9:00am PT by Graeme McMillan
Image Comics' New Series 'Die' Takes Fantasy and Gaming Into New Realms (Exclusive Images)
This December, The Wicked + The Divine writer Kieron Gillen will team with artist Stephanie Hans for a new comic book series that combines horror, fantasy and a re-examination of familiar gaming tropes and ideas in an all-new way.
Titled DIE, the ongoing series — published by Image Comics — is about nostalgia, the complicated relationships of youth and how they impact us as adults and the traditions of the fantasy genre. THR has an exclusive preview of the series, as well as a conversation with both Gillen and Hans about its origins, and what to expect when it launches.
DIE is wonderfully nerdy and emotionally complicated and, based on the first issue — and the teaser — utterly beautiful. RPG culture feels like it’s ascendent right now, but I’m wondering how much that — and things like The Adventure Zone, or Maze Arcana — played into the origins of the book. This is the general, “But where did this come from?” question, really. Why DIE? Why now?
Gillen: Well, there's the dual origin. The book and the me and Stephanie of it. The Stephanie and Kieron is the easy part of it – we've been talking about doing a book together ever since Journey Into Mystery [A Marvel series Gillen wrote, and Hans illustrated covers for, from 2011 through 2012]. I was actually working on something else completely different before the idea for DIE dropped from the heavens.
Hans: For me, doing fantasy has always felt like the most natural thing, art-wise. Too natural actually; when I started doing comics in France, my first work was fantasy, but it felt like I was closing myself to the opportunity to learn if I favored what felt easy. I wanted to be good, not just good for fantastic art. So I looked away and started doing covers, lots of them. Then I met Kieron and we got along artistically.
Gillen: I just knew that the world clearly needed a fantasy universe drawn by Stephanie Hans, and would do anything to enable it.
Hans: We have been talking about working on a book together for a while, and then realized that we were both waiting for the right moment to do some hardcore fantasy. I guess the moment is now, I mean, I will never be more ready, waiting more would be procrastinating at this point.
Gillen: The specific idea came at San Diego 2016. Jamie [McKelvie, Gillen’s creative partner on Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine], Ray Fawkes and I were wandering around buying ice cream and just riffing. I said “I wonder what ever happened to those kids in the 1980s D&D cartoon?” We joked around it a bit — historically, they escaped in the last episode which they never recorded — and just thought of these people who'd survived a D&D game gone wild, now well into their adulthood. So we made some jokes, and carried on eating our ice cream.
It stuck in my head all day, and I chewed it over, had some more ideas, and by 8 p.m. I spontaneously burst into tears during dinner when I realized what the story was about, and it instantly jumped up to the top of the list of stories I had to tell immediately. I threw the other story in the bin, pitched DIE at Stephanie, and started all the research I needed to do.
Hans: I think at that moment we already had talked about it a lot and were waiting for any excuse. I myself was in a strange place. I had just left Germany, where I used to live, to become a digital nomad. I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do in the future. I wanted to reconnect with things that were important for me and this, this was important. As I said, it was the right moment for both of us.
Gillen: But, as you say, it's worryingly zeitgeisty. Role-playing games are part of the cultural conversation in a way they haven't been since the 1980s. I suspect DIE is going to sit a little apart from most of it, especially the comics. Most of the D&D comics either are straight satires or leaning into the fun and games of those memories. We're a lot bleaker. It's me, so it's still playful, but I take fantasy games as seriously as I take pop music and this is a product of that.
Fundamentally, it's a book about a group of adults who realize their lives have not measured up to their teenage hopes, merged with a Planetary-esque examination of everything that lead fed into D&D (And how D&D took over the world's conception of fantasy.) That's pretty heavy, and necessary, and its timeliness adds to the sense that it really needs to be done.
Also, after five years on [The Wicked + The Divine], I had to write about people who were at least as old as I was.
Kieron, you’ve written before about your own gaming habits. How much of DIE is autobiographical? Not the “We’ve been kidnapped to a fantasy dimension” part, I hope, but the dynamics of the group, and the complicated nostalgia of it all.
Gillen: Oh, I dunno. Perhaps not even that. At least part of the reason why I burst into tears was realizing that part of me was kidnapped into a fantasy world at the age of 16, and wondering how my love of all this stuff has emotionally ruined me.
It's got a bunch of autobiography fed into it, but all significantly warped and remixed. Not just my own, either — Stephanie and I talked over our own experiences with fantasy, and she's fed into some of the characters in significant ways. I mean, the obvious tell is that one of the cast is French. It's been an intensely collaborative project.
Hans: I saw a lot of myself in the characters when Kieron actually sent the first draft to me. I think we had a dinner when I was wandering in England, where we talked about all the things that made us, and Kieron was taking notes. I think a lot of the process comes from that moment.
Gillen: The social group in DIE isn't my social group, but the aim was to make a social group which felt entirely authentic. It's not a generalized group of teenagers and adults. These are specific people, whose internal lives and drives are going to carry the whole book. Generally speaking, a sharp questioning of nostalgia is one of the things which has run though all my work —hell, it was the theme of Phonogram: Rue Britannia, my first comic. My work also struggles to get any more positive than “bittersweet.” DIE is all about the hard questions. The intersection of nostalgia, history and personal experience still fascinates me.
As someone who’s not a gamer — I know, I’m terrible — I’m curious about the collaborative and creative process on a comic, and gaming together. You’ve talked about how intensely collaborative this series is for the two of you — is there crossover between that approach and gaming?
Hans: I always think that working as a team is like a dance. You have to trust your partner while he does the same. Funny enough, I see panels as music notes. But in this one, Kieron is a lot like the game master, I trust him to do build a beautiful narrative while I do the gesticulation. Worth mentioning: when I was still roleplaying, I used to describe an RPG as a beautiful story that you create as a group. In a way, we have come full circle.
Gillen: There's a truth there. It comes back to how collaborative this is — my script and world-building is hugely detailed, but Stephanie also makes bold choices, which I then immediately fold back into the world. That's what a lot of really great gamemasters do — listen to the players, encourage and enable their creativity. Players aren't the audience. They're the author, as much as the GM.
That said ... While you're not a gamer, Graeme, I suspect you will identify with a lot of the other things in DIE in the same way people who didn't like pop music could understand Phonogram as a book about obsession in pop culture generally. DIE is about Fantasy, and what fantasy is for and how it makes us better and how it makes us worse. RPGs are a great way to dramatize that. Forever, what we broadly describe as “geek culture” has always had this defensive chip in its shoulder, in that it has to justify it's worthy of attention for so long. Frankly, we've won. We don't need to justify ourselves any more. As such, we can be more honest when talking about it.
WicDiv confused some people in that they couldn't work out whether it was eulogizing these pop stars as gods, or a satire of them. The answer, of course, is that it was both. It was trying to give a complicated image of what pop does for people. The same's even more true of DIE. DIE is less structurally complicated than WicDiv, but considerably more emotionally complicated.
Hell, it's complicated in a bunch of ways. As well as writing the comic, I've designed a complete role-playing game system from scratch. My original plan was to release it as back matter in the single issues, but I reached a point when I realized the smallest form of the RPG gives huge spoilers for the last issue of the first arc. As such, I changed plans, and will hopefully be releasing it as a PDF around the release of the trade. Basically it lets you play through your own version of the first arc in a couple of sessions. After that, I hope to have new material in the back of the issues, and perhaps do a print version after the end of the series.
All assuming this goes well – the games' play tests have all gone well so far, which is exciting in and of itself. As well as making something that's interesting for gamers, I'm aware that they'll be people like you, Graeme, who'll perhaps be tempted into taking this fantasy game for a spin. Much like DIE itself, I'm trying to get something that is accessible while still being emotionally powerful.
Stephanie, you have all kinds of design challenges on this series, not least of which is designing the core characters three times: Their 1991 selves, their contemporary selves in the real world, their fantasy world selves. Aside from getting mad at Kieron, where do you start with a project like this?
Hans: A lot of them are more or less inspired by friends or even myself. Mostly I try to impersonate each character and draw what feels right. My art is very intuitive and I learnt to follow my ideas. To be brutally honest, I have a very messy creative process. Nothing looks like anything until the moment I actually use them. My sketches are ugly, my thoughts are pure chaos, and somehow, in the end it finds a balance.
For this book particularly, I used a few pop culture references from my childhood, like the dress of the main character, inspired by the one in the movie Legend. Although, the character had at first a hint or a lot of Eddie the Head from Iron Maiden. Still has bits of it.
Gillen: This is one of Stephanie's great ideas. She thought that the lead should be one of those sensitive art-class metalheads who do all those intricate fantasy paintings instead of what their actual homework was. That was instantly an amazing idea —that's a person who I know, but I've never actually seen in pop culture. The post-Spinal Tap, post-Wayne' s World world has pushed the classic pop-cultural metalhead into that Bill and Ted mold, and for both of our experiences, that's a small selection of the people we've known.
Hans: I love metalheads, that’s true. There is something raw in the way they carry their emotions. I brought a lot of other inspirations from all over the place.
You can spot some references to Gunnm [aka Battle Angel Alita] and [The Legend of] Mother Sarah, as well as some mix between Aragorn and some illustration work from Angus MacBride on his essential reference work for Osprey. The character who was the trickiest, as it's completely different from me, has 1990s/2000s George Michael as a reference. You know: flashy, bling-bling, still kinda lovable, but he totally is the kind to manspread. And then there is one, who is literally directly inspired by a close friend of mine. I gave her the most serious outfit cause I suspected her to be the most attached to accuracy.
With those designs, I also wanted to create designs that would make sense for the characters when they entered the game, so their adult selves may not like it so much anymore. Although I am not so sure after all, when you reach 20 or 30, you hate your teenage years but once you get older, their memory becomes precious and lovely. But yeah, all the references come from the ‘90s.
Gillen: The ‘90s was key in terms of thinking of the fantasy world. I was looking at what was the state of the art in 1991. Not just games, but in terms of culture — like, “Nevermind” has just dropped, so we're literally at the birth of the “true” ‘90s. What sort of world would a bunch of precocious kids make up then? I worked on that, added a bunch of the aforementioned Planetary-esque genre commentary and then render it up in Stephanie Hans-o-vision. It's informed by the cultural period it's made, but in how it's presented, strives towards the new. The exploded D20 on the cover is telling. We plan to take this whole thing apart.
There’s a lot to unpick in DIE, and the teaser offers much but nowhere near all of it. What would you add to lure in the curious to try out that first issue?
Gillen: As everything we've said to you shows, DIE is a lot. It's simultaneously the most character-led and accessible book I've done, while also being one of the absolute weirdest. We haven't even touched on huge chunks of it. As in, I've mentioned Planetary as an influence, but not even had room to expand on it, as I'm trying to keep it simple.
The preview is designed to try and get to the core of it — the setup, a hint at tone, the promise of a bleakly fantastical land and Stephanie Hans's noble attempt to make it the prettiest book on the stands. We also, as you know from [having read the first] issue, save a lot. We only hint at the fantasy world in the preview, as we want each readers' first journey to be as magical as we can. DIE is about fantasy worlds, while also trying to remind us why anyone cares about fantasy worlds in the first place. We want you to discover it. It will be an adventure.
But I've dodged the question. Hmm. My jokey two word pitch is "Goth Jumanji" which cuts to the chase. More accurate would be "Jumanji as Horror" including that overly precious phrasing, but "Goth Jumanji" is much funnier.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.