Reading “9: Self-Insert”

In retrospect, I should have realized that Die was going to take aim at broader concepts of fantasy and fiction than just what you get in the realm of role playing back with issue #3 when Gillen decided to do a Tolkien pastiche that reveled in the parallels between the battles of Middle Earth and the Great War that shaped Tolkien as a young man.  Yes, Lord of the Rings serves as the most obvious fantasy forebear to Dungeons & Dragons and all the RPGs it spawned, but it’s also the common ancestor of a huge swath of modern speculative fiction.  You can’t set out to play with the conventions of story games without also banging into the conventions of story.  The chief conceit of this issue seems like a foregone conclusion in retrospect.

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The Jailer’s kind of scary looking, but I’m into it. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover of the issue highlights the Jailer, whom we saw briefly in issue #8.  Her deal gets explained in a lot of depth in the issue, although just based on the cover I can’t help gravitating towards her visual similarities with Ash.  Both are women in these elegant, vaguely gothic dresses (although the Jailer’s is definitely a little more Regency inflected for obvious reasons), and their peculiar eyes are highlighted as major signifiers of their power.  Ash, as a Dictator, has a disfigurement around her left eye that signals her abilities to anyone who may not be aware, although she keeps it obscured most of the time; the Jailer wears a veil to hide her own eyes that have a strange glow to them.  Given Ash’s comments about the tame Dictators who serve Angria, I at first figured that the Jailer must also be a Dictator.  It turns out that she’s something much more interesting, and now I’m turning over the significance of eyes as a visual motif in several of the central characters.  It can’t just be a coincidence that the Jailer also shares some visual traits with Sol, our party member who gleefully put out his own eyes in order to replace them with the D20s as a marker of his bid for power in the game world.

It’s obvious on re-reading the issue that Gillen is letting the idea of vision and sight do some heavy lifting with the larger concepts he wants to explore with this dive into Die’s background.  The revelation that the game world is simultaneously the fantasy world created by the Bronte siblings in their youth bends the sense of causality around the history of everything that’s preceded the party.  It should be sort of mind bending, but in light of the lore that Gillen’s built into the real world analog to the game, it feels incredibly sensical.  The true nature of Die is still very much a mystery, but I can easily take it as a given that there’s a certain timey-wimey aspect to everything which allows Sol to have discovered a pristine pre-human fantasy world that has also been inhabited for over a hundred years by the creations of four English child geniuses (I find myself idly wondering with the Brontes and Tolkien earlier if Gillen has any intention of exploring the fantasy creations of people from outside England).  Die is a Protean sort of thing in the classical sense; its form fits the wants of its (hosts? guests? victims?) while giving them a snatch of the divine.  Your Die campaign maps just as easily on this thing as Sol’s, after all.  It’s built into the rules.

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Oh, that’s a relief because I’m still trying to figure out what Die is after. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Of course, all this talk of Die’s malleability leaves out the other major theme of the issue: fantasy and escapism are costly things; the price of shaping story is typically unseen until it’s hollowed a person out.  This stuff all resonates perfectly with Gillen’s resolution on The Wicked + The Divine, but then it goes and extends the metaphor of godhood as inviting a kind of self immolation by suggesting that internalized storytelling, while quieter, can be just as devastating.  The Pantheon wreak havoc on everything around them in their quests for redefinition; Die’s shapers hurt only themselves directly but then leave ruins that resonate out to affect others they touch.  We must never forget while everyone copes with the horror of their ordeal inside Die, their families are forced to cope with the sudden wretched absence of people who are fixtures in their lives.  If the book Die plays with the love/hate relationship we all experience with escapism and its effects, this issue leans incredibly hard on the hate aspect.

We can talk about the fun that Gillen has with bringing major figures of English literature into his horror fantasy comic (he does love playing around with tradition and legacy) when we discuss the appearance of the Brontes here, but the broad point, if you’re looking for a tl;dr version of the issue’s assertion, is that the indulgence of fantasy incurs a heavy burden on its connoisseur.  The Brontes one by one succumb to illness that this comic posits had a supernatural cause in the form of Die’s predilection to suck its victims dry.  It’s a compulsory sort of thing that they can’t escape regardless of their own inclination towards or away from Die.  There’s likely a bit of a highfalutin pun buried in there about the nature of mortality, which feels very on brand, all things considered.  Regardless, the Brontes’ attitudes towards Die seem to only inform their relative creative success; the cost of having played there at all seems to be the same regardless of the reward.  There’s no middle ground.

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Charlotte tries to let it all go, but even shutting the world out only delays her early death slightly. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, colors by Elvire de Cock, letters by Clayton Cowles)

This is the great conundrum that we find with the Jailer’s story.  If Die is akin to the creative spark, the drive to build fantasy worlds that satisfy some deep-seated need the real world can’t give us, then there’s no real hope for us.  We either embrace it wholeheartedly and let this material world collapse around us, or we resist it and feel ourselves get slowly worn down by the thing in our guts constantly tugging while we try to keep grounded.  Either way, Die is going to happen.

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Thanks, Charlotte. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “8: Legacy Heroes”

Typically I would wait a couple weeks before jumping into the next Die issue, but seeing as I took a month off from writing about comics, I need to do some catch up on the ongoing series that I’m reading.  I figure that if I work out thoughts about issue #8 now, that will give me a little breathing room to think about issue #9, which I read immediately after #8 and needs some time to process.

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Yellow is an extremely sad color when you desaturate it enough. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The star of this issue is Matt, and the cover reflects that fact indirectly.  It’s been clear for a while now that the sword he carries serves as the focus for his grief powers, and the sword’s sentience revolves around trying to make him as miserable as possible.  We’ve seen little bits here and there where the sword needles at him, but this is the first issue where Matt’s relationship with his weapon is more fully explored.  The blade of the sword serves as the focus on the cover, surrounding by sickly looking flowers with thorny vines and deaths’ head moths hanging about them.  In the reflection we see Matt’s wife and daughters set above a grave with a skeleton in repose at the bottom (probably meant to be his mother, who died when he was a child).  The entire composition reflects how the sword feeds off of the grief of its owner.  It’s one of the most somber covers the series has presented so far.

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The sword is mean, but its single-mindedness about making Matt miserable almost gives its whole trolling schtick a comedic tone, especially when Matt tells it to be quiet and it does. Almost. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The structure of this issue focuses on Matt as he copes with the burden of waiting while other people do important things.  Ash’s half of the party have arrived in Angria, a realm that apparently runs on the subtleties of court intrigue, and Matt’s character class is not suited to that type of play at all.  In the rules for the Die game, Gillen describes the Knight classes as built for players who want a straightforward, combat heavy experience in terms of mechanics.  We’ve seen this within the story before as Matt is very good at killing things that get in the way of the party physically moving from one place to another, but he’s not really suited to encounters built around the soft skills of role playing.  This issue begins with him and Angela having a conversation about how useless they feel waiting around while Ash does all the talking; Angela’s decided to do a solo sneaking mission back in Eternal Prussia to gather intelligence because that’s what she’s best at, and it will save her the trouble of metaphorically sitting at the table while the GM focuses on the party diplomat for an entire evening.  Matt doesn’t have the luxury of being able to generate a task for himself, so he’s relegated to the most miserable and familiar task of his life: waiting.

What we know about Matt before we reach this issue is laser focused on two formative experiences in his life: first, the death of his mother when he was a child, and second, a life-threatening illness that his daughter had when she was younger.  Matt’s emotional core is grappling with the sense of helplessness that accompanies grief; his entire character concept is built around being able to take this abundant useless resource and turn it towards something that’s at least temporarily cathartic.  In Angria he can’t do that because it would be counterproductive.  Because of the frustration that is bound to well up from having nothing to do, we get this story where Matt doesn’t directly interact with the larger plot, but he gets some spotlight time to explore his character.

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BE SAD. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The lead up to Matt’s solo outing is literally ten pages of him waiting around just trying to pass the time.  He has conversations with his sword and with Ash primarily, and we get a boat load of world building exposition that I’m sure will be important later, but isn’t really that consequential for Matt in the moment.  It’s mostly just distraction to keep him from dwelling on his inefficacy in the present moment.  When the call to adventure does come (in the form of an NPC literally wandering into the tavern where Matt and Ash are hanging out to deliver a cryptic note) there’s a massive shift in visual tone.  The waiting sequences are all done in washed out yellows and browns, and the beginning of Matt doing something opens on a double page spread in these vibrant greens and blues that have been so rare in the series as a whole up to this point.  There’s some sense of foreboding as Matt enters the Eightfold Temple (the lingering question of when exactly he would have chosen the grief sword if Sol assigned him the Grief Knight class before they began the game is an interesting one), but it’s overridden by the sense of satisfaction that things are happening.  The entire sequence in the temple is filled with these intense colors keyed to Matt’s conflicting emotions; he’s having a major moment of temptation in the sequence, and it feels Deeply Significant ™ in ways that the before and after don’t (again, despite the fact that lots of very plot relevant things are happening just outside of Matt’s view in this issue).  That the sequence ends with Matt feeling like he’s had some catharsis following the chance to beat up some mooks and the colors coming back down to that washed out yellow feels totally on point.

In the end the side quest with the Eightfold Temple is very tenuously connected to the larger plot; Matt’s defeat of the representatives from the Joy Knights’ Order serves that most cliche of RPG tropes: earning the aide of a potential ally by demonstrating your superior strength in combat.  By proving that he’s definitely the Knight Paragon, he gets the Joy Knights in line to help Ash’s larger plan to build a coalition that can fight Eternal Prussia while also trying to find Chuck and Isabelle.  Of course, all Ash’s careful maneuvering gets overridden when Isabelle shows up to confess that the party is responsible for the destruction of Glass Town, so Matt’s adventure was once again mostly just an exercise in obscuring the futility of his position.  We’ll see if this theoretical coalition matters to the plot in the future, but for this moment its apparent mootness underscores the emotional reality that the issue wanted to explore with Matt.  Often we can’t actually do anything but wait, and one of the most common refuges from the creeping grief comes in the form of relatively hollow distractions and temporary catharses.

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ARE YOU STILL SAD. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Reading “7: Wisdom Check”

First things first: it feels very strange to be back to blogging about anything other than my own drawing right now.  I spent a month straight drawing stuff and dashing off little thoughts about it on a daily basis, and all of a sudden I’m done with the rapid pace activity and need to go back to my old creative routine.  I mean, I know I don’t need to do that, but there’s been a definite itch in my brain to get back to discussing stuff that I find fascinating, including the pretty large back log of comics I’ve been meaning to read.  Theoretically this post will go up on Wednesday, which is the same day that issue #9 of Die is supposed to come out, and I still haven’t read #8 because I didn’t want to get it all mixed up in my head before I could really process and unpack this issue, #7.  I mean, Chuck’s a genuinely awful person, right?  I don’t see a way to read this story and conclude that he’s redeemable; the whole point is that he has all the self awareness he needs to learn to act better but he just doesn’t give a flip.  I can have compassion and empathy all day for fools who repeatedly fail because they just don’t understand themselves, but Chuck’s the opposite of that.

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I’m sure there are layers of unlucky symbols in Mistress Woe’s design that I don’t recognize, but I do appreciate her pet black cat immensely. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

Pause that rant.  Let’s talk about the cover; unlike previous issues that highlight one of the five party members, the primary cover for this issue features one of Isabelle’s chief divine creditors, Mistress Woe.  She’s shown toying with the D6 that Chuck sports as a lucky earring, giving a solid sense of what the main thrust of this issue will be.  We’re going to see how far a Fool is able to push their luck when they’re playing directly against a god of misfortune.  The intervention of the Mourner also suggests that there’s going to be some interesting bits related to Isabelle explored here.  She and Chuck approached their decision to stay in Die from very different angles, and it’s an excellent point of tension to consider how they might continue in their little alliance when they want such drastically different things from their time in the game world.

The overriding sense that I’ve gotten from Isabelle up to this point in the story is that she’s someone who revels in her regrets.  Everyone in the cast has their own ghosts haunting them, but the deeply internal self flagellation that Isabelle engages in seems specific to her.  Mistress Woe’s price for healing her after the incident in Eternal Prussia is the public reading of her teenage diary to a congregation of devotees to the Godbinder, and despite this public humiliation (which only Isabelle perceives in that way), when this issue opens we see that Isabelle is still recording her thoughts.  I mean, I get that once you get in the habit of writing about yourself it can be hard to stop, but the subject matter of Isabelle’s reflections seem laser focused on how she screwed up.  There’s processing what you did wrong to avoid doing it again in the future and there’s whatever she’s doing.

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The writing’s almost compulsive, isn’t it? (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The issue primarily is about Chuck though.  From beginning to end the structure feels like a mix between a picaresque and a morality play as he stumbles from one misadventure to the next with the apparent purpose of learning a lesson.  The only thing that doesn’t line up is the fact that Chuck is not an innocent fool getting embroiled in things bigger than him, nor is he actually changed in any meaningful way by his final encounter; he’s the catalyst for his own bad luck who throws his weight around until it blows up in his face (and long after he’s harmed everyone in the immediate vicinity).

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Chuck is like the worst parts of Simone and Brent from the last season of The Good Place mixed together. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

It’s significant that Chuck’s three major encounters in the issue are centered around characters with varying levels of development as parts of the game world.  The Titan’s a mindless monster that we don’t even see Chuck fight because it’s just a mindless hack-and-slash sequence.  He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, and so it gets as much narrative time as you would devote to any of the boring parts of a story.  The dwarves Dour and Delighted are one-note NPCs, but Chuck spends extra time with them because he relates to their simplicity.  The elf queen is the most developed of the characters, but she’s just as easily dismissed because Chuck is the kind of person who can dismiss other real people without a second thought.  He’s the embodiment of solipsism, looking only as far as how others in his proximity affect him.  Regardless of the actual status of Die’s world as real or imaginary, Chuck’s callousness is unflappable because everything is a game to him.  His argument at the end of the issue that he has to be this way because it’s how he survives in Die doesn’t quite hold water after we see what increasing success in his real life led him to do.  This is where the secondary structure of the issue, as a morality play, becomes more prominent.  When Isabelle asks Mistress Woe to play with Chuck as a way of teaching him a lesson (what is the precise lesson supposed to be, anyway?  Don’t mess with Godbinders?  Actions have consequences?  People deserve to be treated like people?), the expected outcome is that there will be some sort of circumspection.  Gillen likes to play around with structure though, so while there’s the possibility that Chuck might have an epiphany as he describes treating his real ex-wives like the fictional character he’s just bedded, the inverted result is that he concludes real people are no more significant than fictional constructs.

All of this stuff about Chuck’s callousness further establishes the contrast that was set up between him and Isabelle when they originally opted to stay in Die.  While it should be pretty obvious that Isabelle is not the totally selfless paragon that she imagines herself to be (the deal with Mistress Woe is ultimately petty and meaningless at a time when it’s paramount that Isabelle not overextend her debt to any of the gods), but she has an idealism that chafes in such close proximity to Chuck’s cynicism.  We’ll see how long they can stand to stick together.

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Chuck wishes he could be more shallow. Only time will tell if he actually turns out to be what he wants or if there’s more there despite his effusive protestations. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Learning Sketchbook 15: Color

The fact that I just spent a month doing Inktober and then, being free of that albatross, I turn around to do a post about drawing stuff is not lost on me.  I just got really excited about taking a break from inking to learn more about coloring is all.  I spent a little bit of time in the last few days of October reading about basic color theory because I have a very incomplete set of coloring supplies, and I wanted to understand better what I can do with what I have.  More specifically, I only have a standard spectrum set of colored pencils that I carry in my travel kit (it is weird to realize that I’m fast approaching the point where I’m going to be able to legitimately distinguish between a light supply kit and the more substantial stuff I keep on hand at home) and a set of skin tone markers.  Definitely not an expert on everything about visual media, but I’m pretty sure in most cases you don’t mix pencils and markers because of the substantially different textures they create on the page.  So I have one set of basic colors that will work fine in concert with graphite pencils, and I have a set of markers that would be best used with inks, of which I currently only have a handful of nice pens.

Anyway, the end of Inktober means primarily that I can go back to drawing in my sketchbook, which I’ve noted before does not contain the best paper for inking (at least, not when I’m using both sides of each page for practice; whenever I decide I want to do more inking practice, I’ll get a book just dedicated to that).  It feels really freeing to be back on a larger size page, especially with portraits and full body poses.  Everything feels way less clumsy than my Inktober stuff sometimes did, mostly because I was often working with dull tipped pencils and the lines I could make were way fatter than I would have liked on that scale.

So, to get to color theory stuff, I did some reading on how color theory has evolved over the past two hundred years.  There’s a lot of physics involved in the discussion of how color works, which makes sense because colors arise from the types of light that a material reflects and absorbs, and the models for understanding have shifted significantly with time.  I’ve known for a while that modern color printing and projecting use different models of blending than the primary color system that’s typically taught in elementary school, but I never really knew why there was such a divide between the red-yellow-blue model I was taught in kindergarten and the red-green-blue or cyan-magenta-yellow schemae that are used by professional designers in various visual media.  The primary color system is apparently based on Isaac Newton’s original models for full spectrum light where he theorized that the three primary colors are equidistant if you spread the spectrum out on a wheel so that any two primary colors blended together equally will create a secondary color that’s diametrically opposed to the third primary color.  More contemporary color models build off of this idea, but they base the primary colors used off of the types of light that cones in the human eye perceive.  That’s why additive light color models (the ones used for screens and projectors because the more colors projected, the closer the screen gets to white, or fully color reflective) are based on red, green, and blue.  Subtractive color models, which are typically used in printing (because adding ink of various colors brings the surface closer to black, or fully color absorbent), are based on the complements of those colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow.

The important takeaway for me with all this background information is in building a better understanding of how colors blend on a page.  Because of what I have available in the way of tools, I’m trying to think more in terms of the Newtonian color model, which posits that when two complementary colors are blended, they’ll neutralize one another to create a brown hue.  Other bits to understand include the fact that increasing a color’s saturation will often change the hue as well; besides a difference in value between a lightly shaded and heavily shaded area with the same pencil, the visible color may actually change because of the concentration of medium.  Also, and this is more about my conceptual thinking when I’m coloring, all the white I have available is already on the paper, so I need to be thoughtful about where I’m placing highlights and lowlights.  In the past I think I’ve always had an impulse to uniformly color areas, but then I find myself backed into a corner where I have a more limited range of light to play with in the drawing itself.

Anyway, you probably clicked through because you wanted to see some art, so here’s some art.  I started working on this piece on Halloween and spent much of my long weekend thinking about how to color it.  I wanted to use mostly earth tones and to give a dull but still metallic appearance to the plate armor since that’s how the character is primarily portrayed in the comic series she comes from.  There’s a lot of creative use of my black pencil to create the gray shades on the armor itself, but the most interesting bit of mixing I think I did is with the cape, which I colored in orange and blue.  I’ve also included a picture of the pre-colored version of the picture because I’m pretty proud of how it turned out before I committed to this experiment.

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The lighting is strange on this one because I took the picture while waiting to get my hair cut at a new barbershop I’m trying out since the move. It turned out pretty good (the haircut, I mean).

Inktober 2019 Day 19

Where yesterday’s drawing was relatively simple but had some complex thoughts behind it, today’s is very straightforward.  It took me less than an hour to put this one together, and it was fun playing around with the figure’s pose (I think it looks particularly good), but it was otherwise an unchallenging project.  It left me with an itch to do some extra drawing yesterday, which resulted in a couple of pencil portraits that I’ll throw in at the end of this post for fun even though they’re not technically Inktober related.

The prompt for today is “Sling” which is a word with a lot of different meanings, but the marathon-like pace of daily drawings has left me grasping mostly for the apparent connection.  The thief Remy LeBeau, code name Gambit, can charge inanimate objects with kinetic energy that makes them explode.  His weapon of choice is a deck of playing cards (because they’re cheap, disposable, and don’t appear to be weapons to anyone who isn’t familiar with Gambit’s powers).  The thing about Gambit though is that I’ve never strongly associated him with, y’know, gambling, at least not in connection with card games.  He takes lots of risks (world class thief, after all), but I don’t remember much about him sitting down in a tuxedo at a Poker or Blackjack table in a fancy casino.  Anyhow, here’s Gambit celebrating after winning a hand of Poker with a Dead Man’s Hand.  It’s not colored, but his tuxedo is pink.

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And as bonus content, here are those portraits.  They’re of the characters Chuck and Angela from the comic series Die.

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The proportions of the face are a little off for Angela, but I think Chuck looks like an excellent rascal (there’s a stronger term for what he is, but it’s not appropriate for children).

Reading “6: The Grind”

I have two answers to the not at all uncommon question of why I don’t have pets.  The first is the easy answer that I can give without risking deeper interrogation from folks who are unapologetically pet people: I’m allergic to cats and dogs.  It’s easy and straightforward and when you cite health reasons people tend to back off.  Occasionally someone might say, “but you love turtles, so why not get one of those?” and then I have to make vague excuses about living space or something similar.  I know and love lots of pet folks, but like with any fandom, enthusiasm for a thing can sometimes bleed into aggressive proselytization, and I am not about that life.

The second answer is much more honest: by my count I’ve directly or residually experienced the death of about eight cats and dogs.  My mother was a dog person, and she had a lot of them in her youth, and it was a pretty normal part of my growing up that I would periodically find her dogs dead in the back yard when I went to feed them.  Those are sort of background noise to the ones that died when I was in high school and college; I still vividly remember weeping in the hallway at the vet when I had to drive my father there with our dalmatian that he had decided to put down on a weekend visit to home.  I’ve been there to console my friends after they had to make the same decision with their own dog and cat at different times.  You take on a pet because you want the companionship, and if you’re not elderly you should expect that you will bury your companion.  I accepted a long time ago that you can’t avoid the grief when it comes to the people you love, but I’m not looking to go through that particular experience more than I absolutely must.

The purpose of this preamble should be apparent to anyone who has read Die #6.  Angela, the party’s rogue, needs to gather up enough Fair gold to sneak everyone out of Glass Town, but her attachment to her artificial dog Casey keeps pushing the needs too high.  She makes a decision, and at the end she’s effectively euthanized her companion.  It’s a robot inside a world that might not actually be real, but it still hurts something fierce.  Anyone who’s put a pet down gets it.

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These guys feel like the Platonic ideal of shocktroopers. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover for this issue features in place of a player character the forces of Eternal Prussia, the realm of Die that the party allowed to conquer Glass Town in the previous issue as part of their ploy to lure Sol out of hiding so they could try to end the game.  Eternal Prussia as a concept plays with the roots of tabletop role playing games as descended from war games of the nineteenth century and twists it with the automated sensibilities that seem to underscore Sol’s particular game world (anyone who has read the beta rules of Gillen’s Die RPG knows that the game’s background lore suggests an infinite number of pocket dimensions in which various versions of Die are situated).  They are both artificially intelligent creatures and mechanized puppets following a set script, and the cover’s depiction of a couple of infantry with their rust colored metal skulls next to a mechanized dragon drive that image home beautifully.

The focal character for the issue is Angela.  Gillen has touched on her briefly in previous issues, particularly to highlight how her Neo powers manifest in ways that evoke the behavior of addicts, but we’ve not spent a significant amount of time with her as the central character.  Up to this point she’s been mostly a foil for Ash’s own doubts prior to returning to the game and a device for getting the party into trouble.  Here we get nearly an entire issue that focuses on her backstory and motivations she brings to her time in Die.  To recap, Angela is going through a messy divorce, has had a very rocky career because of the vagaries of professional video game development, and is generally experiencing feelings of abandonment from every significant relationship in her life that are only compounded by her recent admission of her own bisexuality (in probably the most messy way possible).  We’ve known since the first issue that Angela’s life was the biggest apparent mess before she was pulled back into the game, and things like the particular vitriol surrounding her divorce proceedings lend special urgency to her need to get home.  Balancing all that urgency is the fact that Angela’s life in Die is infinitely simpler and she’s buoyed by the unconditional support of Casey, an artificial recreation of the dog that she lost just before Sol pulled everyone into the game the first time.

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Angela has been through some stuff. Being in Die seems like more of a respite for her than for some of the others, which makes her decision to try to get back particularly interesting. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Surrounding the macro story of Angela’s slow acceptance that she’s going to have to let Casey go in order to get back to her mess of a life is an extended discussion of the life of game developers.  Before he was a comics writer, Gillen was a video games journalist, and he talks pretty extensively in the ending essay for this issue about how affected he was by the open secret of the terrible working conditions that game developers endure to get out works that are often underappreciated by consumers and disregarded by publishers if they don’t turn immediate profits.  Much of Angela’s story is designed to be an exemplar of that life with all the destabilizing effects it can have on folks’ personal lives.  Angela’s marriage falling apart is definitely due to a decision she makes, but the circumstances that lead to that decision are so far out of her control as someone just trying to make her career pay off even in a small way.  It’s fair to note that everything we learn in this issue is told from Angela’s perspective, but this is the first time we receive any context for how her life has gotten in the state it is; Dominic’s narration in the first issue is vaguely disapproving of his sister’s life because he hasn’t seen the realities she’s dealing with.

Given all of that, her dependence on Casey is totally understandable.  Pets are creatures that totally rely on us; they never walk away from us the way that a spouse or a child can in a moment of abject disappointment.  Casey is Angela’s rock, and despite that tiny bit of security, she ultimately chooses to let him go just for the chance of jumping back into the chaos.  It’s the most interesting of choices.

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Choices that don’t make a difference are how we learn the most about a person’s character. Given absolutely no exterior incentive, which choice would they prefer? (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Angela’s encounter with the Fair during this issue present an opportunity to tease her with a choice that will ultimately be meaningless from the Fair’s perspective.  They operate as odd amalgams of game programmers and artificial intelligences that are obsessed with duality.  To the Fair, Angela’s decision to give up Casey is ultimately irrelevant because chance denies her to opportunity to permanently trade him away.  The Fair wander off to whatever next thing that happens, and Angela is left with the realization that she’s made a choice but she’s going to have to carry out the consequences herself.  It’s one thing if an external force deprives you of a thing you want; then you at least understand it was just a thing you couldn’t have forever.  Instead, here we see her forced to make a choice she wouldn’t under different circumstances.  It’s all a cruel mirror of the end of her marriage, but played out in even more dire circumstances.  She could make the selfish choice, indulge in the thing that’s directly in front of her and offers her comfort in trying times, or she could let that go in exchange for the highly uncertain possibility of getting back to a thing that wasn’t much comfort in the first place.  This time she makes the selfless choice, and we’re left wondering if it will be worth it for her in the end.  We hope so, although there’s not much promised.

Reading “5: Premise Rejection”

The original intent was to look at issue #5 just in time for the release of Die‘s first trade, but then things happened and I needed a short break from blogging.  So let’s play some catch up!

The one thing Isabelle always wants you to know is that she knows what she’s doing, even when she probably doesn’t. (Cover by Stephanie Hans; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for this issue features Isabelle, the party’s Godbinder and resident skeptic.  The impression we’re generally supposed to take from her appearance here is that she is the player who has it together.  Where everyone else is more or less an emotional wreck, Isabelle stays calm in crisis and marshals her resources to resolve any problems that arise.  As the group’s resident outsider (she was only involved in the original game because she was dating Sol at the time), she stands a bit apart from the rest.  The closest personality match with her is Ash, although because Ash is our narrator we get much more of her internal reasoning for her actions.  With Isabelle, the choices she makes will typically get rationalized a little bit, but there’s no way to know how honest she’s being with the group at large.  Given the personality profile, it makes sense that she’d be the one who relies on working with others without ever legitimately trusting them.

Isabelle is not the focal character for the issue though.  We saw a bit of stuff about her back in #4 that highlighted her intensely private nature, what with one of her gods requiring that she read from her diary to a bunch of worshipers to clear some debts.  Reading private writings to yourself can be difficult enough, especially if it’s from when you were much younger.  We’re looking at the conclusion to the series’s first arc, which means that the status quo has to get upended in some way, and we’re due for some time reflecting on the relationship between our main protagonist and the antagonist.

Sol totally pulled out a tube of super glue at this point. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

In a flashback we see how Sol and Dominic’s dynamic worked even when they were children.  Sol has always been obsessive about building things and leaving them to exist in a pristine state (he very clearly identifies with the villain from The Lego Movie), and Dominic has always been a follower to his best friend’s more assertive nature.  How Sol ever got into role playing, with its essentially chaotic nature, is befuddling.  As the party observes in the issue, he loves to put players on rails and despises when they break from the beaten path.  He’s a control freak, and his inflexibility serves as the way they’re going to goad him into showing himself.  This revelation about Sol, who up to this point has been present mostly as negative space, gives some complexity to the situation the players find themselves in.  It’s evident that Sol knew the group would get pulled into Die when they first sat down to play as teenagers, and now we understand something of why he put them in that position.  The opportunity to inhabit a world he had created for himself and his friends, where he had total control over the parameters of everything, must have been extremely appealing.  Whatever may have happened to keep Sol in the game world (I suspect there’s much more to the story than his simply being snatched back at the last moment by the previous Grandmaster), he’s had nearly three decades to construct his personal mind palace and establish his preferred fiction.  His frustration that his players don’t want to go along with that plan is relatable (I’ve been in a game session or two where the party went way off the beaten path the GM had set up), but also tempered by the fact that he’s abducted these folks twice now.  As we see him in this issue, Sol has caught himself in amber instead of learning to adapt and develop some greater emotional maturity.

Hans is fond of using these sorts of close up views of a character’s face to emphasize that there’s something sinister going on. That in this case Ash actually is doing a bad thing to an unwilling victim only underscores it. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The flip side of Sol, however, is Ash.  Multiple times in the series’s backmatter, Gillen has discussed how he conceived the Dictator to be a genuinely terrifying class because of its power to manipulate emotions.  Everyone within the game world is wary of Ash because of what she can do to them, and we see in this issue what that can entail.  Unlike Sol, Ash has twenty-six years of living as an adult in our world; she’s operating with a much more developed emotional palette than Sol’s simple impulse to control everything around him.  She gets the consequences of all her actions, and reminds us repeatedly how much she loathes her capitulation to necessity in order to get her friends home safely.  That doesn’t change the fact that Ash engages in some heinous things to get what she wants.  The mayor of Glass Town is turned into her helpless slave so that she can arrange for it all to be destroyed in a bid to get Sol to show up, the ultimate point of which is to get the opportunity to kill him.  We’re left with a deeply ambiguous resolution that asks us to weigh Sol’s culpability in trapping everyone else in Die against his state of mind after being trapped there by himself for so long against the reality that Ash jumps directly to the most drastic course of action before even attempting to reason with him.  Sol’s control issues are obvious and childish, but they reflect much deeper questions about who Ash is and why we should trust her unilateral decisions.

At the issue’s end, when Chuck and Isabelle choose not to leave, the immediate reaction I had was to think that Chuck’s full of himself and Isabelle is wrestling with some significant ethical questions about her culpability in displacing an entire community.  We’ve spent five issues getting to know Ash and Angela and Matt, and the cost for them to not go back home is significant enough that it feels like the others are being irresponsible.  Nonetheless, Chuck’s observation about Ash rings true, and there’s a legitimate concern that given the opportunity, she would sooner kill anyone who gets in the way of going home instead of trying to reason with them.  That she has the power to instantaneously change how a person feels doesn’t help matters, although as readers we don’t really know how readily Ash makes use of the Voice.  She’s violated Matt’s trust in the past during a crisis, but given time to talk it out, she’s also used the Voice with his consent so they could accomplish a common goal.  The question then becomes how urgent she thinks getting Chuck and Isabelle to agree to go back is.  Either way, it’s a fair bet to assume she might do some railroading of her own before this is all over.

For all of Chuck’s selfishness, his point about Ash being overly reliant on expediency above fairness is well made. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)