Coming in the wake of the New York Times leaking the ending of Batman #50 before the issue hit shelves, and right before the inevitable Comic-Con announcements of books you can’t actually read for six months, Robert Kirkman’s Skybound imprint couldn’t have picked a better time to pull a Beyoncé.
Die!Die!Die! was announced one day before it went on sale. It’s a startling move, practically unprecedented in comics – Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martín did a similar thing with the self-published Private Eye, but as that was a ‘pay-what-you-want’ digital release, it’d be more accurate to describe them as ‘pulling a Radiohead’ rather than a Beyoncé. But what about the actual contents of the comic itself?
On the face of it, Die!Die!Die! is a pretty straightforward offering. If the title doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, then the slogan on the cover should: “Blood-soaked, bullet-riddled, ultraviolent mayhem.”
The opening pages deliver on this promise beautifully. Chris Burnham – formerly of Batman Incorporated and Nameless, both of which he worked on with writer Grant Morrison and colorist Nathan Fairbairn – knows his way around an action setpiece. Here, he draws one of the most inventively gruesome fight scenes in recent memory. Wince-inducing highlights include a pistol being driven through a man’s neck and a close-up of a nose being cut off.
The violence stops just short of being grim as that sentence might make it sound, thanks in large part to Fairbairn, who casts everything in bright colors. There’s a lot of blood but, in the tradition of Skybound stablemate Invincible, it’s as red and gloopy as ketchup.
It’s a very thin line, though, between gory dumb fun and gratuitous violence – and the comic treads that line throughout. After the opening salvo of action, Die! Die! Die! becomes a surprisingly talky comic as it introduces its premise.
The core concept – a shadowy organization that keeps the world ticking over through targeted assassinations – isn’t particularly new, and could prove tediously cynical. Throw in some remarkably sweary dialogue, and it’s easy to tip over from, say, a Garth Ennis comic into a Mark Millar one.
What saves Die!Die!Die! from falling into adolescent pessimism is that this secret assassination agency is genuinely trying to make the world a better place, at least from its own perspective. And writers Robert Kirkman – of Walking Dead fame – and Scott M. Gimple – of Walking Dead, TV version, fame – seem to have thought through the practicalities of that.
There’s a great sequence which shows how a single objective – take vengeance on a minor British politician who is also an unpunished sex criminal – has complex consequences. In a modified nine-panel grid, we see various plans being considered and rejected because they’d cause too much harm to innocents.
The balance of talk and action is another delicate line, and one this issue teeters over. We get pages of political machinations which could be used for machine-gunning politicians, and a fairly tired comedy routine in place of comedic guillotining.
With the cover’s promise of mayhem, and Burnham and Fairbairn leaving you hungry for more action, an expectation is set up early in the issue and never quite delivered on. As a result, when the final page arrives, it feels a little abrupt – to the extent that I actually checked my digital copy hadn’t been cut off early.
That ending seems to be setting up the premise for the rest of the series, beyond the initial high concept, but it doesn’t actually get us to the point shown on the cover. That puts a different twist on the surprise release – this ends up feeling more like a teaser, an issue #0, the sequence before the titles in a James Bond movie, rather than a proper first instalment.
So far, we’ve had the first Die!. I can’t wait to see the stylish ways that the team – Burnham and Fairbairn in particular – make good on the rest of that title. If they want to unexpectedly drop issue #2 next week, that’d be fine by me.