Neil Gaiman’s epic dark fantasy The Sandman is considered to be one of the higher points in comics history. To oversimplify the series, it was about a family about godlike beings called the Endless, each of whom embody a cosmic force/principal, and how they interact with each other and mortals. In particular, the series focused on Dream, the guardian of imagination, dreams and inspiration.
Just as popular as Dream was his older sister, Death. Gaiman’s take on Death was something completely different. Most people personify death as a skeleton or a grim reaper archetype. Instead, Death is an attractive young woman, clad in all black. She looks more like someone who would be scouring a record store for Bauhaus and Depeche Mode albums then the grim reaper. She is also very nice and kind. This version of Death isn’t as much a representation of the end, but someone who guides the recently deceased into the next phase of their existence.
Death’s popularity warranted a mini-series in 1993 called Death: The High Cost of Living, by Gaiman with art by Chris Bachalo.
The basis of the story is very simple. Once a century, Death gets to spend a day among the living in order to better understand humanity. This is a lot like the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday. In The High Cost of Living, Death takes her “vacation” in 1990s Manhattan, starting out with her saving the life of a possibly-suicidal young man named Sexton.
The pair winds up spending the day together, talking about the meaning of life and death, as well as interacting with some earthbound characters from the Sandman series. Ultimately, they grow quite fond of each other, although Sexton does not believe that Death is really, well, death incarnate.
The story ends with Death’s physical form dying after telling Sexton how much she enjoyed their time together. Sexton as a character changed over the course of the three issues, as he seemed to gain a bit more confidence in himself as well as some optimism. He was smitten by Death.
Sexton learned from her the importance of life, and ends the book hoping to see Death again. But not too soon; he has his whole life ahead of him.
What we take away from this story is that life is important and it is never that bad. Death shows us how truly enjoyable and exciting the human experience is, and how much we take it for granted. If she is excited about going out for hot dogs and bagels, we should be too.
This blending of serious concepts with lightheadedness is one of Gaiman’s strengths as a writer. As for the art side of the book, Bachalo’s pencils remind me a lot of Jaime Hernandez’s work in Love and Rockets, but with a touch more photo realism. Mark Buckinghams’ inking helps create a dark mood from time to time, only enhancing some of the more serious moments.
Who thought a book about Death could be so much fun?
DC/Vertigo has the first issue available for download here FOR FREE. Check it out…you won’t be sorry!