Page 45 Review by Stephen
singular form of dice"
stop living, become extinct, be forgotten"
"We can survive anything but our past."
This is blinding in its multi-layered brilliance, and our highest selling periodical comic by some substantial score.
Co-creator Kieron Gillen (THE WICKED + THE DIVINE, MERCURY HEAT, UBER, PHONOGRAM etc) describes Stephanie Hans's visual prowess as "mixing epic romance with operatic intensity". I've stolen that because it is perfect. Hers is a playlist of songs rich in colour, carefully composed around those colours with varying, artfully controlled tempos, all arranged so as to hit you in the heart.
As with its cast, this will seduce you, startle you, suck you in until you're helpless, have you sweating emotionally, vicariously, for their sanity as much as safety, and then break your hearts, repeatedly. It will also give you much food for thought, not least about reality, fantasy, actions, consequences, rules and restrictions, friendship, loyalty, the power of persuasion, collaborative creation (as well as cooperative action), what it's like to be left behind, and the weight of adulthood and its responsibilities plus their potential toll which can resonate with all that we did during earlier years which were more complex in their interactions than we'd originally thought.
On that very subject the new contrasting chapter breaks in less complicated pencil of innocents at idle, carefree play are very clever indeed.
Britain 1991, and five teenage friends are invited over to Solomon's to celebrate the shared 16th birthdays of Solomon and Dominic, for whom Solomon has created a brand-new role playing game.
He'll be their Dungeon Master; but he'll be participating too.
"Yeah, it's an unusual game. We're all in this together."
Each receives a sheet to develop their imaginary characters. "Guided freedom, selecting abilities and personalising them," recalls Dominic. "Anything was permissible, if not always advisable."
Each then in turn describes their character to Sol who accordingly assigns them both a role and a unique die, from the 20-sided die (D20) reserved by Sol for himself down to the 4-sided die (D4) for Dominic, who chooses to play as female Ash. She is the Dictator (spokesperson, negotiator... dictator...)
And they start to play.
Two hours later, Sol's mum discovers her son's bedroom empty.
Two years later five of the six reappear on a roadside near Nottingham, one of them minus an arm, all of them minus Sol.
Obvious questions were asked by the police, by the press, by their friends and relatives. Where had they been? What did they do? And whatever happened to Solomon?
But they couldn't say. They truly couldn't say. They physically couldn't say.
Brilliantly (and all still within what is the prologue), after but two more pages we flash-forward another 25 years to the point where the former 18-year-old survivors are now in their forties. Some have married, some have had kids, some have married and divorced, but one at least has found commercial success as a writer of fantasy which has since gone multi-media massive, netting him a small fortune. That would be Chuck, the individual amongst them who never took any of it seriously. He's been successful, all right.
Dominic and his younger sister Angela, not so much: she's the one missing an arm and now a husband whom she left for a woman who almost immediately ditched her, plus she's fighting a custody battle for her kids which she's unlikely to win even if she keeps her feet on solid ground. Please remember that after we leave the prologue. The siblings are both exhausted and Hans excels at depicting their depletion, then the varying degrees of trepidation when the remaining five are reluctantly forced to meet up.
They're forced to meet up because - while drinking down a London pub whose pavement outside is being lashed with rain - Dominic and Angela are presented with a package which the barman found on the doorstep. In it is a box, and within that box, on top of crushed velvet, lies Solomon's prized D20, gleaming away but covered in blood.
The subsequent page outside the bar is one of Hans's most accomplished. The light at night emanating from the street lamps and closed retail outlets still blasting out come-look-at-me-luminosity cascades through the deluge onto the rain-soaked stone, and there is so much red carried over from the previous page's blood-bathed, twenty-sided die. In spite of all the horrific, war-torn, fantastical spectacle that is delivered so devastatingly later on, it is the most violent page in the comic as Dominic - knowing full well its potential properties - attempts to smash it to pieces.
Both impressionistic and expressionistic, that is a scene which will linger with you forever.
Likewise, I believe, a panel which will be hitting us ever so shortly once we're not in Kansas anymore.
That bears all the neo-classical grandeur and majesty of a scene from the PS4's 'God Of War'. It's worth scanning the rich, lambent background for details, because in any other context like animation this glorious landscape would not be just a single-panel scene-setter, but the backdrop to so much more super-imposed art to follow. Again, a reminder that red features prominently.
Teasing aside, we're nearly done with the expository hand-holding, I promise. It's lovely to have a lot more leeway than when I wrote the first issue's review.
Dominic decides that he has no option responsibly but to consult his fellow survivors about the D20's reappearance. They reconvene at Chuck's lavish estate and compare notes, not just on what to do with the die, but on where their lives have taken them in the 25 years since they were last... embroiled. It's a lot like a school reunion. *shudders*
But the D20 was a lure, a trap, and they have gathered together right into it.
And suddenly, as I say, they're not in Kansas anymore.
They're back on Die, the mist-shrouded, 20-faceted world which they barely escaped 25 years ago, and they are all very much altered. They've resumed their former identities / roles which they dangerously played out for two whole years: Dominic is Ash the Dictator, Matt is the Grief Knight, Angela is Neo once more with two arms (albeit one cybernetic), and Isabelle's back in her Godbinder armour. She has gods in her thrall; she may be in thrall to her gods. It all depends upon how they use each other. A god's the same thing as a demon: discuss.
Chuck is the only one of them who seems remotely happy to be back, but then Chuck is the Fool.
So that's where they went. But what did they do that took such a terrible toll on their lives, rendering the rest of them terrified to be back, fractious and full of mutual recriminations? And whatever happened to Solomon?
That's it, prologue over. No more mere plot points for you!
As you've probably gathered, this is a Dungeons & Dragons interactive role playing game made manifest. By which I mean, instead of sitting down together with tea, biscuits or a fridge full of bevies to collaboratively create your own adventure through conversational narrative (isn't the human mind amazing?), our six participants have - and will yet again - be living it. But this is the key: the rules still apply. It's still a negotiation in both its physical and bartering sense, for there are prices to be paid and costs to be extracted for every move made or ability utilised.
If the terror of DIE is the annexation of reality by fantasy in the form of five friends trapped there, the genius of its execution lies in the indissoluble bonding between fantasy and reality so that ordinarily consequence-free fantasy - played so as to give one a break from reality - has very real repercussions for both.
I mean, just for starters in the real world, there's the not inconsiderable matter of Angela's arm. Then there's what's happened to their heads, to their hearts. But on Die there are, have been (while they were away) and will be more consequences to come. I'll let Isabelle, the Godbinder, explain their dilemma, in words which will echo for you in your own private reading much later on:
"Before we decide the next move, we need to talk. We play by the old house rules, right?"
I love the use of "play" there. This is no longer a game; and the "house rules" are now more of a moral imperative.
"We have no idea how real Die is. So we have to treat it like it is real.
"If it's fantasy and we treat it like reality, there's no loss.
"If it's reality and we treat it like fantasy, we become monsters."
I'll give you an example, spoiler-free on account of where I will leave it. Almost as soon as Isabelle has spoken, the truth of her words is exemplified in the form a formerly cheery knight called Sir Lane who hails Lady Ash with "I am here to fulfil my duty unto thee."
"The past walks up and says hello. I barely remember him...
"He was an Angrian knight of kisses. Joy into power.
"He was an adventurer.
"He was an adventure.
"As he rode off, he said he would not rest until he had gazed upon my perfection once more."
Ash blows a flattered kiss his way as her knight departs on his white steed.
"He dared me to use my power to make his words binding. I laughed and did so."
I promised you no spoilers so you'll have to discover for yourselves how profoundly Dominic / Ash's innocent teenage overconfidence will prove to have been so fatefully ill thought out. The premise is all there in the words I've typed, but where it is taken is a testament to Gillen's lateral thinking because, remember: Rules and Repercussions. This is, in so many instances, a horror comic. Also: a war comic.
No more so on both counts than when Gillen wittily, grittily combines WWI with Tolkien in the trenches: Eternal Prussia with its industrial-strength dragons versus Little Englanders caught in a mud-bogged, smoke- and sulphur-stenched conflagration that has ordered them almost as far from home as our five, never to return to their loved ones. The dove-tail is surprisingly seamless. One panel in particular by Hans is pure Elijah Wood.
Again, then again, in the second, third, fourth and fifth chapters, Gillen opens then opens up further the horizons of that which he wants to explore: for example, the history and nature of fantasy writing, and the history and potential of creative game-playing, prising apart his own past experiences of role playing to pare off the rigid crusts of customary codes and well worn modes to reinvigorate its potential for others.
Oh yeah, he's even recreated and so procreated DIE as an actual RPG: www.diecomic.com/rpg
[Editor's note: while you're here, another graphic novel hugely recommended on the subject of creative, collaborative gameplay is USER by Devin Grayson and Sean Phillips, John Bolton. Remember when games were nought but words on the screen? That.]
There's plenty about all of this (his research, his cogitations and extrapolations) in this DIE collection's back-matter - along with a new essay by Stephanie Hans on her approach to design and sequential-art storytelling - which I absorbed when originally printed in the periodicals before re-reading each issue. I cannot commend to you strongly enough to do the same for they proved an engrossing, enlightening revelation. By all means read the whole first (rather than individual chapters) before giving yourselves the added gift of extra insight.
Matt as the Grief Knight in the comic is a perfect example of recalibrating an old favourite. The important element is "grief".
Chuck the Fool may be as care-free (and, to begin with, as callous) in the present as he was in the past, but Matt endured such substantial trauma as a teenager that it's a minor miracle that he is now pretty much sanguine to it all and created for himself a loving and stable family unit, from which he has now been torn. But he was and so remains a Grief Knight, his substantial powers on Die activated only upon misery. Evidently, he must have kicked ass 25 years ago. But if he's to be more use than ornament now, his hard-won optimism or at least equanimity must be stripped bare, destroyed, by not just reminding him of a past during which he was laid so very low, but manipulating his mind so that he feels that same sorrow and suffering.
That would be a vicious thing for any enemy to do. It would be worse if it came from one of your friends.
"We can survive anything but our past."
DIE is a comic which will threaten to pull both you and its cast apart.
What is your tensile strength?