Roll the Bones with Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans and Clayton Cowles’ Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

Scott Cederlund

Maybe life is just a roll of the dice.  One minute, you’re riding high on a Friday night, hanging around a friend’s room, slaying some orcs and the next you and your friends go missing for two years.  No one hears anything from you until you show up on a dark road, missing one of your friends and unable to tell anyone where you were. And all because your friend rolled the wrong 20-sided die.  Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans, and Clayton Cowles open their Dungeon & Dragon-inspired fantasy Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker with those events as a group of high school kids get together on one of their 16th birthdays and find themselves trapped in a world that’s part Tolkien and part Edgar Rice Burroughs, fighting for their lives.  Missing for two years, they spend the next 25 years trying to rebuild their lives, unable to deal with the fact that they left one of their friends behind.
We’ve seen versions of this story that are just second-rate Tolkien tales, wearing the surface guise of his style of fantasy.  These novels filled countless bookstore shelves back in the 1980s. Those books had the magic, the characters, the tchotkes of the genre but mostly failed to do anything meaningful with them as they tried to imitate high and grand storytelling.  Generations removed from Tolkien’s epics, Gillen and Hans dabble in self-conscious reinvention of fantasy, taking the game of Dungeons and Dragons and making the act of playing it into reality. This is nothing new as back in the mid 1980s, there were three seasons of a cartoon about a group of friends who were transported to a fantastic world, where the game play became their adventures.
A thoroughly modern fantasy, Gillen and Hans use the instruments of fantasy to explore the traumas and emotional states of the characters.  In the quote unquote real world, the narrator Dominic is a despondent middle-aged man whose wife needs to defend him against the mother of his missing best friend.  But in the fantasy setting, Dominicbecomes Ash, “a diplomat with teeth. She’s like a cross between Cleopatra and Machiavelli.” This is his 16 year old fantasy and in the world of magic, she’s the team leader.  The others follow her as she displays a confidence and a cunning that doesn’t translate into a non-game world. But even then, nothing is as simple as “reality” and “fantasy” in this book.
Hans could paint a fantasy story with orcs, warriors, dwarves and mages and produce one of the best looking fantasy comics on the stands.  If this was truly just that, a straight-forward fantasy comic, she would be the perfect artist for it but she brings so much more to this than just being a paperback novel cover artist.  Her thick, moody colors set a tragic tone over the store that gives her character a great setting for their own tragedies. There’s a sadness, a survivor’s guilt, that weighs heavily on these characters that’s reflected in Hans’ paintings. Gillen’s writing expresses this turmoil but Hans’ art makes it gut wrenching.
The book is in a perpetual state of mourning the past; of mourning the children they were and the adults they’ve grown up to be.  It mourns the loss of magic, or at least the loss of the excitement of it, for an understanding of power and responsibility. Stepping into this role-playing world, Gillen and Hans make that loss more real as the characters have to face this division of who they are and who they wanted to be.  Their game-playing avatars are the people they imagine themselves to be, full of potential and greatness. At the age of 16, Ash and the others got to live that life for two years before being thrust back into their regular lives.
In Dominic/Ash, we see this trickiness of identity, the conflict between identity and identification, that’s brought up but deflected by the character in the story.  They’re not ready to talk about it yet. But none of the other players have quite as complex of a personal conflict as their role-playing avatars are clearer reflection of who they are.  The other game-play avatars are more obvious extensions and wish-fulfillment of the players, where not much separates who they are from who they want to be. Ash is more of a departure but the story leaves it open whether Ash is that same kind of reflection of the player or more of a true image of who Domnic is.  The conflict between perception and reality, of which is more true than the other, ultimately defines the conflicts of this book. The fantasy elements give the story a wrapper that slowly unveils the true drama in Gillen and Hans’ work.
Good games are stories and reflect some aspect of reality, for both good and bad.,  Ideally, games allow us to be the best versions of ourselves. So in a bit of high-school wish fulfillment, this group gets to define themselves, a diplomat, a warrior, a cyberpunk, a god-trapping atheist and a good ole boy.  This is who they want to be but maybe the game master knows them better and recast them as a dictator, a knight, a newbie, a rebel and a fool. With these roles cast, Gillen and Hans explore whose views of their identities are more accurate, the game players or the game master?
Die Volume 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker
Written by Kieron Gillen
Painted by Stephanie Hans
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by Image Comics

Note:  A previous version of this review accidentally mis-identified the character Dominic as "Soloman,"   Soloman is the friend that they originally left behind in the world of the Die while Dominic is Ash in the game playing world.