Death: The Deluxe Edition
No matter who you are or how tough you may consider yourself, everyone fears something. For some people, it’s spiders. For others, it’s heights. The list of the things humanity fears is mindbogglingly long. Perhaps one of the oldest and most pervasive (unsurprisingly) is thanatophobia, or fear of death. Death is the great unknown and unless you’re desperately tired of your current existence or from a culture with a healthier outlook on the event, it’s something to be feared rather than welcomed. We’ve often anthropomorphized death to make it more palatable, turning it into something humorous yet profound like Terry Pratchett’s character Death, who often struggles to understand humanity’s quirks.
One of my favorite representations of Death in this manner is Death from the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. I’ve made no secret of my awe of Gaiman’s ability to create new mythologies and Death is no exception. As the older sister to Dream (long-standing protagonist of the Sandman series), Death often appeared in that series to shake Dream to his senses and challenge him when he was at his most arrogant. Death was such an intriguing character that several spin-offs were created and collected into a single deluxe edition. This week, I wanted to take some time to talk about this book, for both Sandman and non-Sandman readers alike.
Death: The Deluxe Edition gathers together two miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life along with a gallery of artwork featuring Death at the very end. Both stories were written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by a whole host of artists including Chris Bachalo, Colleen Doran, Malcolm Jones III, P. Craig Russell, Mark Buckingham and Michael Dringenberg. The High Cost of Living has Death walking in the shoes of a human girl named Didi for a day in order to better understand humanity. As is typical for a member of the Endless (the mythological family of which both Dream and Death are a part), things get strange very quickly and Didi relies on friendship with a few humans, including a rather dramatic teenager named Sexton, to get her through the adventure. In The Time of Your Life, Death makes a bargain with two women, Hazel and Foxglove, who may be familiar to readers of Sandman. Out of sentimentality for the role she played in Foxglove’s music career, Death allows Hazel to bargain for another life, a bargain which draws in not only the two women but several people around them as they struggle with the terms of the deal. Both stories show different facets of Death and are an expansion of a character who has largely remained very popular.
While I have always (and likely will always) love Gaiman’s storytelling, I wouldn’t consider these stories a must-read, even for a Sandman fan. It’s not that I would ever discourage someone from reading them, but I think they’re largely much more interesting to people who fear and/or are fascinated by Death. You don’t need to already be a Sandman fan to enjoy it, but it will have more meaning if you are. I loved the way in which Pratchett anthropomorphized his character and I like Gaiman’s Death for slightly different reasons. Gaiman’s Death is characterized as an upbeat, friendly young woman who does her best to treat everyone kindly if a bit strangely (she is Death after all). Her musings on humanity’s fear of her and reluctance to accept her make her character a compelling one. This Death is more relatable and less…bemused than Death from Discworld. She understands humanity and sympathizes with them even as she tries to guide them to a more accepting viewpoint. I liked that Gaiman dealt with Death’s own struggle to be happy with her job, a job she can’t ever quit from, when everyone resists her and becomes angry at her when she sees them at the end. The stories can be morbid but they’re also very enjoyable. It’s typical, magical Gaiman in a musing on life and death that is compelling if not the best stuff he’s ever written.
While I’d admit that Death: The Deluxe Edition isn’t essential Gaiman reading, I think that for those of us who are interested in how people view death as part of a cycle which everyone must experience, it’s a worthwhile read. I like a lot of what Gaiman has to say about not fearing Death and accepting it as part of the natural order. It doesn’t make that phobia go away, but his Death makes it relatable and more comfortable than the thought of some endless void. If you need a philosophical adventure, I’d certainly recommend it.