Issue #2 of Kieron Gillen’s DIE comic is a storytelling tour de force

I think I first heard about Kieron Gillen’s new comic book series DIE from io9. I was familiar with some of Gillen’s work, particularly Über, about a WWII arms race to develop super-soldiers, and his amazing run on the first Darth Vader series a couple of years back.

DIE is about a group of high school kids who get transported into the world of their roleplaying game and vanish from our own, for two years. Eventually they make it back, but can’t say anything about where they’ve been. Twenty-five years later, as adults whose lives have been variously shaped — or warped — by their experiences in the other world, they get pulled back to the game world.

All of this is established in the first issue, which definitely intrigued me. But the second issue completely blew me away. It’s going to get a bit spoilery, so if you want to stay pure, stop reading this and go pick up the comics. Issue 3 just hit the stands last week and most well-stocked comic book stores will still have the first two (or get ’em online). I believe the plan is to have trade collections released every 5 issues, out of a planned 25 or so.

What impressed me most about DIE #2 is the big fight between the team members and some bad guys that are generic to the game world but still nifty for the reader. The fight doesn’t last the whole issue, there is important stuff both before and after, but it is the big meaty chunk at the core of the issue. It serves as a “first encounter” for the party and for the reader, and it’s pretty amazing how many layers of storytelling Gillen manages to pack into that encounter:

  • worldbuilding — introduces the reader to the world of the game, which is already familiar to the party;
  • character classes — we learn a bit, at least the core concept, of what the Dictator, Neo, Grief Knight, etc. are and what they do;
  • characters — beyond the general character archetypes, we learn a bit about these specific characters and how they interact with the world and with each other, within the context of the game;
  • players — every interaction between the characters does at least triple duty, it illuminates the characters that the players inhabit in the game world, and the adults that they are (or were) back in the ‘real’ world, and the teenagers that they were when they first came to the game world and how their decisions then shaped both the world and themselves;
  • issue 1 — some of the interactions from the first issue make a lot more sense in light of the things we learn in the second issue, particularly Chuck’s line to Matthew about his sword, which would have been a potential friendship-ender if being a tactless wiseass wasn’t Chuck’s whole schtick.

That’s a LOT of work for a scene to carry and Gillen makes it look easy. On the first read I wasn’t aware of everything that was going on, I was swept up in the story. But I knew afterward that I had just read something special. So I read it again, and thought about it a lot. In fact, it was about all I could think about for a couple of days. I was impressed both as a consumer of fantastic literature and as a gamemaster. It made me want to write better encounters.

Issue 3 pulls off a similar “wow this hits on a lot of different levels at once” feat, in an entirely unexpected direction. That will be a story for another post, perhaps.

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