REVIEW: Die #2 subverts D&D nostalgia trend by charging headlong into darkness

Die #2 is out 1/9.

By Zack Quaintance — In the first issue of Die, a group of six young friends disappears into a fantasy world, returning after time has lapsed, beaten up with one of them missing and another missing an arm. In a pop culture moment laced with relatively bright (Stranger Things may as well be Disney compared to Die) nostalgia-laden D&D remembrances, the first issue of Die set itself apart, staking its claim as a darker, more serious alternative.

And now Die #2 is somehow even darker.

I suppose it’s a little bit on me and my expectations. This additional darkness is not a bad thing, quite the contrary (we’ll get to that), but I certainly expected this book to set up maybe some darkness when the characters were middle-aged and dealing with trauma in the real world, before plunging them back into youthful, likely cathartic fantasy adventure. That may still come, but based on Die #2, things have to get worse before they can start to get better.

Fair warning...this next part may contain spoilers. There’s a scene in this comic wherein the character who’s been lost in the fantasy world all these years (and as a result is presumably a bit stunted) models a villian off a shared middle school or high school crush...and another character gleefully destroys here. It’s a very real scene, real and adult and sensical. But holy hell is it dark. The creators know this, though, and it’s certainly not played for sensationalism (often an issue in lesser comics). I think one of the other characters even remarks at how twisted the whole episode felt.

So yes, that’s the one we’re dealing with here. With that established, the larger question becomes does it function well in the service of the story. I was going to write entertaining story there but at this point that doesn’t quite feel apt, at least not yet. There will likely be a victorious counterbalance to the challenges at some point (that’s how stories work), but it’s early in the proceedings here and we’re not ready yet. I think it functions quite well. As I wrote in my Die #1 review this is a patient and assured book. Gillen believes in his story, and Hans...well, Hans is a towering talent of an artist and everything she does on the page here is nothing short of a joy. It’s a great combo for a story that I expect to keep ramping up like the most memorable role playing campaigns.

And really that is this comic’s aesthetic: it’s the most memorable role playing game you’ve ever played (complete with Gillen penning engaging back matter about dice and characters and the sterling GM he is) mashed up with what I think is a creator’s interest in examining the lives of his characters over time, the ways that they’ve aged and why, and, perhaps, whether they can recapture how it felt to be young, or, on a darker note, whether they can avoid habitual pitfalls that sowed some of their lives’ disappointments.

Overall: Die #2 continues to embrace realism and darkness within the context of a mystical and immersive life-altering role playing game. Just as the debut before it, this sophomore issue is a thrilling slowburn that sets itself aside from the current wave of D&D pop culture nostalgia by doubling as an uncut look at the disappointments of middle age. 8.5/10

Die #2
Kieron Gillen
Artist: Stephanie Hans
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $3.99

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Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics asBatmansBookcase.