Every once in a while I read or watch something so mind-boggingly good, so paradigm changing, that all I can do is get pissed off. While that might seem like an odd reaction to discovering a great piece of art, I believe those who, like me, love nothing more than tumbling down the pop culture rabbit hole and losing yourself to someone else’s world, will understand. The best works, the ones we revisit over and over, feel like they were made just for us, and it’s hard not to rue all the time lost we could have spent loving them with our whole hearts, to wonder how someone, anyone could not have put something so obviously meant to be enjoyed by us in our hands any earlier.
At the top of this list for me is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s probably for the best that no one gave it to me as a teenager because it may have actually blown a crater into my mind, but when I did finally lay eyes on it, I became so enraptured and thought it so perfectly suited to my tastes that I was baffled it hadn’t found its way to me sooner. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know weird gothy kids who liked to read. What I do know is that Sandman would have been so hugely influential on me at such a formative age, both as an aspiring writer and a fervent reader, that it might have changed the whole direction my pop culture path took. Hell, I might have even started reading other comics.
Yes, that’s right, people reading a comic book blog, I was not what you would call a comic book fan. I was too busy reading Neitzchse and Camus and thinking it made me very smart and cultured (news flash, 15-year-old me: it mostly made you kind of a douche). It never would have occurred to me that I could have found anything as profound as the philosophy I was pretending to understand in a comic. I just wish now that someone would have told me that not only could I do that very thing, but I could also read about angsty cosmic entities while doing it. (The first person to make a joke in the comments about Neitzchse’s Superman gets a prize.)
By the time the proprietor of this blog, Mr. Dean Compton, gifted me the first volume of Sandman (for which I will always be grateful), rightfully insisting that my loving it was a foregone conclusion, I had grown out of much of my literary snobbery. Four years of assigned reading in college had taken much of the appeal and romance out of reading things because they were “important,” and I had spent the following several years discovering all the other places beauty and wisdom could be found on a steady regimen of the best fantasy literature and science fiction had to offer. Now I much prefer my profundity to be accompanied by wizards or spaceship battles and always get a little disappointed when a book is lacking them.
That is not to say, though, that I think my tastes have gotten more lowbrow. My definition of what constitutes great literature has merely expanded. The cream of the comics crop could stand up to any work of literature in any genre, and I can’t imagine that many who encounter Sandman would argue it doesn’t deserve its place in that conversation. It’s heartbreaking and funny, epic and intimate, weighty and whimsical, a story about stories, and its popularity, critical acclaim, and endurance are all more than justified.
No small part of that popularity and longevity is the character Death, sister of Dream, the titular Sandman. Her actual part in the series may be small, as Gaiman wanted to parcel out her appearances specifically because readers liked her so much, but she more than makes up for lack of panels by being every different kind of awesome when she does show up.
Just as I have encountered almost no one who has read Sandman and not liked it, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy Death. Few characters in any work seem to be as universally loved. (A short list of other fictional characters no one hates that Dean and I came up with because you know you were curious: Indiana Jones, Wolverine, Robocop, the Ghostbusters, Tyrion Lannister, Ashley J. Williams, the Dude, and David Bowie. Yes, David Bowie counts.) Her popularity was something even I was aware of as early as the mid-90s, when I barely knew who Neil Gaiman was, and I assumed it had a lot to do with the fact that all most of her fans would have to do to cosplay her is choose from any of the 1,000 black tank tops they already owned, put on slightly less make up than usual, and rock their favorite ankh necklace with pride. (In the interest of full disclosure, my favorite ankh necklace was a large silver number with a yin yang symbol in the middle that I wore to church to get a rise out of people.)
Even after I read Sandman and discovered for myself what the fuss was about, it still didn’t necessarily make it obvious why Gaiman had chosen to portray Death as an enthusiastic, compassionate, attractive young woman. All the love I and countless others have for her might be evidence enough that Gaiman made a good decision, but I think there is more to it than idea that he made her likable so that we would like her or even that she works so well because her Not-So-Grim Reaper stands in such stark contrast to so many other portrayals of Death. She, just like Dream and the rest of their siblings of the Endless, are meant to be the embodiments of their respective concepts, and there is no denying that we, as a species, are a little obsessed with death, drawn in and attracted to its mystery, anxious to flirt with it, unable to forgot about it even if it’s been a while since we’ve seen it. What more fitting way to portray that than a fun and charming pretty girl? (It’s also established that the forms of the Endless are subjective, so it’s also possible Death’s appearance is something of a commentary on her intended audience, just as I assume the artists drew Dream to look like an even floppier-haired Neil Gaiman.)
Given the character’s likability, it’s unsurprising Death received her own miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living, in 1993, about midway through Sandman’s original run. The story revolves around a day that Death spends as a mortal, which she must do once a century to better understand the lives she must take away. Just as in Sandman, though, we don’t consistently see a great deal of Death, or at least not as much as I might have expected for a series that is purportedly about her.
We open instead with a haggish pile of an elderly woman named Mad Hettie and a few Cockney street punks, the sort of characters I will assume appear in everything Gaiman writes till I read otherwise. The woman has tasked the youths with finding her a dove, but when they are no longer satisfied with her five quid compensation and attempt to rob her, Hettie proves herself to be more than you’d expect. The street toughs, exactly as you’d expect, prove not to be so tough, and leave her to perform some blood magic, also something you’d expect from the moment you knew that a lady named Mad Hettie wanted a particular kind of bird.
We next meet Sexton Furnival (who seems to have a silly name so he can repeatedly and resignedly acknowledge he has a silly name), a sixteen-year-old who, more so than Death, functions as the story’s true protagonist. As a protagonist he suffers from the same problem that all teenagers do, real or fictional, in so much as he is not particularly pleasant to be around. While I’m sure I would have identified more with him had I read this comic as a teenager, it’s not a given, as my hatred of teenagers was never so intense as when I was one.
Reading it now, more than a decade removed from my adolescence, I just cringe as I remember my own mopey, self-important musings (and then cringe a little more when I think about how I’ll probably do the same about the things I say now when I’m 40). My new standard for how well a teenage character has been portrayed is how retroactively embarrassed they make me for my own teenage self, and by that measure, Sexton is pretty damn accurate.
Sexton is suicidal because…just life, you know, man? I’m being glib, but he states he doesn’t have any particular reason for wanting to die beyond not having any particular reason to want to live, which is a worthwhile distinction to make. As the story progresses, Sexton encounters more than one person who has more reason (i.e. an actual reason) not to go on but still does, and it serves to throw his own more nebulous woes into stark relief. While that might not be the most exciting choice narratively, I appreciate that Gaiman is addressing the fact that depression often needs no specific catalyst and that at an age where you are trying to figure out what your life is going to be all about, it can often feel like there is no point to any of it. You’re old enough to start to recognize that adults are enormous hypocrites and that being one might not be something to look forward to after all, but you’re too young to do anything about it except resign yourself to becoming one.
While Sexton can be insufferable, he is nonetheless relatable. I may want to smack him when, for example, he tells the mother of the wheelchair-bound neighbor boy that that he can TOTALLY understand how her son gets really bored, but I still remember a time when I was the one deserving that smack. We have all deserved that smack. We have all inflated our problems or lack thereof, taken our health or our youth or the gift that is life for granted. Had Gaiman given Sexton a more concrete or tragic source for his suicidal thoughts, it would only remove some of that universality and muddy the waters by putting an emphasis on life being worthwhile in spite of its ugliness rather than it being worthwhile because of all its beauty, no matter how small.
Sexton finds himself at a garbage dump and manages to end up trapped underneath a refrigerator, leading to, what we would call in the parlance of our time, a meet cute with the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Death rescues him from the refrigerator and offers to clean him up, all the way remaining indomitably cheerful in the face of Sexton’s relentless snideness. We learn that she is spending the day in the guise of Didi, a teenage girl whose family was recently killed. Sexton learns that his savior is the manifestation of Death living a once-in-a-century day as a mortal and responds how anyone not being on the right side of the fourth wall might.
After storming out of her apartment, Sexton gets taken hostage by Mad Hettie, who extracts a promise from Death/Didi to find her heart, which the 250-year-old woman has apparently hidden and forgotten where. Now on a mission to locate the missing heart AND get the most out of her short time in the flesh, Didi embarks with Sexton on an adventure of free cab rides and hot dogs on what would be a pretty ideal New York City day if it weren’t for his refusal to enjoy anything and her being the temporary physical embodiment of a cosmic entity with a few hours left to live.
The crazy kids end up at the show of a family friend of Sexton’s, where he continues to mope about with the sort of fervor only the young have the energy to muster. He meets a young girl who tells him what is basically the SADDEST STORY EVER, obviously about herself, a fact that, along with the point, completely passes Saxton by.
Our dichotomous duo soon find themselves taken prisoner by a man known as the Eremite. Ultimate-source-of-all-human-knowledge Wikipedia tells me the Eremite is suspected to be Mister E, bent on revenge on Death following the events of another amazing series of Gaiman’s, Books of Magic (which I’m sure we’ll take a look at here at The Unspoken Decade at a future date because what’s life without something to look forward to?). While not knowing the Eremite’s identity doesn’t especially detract from the story, knowing it does help him from feeling like just a random crazy dude around to wreak havoc.
I have been going through the main points of the plot pretty thoroughly so far, but the more I talk about them, the more obvious it is that they are inconsequential. Not to say that the story is bad or uninteresting, but the real meat of these books can be found in the quiet conversations rather than in the major narrative conflicts, which are resolved almost by afterthought. Didi and Sexton are rescued by Mad Hettie and Didi’s awesome neighbor, the heart’s recovered, and Death’s ankh, stolen by the Eremite, is simply replaced with a cheap version from a street vendor.
This is ultimately a story about Sexton and Didi, about the sort of unforgettable day you only seem to have when you’re young, where everything and nothing seem possible at once, where a random encounter with a sympathetic stranger can make all the difference between delight and despair. The idea that you have to take time to enjoy the small things or appreciate life in all its complexity is nothing new, but the many intimate and poignant moments mean that, whatever their sum, the individual parts make the story.
We like spending time with Death, whether she is thwarting a mystic plot or merely laying some hard truths on a misguided kid, and delight in her presence the same way she delights in something as simple as eating a bagel. (I totally get the bagel delight. If I only got to live one day every century, finding a fresh bagel would be at the top of my To Do list too.) No matter how serious the subject matter, High Cost of Living never takes itself too seriously, giving it a decidedly more easygoing feel than much of Sandman.
The drawback to this breezier tone was that the overall work felt a little frothy, a little insubstantial on first read. Once I had given it time to percolate in my brain, I realized I was comparing it to Sandman, which just isn’t fair. Not that one is good and the other is bad, but this book deals with its weightier topics on an intimate, micro scale rather than the epic, multidimensional cosmic clusterfuck that is Sandman. Had I read this when it came out, I probably would have just mentally inserted it into the larger Sandman tale, where it would have fit perfectly, not just because it’s the same author with a shared character but because Sandman was a book that told so many different stories in so many different ways. Reading it now, the best thing to do for me and the comic seemed to be to judge it as a standalone, both because it could easily make its case as a great and poignant piece of art without Sandman even existing and because it makes it feel less methadone after a Sandman binge.
My other initial quibble was that we don’t really gain much new insight into Death, since her role in the narrative is mostly as a vehicle for Saxton’s character arc, but I quickly came to the conclusion that I was dumb for thinking anything else would happen. It’s fitting that we don’t learn a great deal of significance about Death because Death as a character is meant to be the embodiment of death itself, and death with a small ‘d’ will always be a mystery till Death with a capital ‘D’ comes for us all. I am more than happy to enjoy the little things, a fresh bagel here, a good comic there, till that happens.