Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #2 by Drew Barth
Guess I’ll DIE
First issues are weird things. They’re thesis statements on a series; a contract with the reader that assures them the three to five dollars they paid for that first issue was worth it; a firm artistic statement on what this creative team wishes to do with the comic form. A good first issue outlines what a reader is going to see going forward in a series—letting them know that this may or may not be the particular ride for them. A first issue is, without a doubt, the hardest thing a creative team working on a comic has to get through, with the sole exception being the final issue. But with a first issue like Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans’ DIE, I absolutely need to be around to see how that final issue plays out.
There’s been this ubiquity to issue ones in the past whenever I go into my local comic shop (A Comic Shop) or scroll through the Comixology app. Every week there’s a new series beginning with an interesting premise or a nice cover or a character design that looks fantastic. But I can’t buy them all. I’m broke. So I have to take a first issue incredibly seriously because that first issue is a potential commitment to an entire series. Starting off strong, getting hooks into a reader, is something that’s crucial for comic storytelling as a whole.
With DIE, we’re given a first issue that puts the banquet out for us. We have the premise: a group of six friends play a game of Dungeons and Dragons that sucks them inside and they disappear for two years. Only five return and none of them can talk about what happened in the game. Kieron Gillen himself described it as “goth Jumanji,” and I’m inclined to agree.
But a normal story would focus on the “sucked into a game” aspect of it and run from there. That’s where DIE differs and works with different levels of what first issues should do. The basic premise I’ve described is only the first few pages. What follows after that is a time jump of twenty-five years. We don’t have kids here anymore. These are adults. Traumatized adults. What happened in the past has scarred each of the remaining five deeply to the point where we can see how even thinking about the event triggers an emotional response that draws these characters further into themselves and traumatizing thoughts of the past.
DIE does something I wished more series would try doing. We don’t see the event. We don’t know what happened. We’re not given a massive backstory right in the first issue. We’re given the information we need. We’re given small one or two lines of characters who tell us what we need to know about that person. Like a good D&D campaign, we’re given a small hint of what’s going to happen later. A lot of the time, what I end up seeing in either first in a series or first in a new story line issues is numerous panels of exposition. That exposition feels like the story doesn’t trust the reader to actually read what’s happening. We have to be told what to notice and what’s important despite comics being the best place possible to show. Stephanie Hans is so obscenely good at showing us small character movements and facial expressions while using a color palate to invoke mood. Seeing character costumes feels like a massive moment because of the building up of action and movement and color.
Something like DIE is the kind of first issue that doesn’t come around often, but when it does you can feel a sense of excitement around its release. I’ve read through dozens of first issues that don’t have this sense of movement—they want to languish and draw out single moments that don’t leave a reader with any kind of pay off. DIE is compressed storytelling. It is lean. It shows the reader what little they need to know at the beginning and runs hard with its story. Comics can have a slower pace, there’s never not going to be room for that. But first issues are, and will always be, different beasts. They need speed. A first issue needs to let the reader know that the comic trusts them with the information being given and gives as much as it can as quickly as possible. That speed is the lifeblood of first issues. If a reader doesn’t know, a reader doesn’t care. And a reader that doesn’t care is a reader that doesn’t come back.
Get excited, first issues are happening.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.