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.
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.
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.
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.