Die, Vol. 4: Bleed by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans & Clayton Cowles

I’ve had time to think about it, and tho this final installment of the RPG-nerd series made me cry, it also made me kind of mad, and this is why: there’s a bizarrely “time to put away childish things” overtone to the ending that really irritated me. Kieron Gillen was trying to tread a fine line here between embracing the real world and showcasing both the benefits but more the downsides of RP and, for me, he ultimately fell too much on the downside. Which makes me sad, because I truly loved Volumes 1 and 2 of this series.

Anyway, in this book, the gang is all back together as they attempt to prevent Die from taking over the real world. After sailing to a creepy island in the middle of nowhere, they find a dungeon that’s equal parts Call Of Cthulhu and Mines of Moria. But the mobs they face within are greater than anything they’ve ever had to defeat before, and the final boss’ challenge a greater conundrum than anything they’ve had to solve to get here.

Interspersed with their adventure/ordeal are brief pages showing what’s going on in the outside/real world while they’re stuck in Die. Mild spoiler: they do make it back out, but not all of them and not all the better for wear. Ash, especially, needs to confront her own demons, not only in her gender identity but in the ambivalence she has about returning to the real world, which she secretly fears might have been the reason Sol was lost to them all that time ago. And, you know, I really like how this series emphasises how useful RPGs are for helping people explore genderfluidity and sexuality, but it was handled in, I hate to say this, a surprisingly old-fashioned conservative manner. Even at the ripe old age of 44, I felt that the thinking here was very end of the 20th century, which I hate to remind y’all was over twenty years ago. I get that Ash’s fears and concerns were realistic, but I wish we’d seen more of their courage in the real world once all was said and done.

I was also disappointed in the end for the explanation of the Fallen, and how that translated to Sol: it didn’t feel consistent for the story overall. I also thought it was deeply weird how attached Angela was to Die Molly. Angela’s the sentimental sort, which I understood from her attachment to Case, but there’s a Live Molly waiting out there for her! Die Molly is not real, and not a replacement! But, I guess, that was part of the cautionary intent of the tale: don’t get so caught up in RP that you turn your back on the real world. It’s just… the only person who really integrated what happened to him in Die with the real world, and then went on to make a success of himself (more or less) was Chuck. It seemed weird and counterproductive to have him stay in Die. I get that he was dying out in the real world, so this was how he could live forever, but again it felt very “all the actual grownups have to turn their backs on fun and happiness.” It was as infuriating as C. S. Lewis implying that Susan sucked for not wanting to do Narnia any more, tho his allegory was more one of religion vs secularism than roleplay vs maturity. I mean, porque no los dos? We all contain multitudes! I can run D&D one night and shoot the shit with fellow book industry professionals the next day: it’s not an either-or!

Wow, this book made me really mad, and that’s even before I had to blearily read the otherwise illuminating back matter interviews in the eye-straining white type on black background. In the book’s defense, it at least treats RPGs seriously. And yes, it’s bad to lose yourself in any fantasy world so completely that you neglect the real life around you. But the book implies that RPGs are somehow more soul-destroying than any other hobby, and that’s just too much Satanic Panic bullshit for me. The thing is, I don’t think that’s what Mr Gillen meant to do at all, which is more the pity.

Stephanie Hans’ illustrations are gorgeous as always and probably the best part of this volume for me. I’m not sure where I’ll eventually rate it in my voting for this year’s Hugos, but it definitely won’t be at the very top. That honor goes to Mr Gillen’s other work this year, Once & Future Vol 3: The Parliament Of Magpies. Die Vol 4, for all my disgruntledness, is tied with Monstress ahead of Lore Olympus. And since I wasn’t given material for the other two titles in the Best Graphic Story category, I will have to decline to judge them, as I won’t be able to make an informed choice in their regard.

Die, Vol. 4: Bleed by Kieron Gillen, Stephanie Hans & Clayton Cowles was published November 9 2021 by Image Comics and is available from all good booksellers, including

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