Plus, Death’s first appearance from the SANDMAN series, her tale from SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS, and much more!
Death, by Neil Gaiman and various artists 8.0
I only tried reading ‘The Sandman’, Neil Gaiman’s multiple award-winning comic book, once, in a collected form, having heard of the praise it had garnered. Truth be told, I both didn’t get it and was bored by it. So I never returned to the series, though Gaiman’s oeuvre remained firmly planted on my radar due to his affinities.
Through the years, I ended up reading a few graphic novels that he published with Dave McKean, bought the ‘Neverwhere’ mini-series on DVD, read and watched ‘Coraline‘ and even bought the Alice Cooper-related ‘The Last Temptation’ comic books. Some I was fond of, some not so much, but his creations were always intriguing to me.
This leads me to ‘Death’, a 2012 collection of ‘Sandman’-related comic books that focuses on Dream’s elder sibling. Culled from a period of 15 years, it includes the two solo miniseries “The High Cost of Living” and “The Time of Your Life”, amongst others. Intrigued by the title, and the character, I decided that I’d give ‘Sandman’ another try.
1. The Sound of Her Wings: Here we find Dream a bit morose, feeding pigeons in the park. When Death shows up, she convinces him to tag along with her as she does her solemn work. In watching her interactions with the departed he finds a new appreciation for his own existence. There’s a dare-I-say poetic quality to this one that I really appreciated. It made me wish I could write this well. 7.75
2. Façade: Rainie Blackwell longs for inexistence, being both immortal and, by virtue of a mutation, incapable of taking her own life. When Death pops by, after having taken care of business next door, they discuss the value of life. The psychopomp eventually offers the mutant advice to help her reach her aim. This one was clunky, especially since I had no idea who Rainie was but it seemed as though we were supposed to empathize with her from the onset. 6.75
3. A Winter’s Tale: A six-page poetic piece finding Death reflecting about her existence and purpose, and how she’s come to accept her role – though it was sometimes a challenge. It’s okay. It feels more like a sketch than anything else. Maybe it served as an introduction to the character to non-‘Sandman’ readers. And yet I can’t imagine that it would have been compelling taken out of context. 5.5
4. The High Cost of Living: This is a three-part mini-series that finds Death spending a day in the body of Didi, a young girl whose whole family has recently died in a tragic accident. It’s told from the perspective of Sexton, a young teenager who’s out and about because his neurotic mom needed him out of the house so that she may clean. Death helps him out from under a fridge that fell on him in a garbage dump and then takes him to her place. Though they get along he becomes wary of her abstract ways, not understanding that she speaks the truth when she claims to be the personification of death. But, on his way home, he gets kidnapped by Mad Hettie, who uses him as bait to get Death to find her heart. This leads Death and Sexton on a dangerous journey in the city’s nightlife.
Frankly, this story doesn’t have that much plot to it for a three-parter, but it’s fairly heavy on dialogue and exposition, which I quite like – especially since Gaiman’s hand is so steady: he helps us understand the characters and care for them, even the retched ones. What’s amazing is just how progressive Gaiman was back in 1993; while his open-mindedness is more at home in this time and place (and even then!), it was very forward-thinking back then, nearly 25 years ago. 7.75
5. The Wheel: This ten-pager is mostly text with a few images. A teenager climbs a ferris wheel with the intention of throwing himself off of it. Once he reaches the top, he’s met by a large man who I presume is Destruction, who discusses with him his intentions. Soon Death appears and there’s a deeper exchange about the meaning of living and dying. I found this interesting because Gaiman connected with teen angst very well here, something he seems to do better than most. But I did find it disquieting that once again a teenager was involved. What about seniors and everyone in between? Well, maybe they don’t read comic books… 7.0
6. The Time of Your Life: This is a 1996 three-part mini-series that follows Hazel and Foxglove, a couple who were also in “The High Cost of Living”. Here they struggle with their relationship, as Hazel becomes a stay-at-home mom and Foxglove becomes a popular musician, forcing her to stay on the road for months at a time. But then Death returns. Yes, returns: it appears that all is not as it seems in Hazel and Foxglove’s household.
It’s not an especially plot-driven mini-series, but it’s absolutely brilliant, benefiting from Gaiman’s naturalesque character development; one gets into the characters’ heads and skin, making them familiar, nearly real. He also delves into some very intelligent discussions about the meaning and value of life and death. And though it has a text-heavy approach, it’s nevertheless resplendent in gorgeous artwork by Mark Buckingham.
It’s truly a near-perfect comic. 9.0
7. Death and Venice: In this one, we find Death coming for a group of people who have been defying her since 1751, when a Count had cast a spell preventing her from entering the gates to his chateau. Every day since, he and his guests have been immortal, trapped in time, living each day as though it were the last, but knowing it wouldn’t be. Over two centuries later, Death gets the help of a young man in getting through the gates on this secluded Venetian island.
I enjoyed this one because the Count’s daily activities always pushed the limits, giving them a slightly offbeat, if not light, tone. And the way that Gaiman revealed what was going on was satisfying. But it’s not a particularly plot-heavy story, and the art is only passable. Still, I quite enjoyed it. 8.0
7.5 A Death Gallery: This is a series of one-page interpretations of Death by various artists. Some of these are exquisite and poster-worthy; I’d certainly buy prints of some of them. But was it intended as a sort of interlude before “Death Talks About Life”? Or are the two considered bonus material? Not sure.
8. Death Talks About Life: This is a six-page public service announcement about the risks of AIDS and how to avoid it. It’s very mature, though McKean’s barren artwork makes it grimmer than it should have been. 6.5
Though it was off to a slow start, ‘Death’ eventually kicked into high gear with its two feature mini-series. It’s there that Gaiman was finally able to spread his wings and I really enjoyed his musings about life and death. Naturally, it’s not a book for Pollyannas, but it can be smart, well-thought out and articulate. I’m a fan.
I’m even reconsidering reading ‘Sandman’ now.