be beside a certain point—they would draw monsters? The reality today is that there are no places anymore for monsters to hide, beside some folklore, disappearing fast, and frankly, I find the world sadder and smaller without them.
While Die is the culmination of a great and many number of inspirations, it’s ultimately a story of what art does to humans and how humans grow—or regress—through art, and what humans do with art.
“I've said before that The Wicked + The Divine was a funeral pyre, designed to burn things away,” Gillen says. “It worked. It also burned away the desire to burn things way—I've somehow found a maturity to be a little more balanced than that somewhat childish urge to set fire to things. Die is a love song about this culture. But it’s a Nick Cave Love Song.”
As for what readers can expect as the series progresses, it’s better yet to let the mystery be. “That is for Kieron to tell and for me to draw,” says Hans. “He is the gamemaster, after all. I am merely doing the gesticulation. But in a graceful way, I hope.”