Publisher: Image Comics
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artwork: Stephanie Hans
Lettering: Clayton Cowles
Release Date: 5th May 2020
“We’re going down a fucking dungeon.”
As we head into the fourth and final arc of Die, our party is in a fairly bad way. The tense, violent conclusion to the previous arc has left things in tatters, with Ash shackled and muffled, Chuck all but broken and Matt taking the role of de facto leader in spite of his fragile mental state. Oh, and they also find themselves having to travel to the center of Die in a last ditch attempt to save Earth. But before all that, they actually have to find the bloody entrance to this “dungeon”.
My feelings about this series are well-documented, having sung its praises in both my Best of 2019 and Best of 2020 year-end lists. What Gillen, Hans and Cowles have created here is something truly special, simultaneously a celebration and deconstruction of the worlds of fiction, fantasy and roleplaying games. Each issue offers a new take on an established cliché, trope or fantasy setting, and it’s all tied together beautifully by six beautifully constructed and utterly believable protagonists; each flawed and broken in their own way and each handling this situation in drastically different ways.
This issue pays homage to the mighty Howard Phillips Lovecraft in an issue which Gillen himself refers to as a “semi-ironic Lovecraft-made short story”, confidently bridging the gap between arcs and tidying up the board before we begin the dungeon crawl all the way to issue twenty. As usual, each character gets their own moment in the spotlight, and looking back to where we found them all the way back in issue one, it’s truly striking to see how far they’ve come.
For me, Chuck’s development is the most captivating, although different readers will likely their own favourites. Watching him gradually breaking down, the cracks appearing in his carefully maintained bravado, has made for fascinating reading, and perhaps more than any other party member, I can see him figuring significantly in the no doubt impossible decisions to come.
As always, Stephanie Hans (my 2020 artist of the year, for what it’s worth) turns in a masterclass in mood setting and expression, not only with our protagonists themselves but with the worlds they discover – the mysterious island they find themselves on here being a perfect example of that. Everything feels murky, oppressive and just plain wrong, and the way she brings its ghoulish inhabitants to the page – particularly during one genuinely horrific red-hued moment – is an unsettling delight.
Similarly consistent is Clayton Cowles’ lettering, blending creative font and word balloon choices with impeccable placement to really enhance the work of Gillen and Hans. He also shines in the aforementioned red-hued scene, adding a frenetic escalation to the horrors which are unfolding before Izzy’s terrified eyes.
The final pages set the scene beautifully, with all our players brought together – along with an unexpected cameo – to tackle what comes next. It’s gripping stuff, and for a writer who has consistently churned out critically acclaimed and commercially successful comic books for well over a decade now, this feels like Gillen at the absolute peak of his abilities. Or hell, maybe I just love fantasy more than music or super heroes.
We’re sixteen issues in and this series still hasn’t missed a beat. Simply put, Die is an absolute masterpiece that will either have you pining for your lost D&D days, celebrating your current D&D days, or wishing you had D&D days to get excited about. Highly, highly recommended.
[PREVIEW ARTWORK – CLICK TO ENLARGE]