The first volume of this outstanding homage to RPGs absolutely broke my heart. It was my favorite for last year’s Hugo for Best Graphic Story, but I was unsurprised that it didn’t win. It’s VERY niche, even for nerds, and not everyone was going to adore it the way I did.
The second volume amplifies everything about the first one significantly, so while it’s also my absolute favorite nominee this year, I will be even more surprised if it actually wins than I would have been last year. Split The Party is chock-full of gaming tropes and philosophies and praxis, all thoughtfully examined and extrapolated both into the past and into our present day. What I’m basically trying to say is that this is a book for hardcore gaming nerds, who will love it. Everyone else will probably wonder wtf we’re nattering on about, even if they do enjoy the absorbing story and glorious art.
The basic premise of the Die series is this: in 1991, six teenagers fell into a fantasy realm while playing a role-playing game. Only five of them made it back. Twenty-six years later, they’re summoned once more, for reasons unknown. But they’re older, wiser and tired, both kinder and more cruel with experience. At the end of the first volume, the party split along philosophical lines. Ash, Matt and Angela wanted to go home. Chuck and Izzy wanted to stay, tho for very different reasons. None of them can make it back without the agreement of all of them. Plus, there’s the reanimated body of their former gamemaster to contend with.
The volume starts slowly, resolving the immediate aftermath of the split as our protagonists make plans to, at the very least, get themselves out of the way of imminent harm. Angela must deal with the pressures she puts on herself both here and in the real world, as she chooses what she can bear to sacrifice in order to get herself and her friends out of the besieged Glass Town alive. But strange allies await them when they flee to Angria, including a warden whose identity and back story had me screaming like the literary fangirl that I am.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, Chuck and Izzy are contending with the fallout of their own choices. Chuck is slowly forced to learn that he can’t stay young forever, while Izzy realizes that she’s asking too many favors of the pantheon of gods that she can bind to her will. Enemies and allies amass, but which, ultimately, will prove more deadly to our embattled duo?
Throughout, Kieron Gillen wrestles with ideas of identity and the bonds we build via storytelling, with examples that made my heart hurt for the teenager I used to be, who absolutely gloried and suffered through all of this myself: all the creativity, all the betrayal, all the heartbreak. It’s so weird knowing that other people did this too, not even just me and my best friend at the time, but perfect strangers who’ve confided to me over the Internet, as well as the people depicted here. Stephanie Hans’ art is dynamite, bringing a fairy tale quality to the proceedings that’s at once lovely and delicate and heartbreaking in how it portends doom.
Objectively speaking, I know that this isn’t the most accessible volume nominated this year, or even the most entertaining or humorous. But it is so deeply intelligent and moving, in the ways it examines how we choose our everyday roles and then lie to ourselves to make our stories make sense, or at least a sense we’re comfortable living with. It talks about the impacts of our pasts on our presents, even when we forget or choose to forget. It’s an achingly grown-up story about things most people view as adolescent games, and is 100% my vote for the Hugo for Best Graphic Story.
Die Vol. 2: Split the Party by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans & Clayton Cowles was published February 11 2020 by Image Comics and is available from all good booksellers, including