Death: the subject lurking behind the greatest books that we read; an awkward and painful discussion that we have with children; glorified in many religions; occulted in classic films; parodied in print by Sir Terry Pratchett, in television by Norm Macdonald and Adam Corolla on Family Guy. And, most beautifully and memorably of all, portrayed as a cute gothette in Neil Gaiman's sublime comic series, The Sandman.
(Side note: “comic” is used synonymously with “graphic novel.” This may not hold true for everyone but if it's good enough for Scott McCloud it's good enough for me.)
The Sandman deserves all the praise it gets and its influence cannot be understated. I picked it up after having read Gaiman's adult novels Neverwhere and American Gods, and it turned me onto comics in a major way. The series combines Gaiman's great storytelling and strong characterization with incredible illustrations, all topped off with marvelous covers by Dave McKean. What stands out most is Gaiman's his invention of the Endless, a septet of supernatural siblings who each embody some fundamental aspect of reality (Desire, Despair, etc). The Sandman begins with and focuses on the character of Dream, a powerful and moody figure whose trials and changes make for great reading. The success of The Sandman eventually lead to spin-off stories in 1993 and 1996, starring Dream's older sister, Death. Never before did I bother to read these spin-offs. Nine days into October 2012, however, I was given a gorgeous opportunity to do just that, with a new collection of Death's stories: Death: The Deluxe Edition.
The edition delivers physically — a nice hefty weight, Death's dark beauty and sexy posing on front and back cover, her iconic ankh faithfully displayed, and beneath the dust jacket one finds a disarming portrait of the dark lady: in the words of my beloved, “serene and accepting.” Overall content is equally impressive: a charming introduction by Neil's longtime friend Tori Amos, a few selections from The Sandman in which Death features prominently, the 1993 spin-off Death: The High Cost of Living, the 1996 spin-off Death: The Time of Your Life, a handful of episodes from other anthologies, a sweet gallery that goes on forever, and in closing, a PSA in which Death talks about AIDS, condoms, and the value of safe sex.
Sounds alluring, to be sure — but does this book work on its own, or is it mere giftbook fodder for preexisting Gaiman fans? Flipping through it again after a first read, I see a lot of staying power. Many of Gaiman's previously-mentioned virtues (purposeful sentences, smooth character arcs) are in full force, and while Death's siblings make few appearances, the dark lady herself has more than enough character to represent Neil's unique mythos. The smallness of each episode actually works to Neil's advantage: given his experience with short stories, his writing is as comfortable and powerful in a smaller frame as in a larger one.
There were, perhaps unavoidably, a good amount of sly references and inside jokes — ones that, in hindsight, add little to their stories and pull the reader slightly out of the book. But that's my only real critique. Death: The Deluxe Edition otherwise pulls together many disparate gems to form a glittering celebration of a wonderful, original character. The illustrations are as tinctured, stark, and hypnotic as could be desired, and when your main character is the embodiment of Death herself, the subject matter cannot help but turn philosophical, evocative, and enlightening. To read about Death, to witness her adventures, one is given a chance to meditate on a real-life mystery, all while under the guidance of a compassionate, sassy, highly alluring entity.
In gobbling up these masterful morsels, I've renewed by hunger for Neil's graphic novel work. Perhaps those new, pretty editions of Black Orchid and Midnight Days will find their way out of my to-read pile after all ...