Death: The Deluxe Edition, was published by Vertigo in 2012. It’s a handsome book, slightly outsized (7 ¼ by 11 inches), perfect bound with a hard cover, dust jacket and matte black endpapers. The cover has a collage look, filled with shades of black and shell-pink, with Death in profile. The spiral tattoo below her right eye is prominent, and her hair sweeps in a curve like a wing.
All the stories in Death: The Deluxe Edition were written by Neil Gaiman. This collection includes the following stories, most of which are reprints:
- “The Sound of her Wings” — artwork by Mike Dringerberg and Malcolm Jones III
- “Façade” — artwork by Colleen Doran, Malcolm Jones III and Todd Klein
- “A Winter’s Tale” — artwork by Jeffrey Jones and Jon J Muth
- “The High Cost of Living” — artwork by Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham
- “The Wheel” — artwork by Chris Bachalo, Todd Klein, Rob Ro and Alex Bleyaert
- “The Time of your Life” — artwork by Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham
- “Death and Venice” — artwork by P. Craig Russell, Lovern Kindzierski and Todd Klein
- “Death Talks About Life” — artwork by Dave McKean
Readers of Neil Gaiman’s ten-volume masterpiece SANDMAN first met Death in the epilogue of Volume One, Preludes and Nocturnes. The Dream King has escaped imprisonment, recovered his talismans and restored his kingdom. He is feeding pigeons and wondering whether anything matters, when a bright, energetic young woman dressed like a Goth approaches him. In short order she has bounced a stale baguette off his head and is dressing him down in no uncertain terms:
“You are utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane!”
And later; “I don’t believe this. Dream, you’re as bad as, as — Desire! Or worse!”
This breath of fresh air is Dream’s older sister, Death, the second of the Endless. The vignette, “The Sound of her Wings,” is the introduction to Death: The Deluxe Edition. To snap her brooding brother out of his selfish melancholy, she brings him with her while she is working. Dream begins to realize the seriousness, the sacredness, of his sister’s work.
Death is cheerful and non-judgmental, a friendly guide on the way to the sunless lands, but she is unsentimental. Dream and Death visit an infant in its crib, and Death takes it. The spirit of the baby asks, “Is that all there was? Is that all I get?” and Death replies, “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
The artwork in the story starts with the boulevard and fountain where Dream feeds the pigeons, a great feeling of openness and motion. On several pages, images flow with no lines between frames and lots of white space, creating the impression of a busy, sunlit day. This shifts to darker, more crowded frames as Death moves through various cities and locations; a tattered bed-sit; a comedy club, and of course the nursery. Page 27 ends on an emotionally compelling image — a crib, a sobbing woman huddled beside it, caught in a square of white. All of the rest of the page is black, except for the splatter of a broken baby bottle.
“Façade” tells the story of a Urania Blackwell, “Element Girl,” after her disability retirement from the CIA. Rainey was a superhero, but her super-power, the ability to convert and manipulate elements, has ravaged her. As the name implies, this story is largely about masks, and the images of masks fill these pages. Rainey never leaves her apartment. Her sole human contact is the unseen case manager who writes out her disability check each month. Element Girl is a real DC Comics character, who has an exotic, almost metallic looking face, and wore shades of green and fuchsia. In “Façade,” her face has been grayed and coarsened, looking stone-like, and the colors are almost venomous. Her desperate loneliness drives her to accept a lunch invitation with an old friend. She almost manages to pass for human before disaster strikes and she is unmasked.
Rainey flees back to her apartment. She contemplates suicide, and it is clear from the expressions on her face that it is not for the first time. A passerby who heard her interrupts her. It’s Death, who says, “Do you want to talk about it?”
This story works on several levels. On one, this is a critique of the humanity of the superhero. On another, Rainey reads as a wounded warrior, a returning veteran, someone unable to make sense of her life now. Rainey’s wish for death is really the yearning for release from her isolation and pain. At the end, Death helps Rainey to set aside her masks and face the world.
“Winter’s Tale” is a very short piece that seems to exist mainly to provide some information that we will need later. What is outstanding here is the artwork. In places, random pools of white on black look like ink blots, moonlight, or blood on snow if you’re morbid. A twisted skeleton of a tree is a recurring image. A raven, and later a wolf, succumb to death, but a delicate butterfly survives. With the exception of the moody black and lavender title page, Death is drawn largely in shadow, impressionistically, using simple lines against pale washes of wintery colors. Eyes and hands express most of the emotion. I think the phrase “deceptively simple” was invented for this kind of drawing.
“The High Cost of Living” is my favorite story in the collection. It may be that Mad Hettie is a familiar character from the SANDMAN stories, or it may just be that Sexton Furnival is a convincing adolescent character. Sexton lives in New York with his perky and oblivious mother. His father is an entertainment attorney in L.A. Sexton is making a pros-and-cons list about suicide when we meet him. When he explores a nearby landfill, a collapse buries him under a refrigerator, but a strange dark-haired girl helps him out. Her downstairs neighbor calls her Didi, and tells Sexton that her family was killed in a freak accident a few months earlier, but Didi tells him her name is Death. Once every hundred years, she says, she lives one day as a dying mortal, to keep fresh in her memory the meaning of her work.
Sexton doesn’t believe her, but soon meets two other people who do; Mad Hettie, an elderly bag lady, originally from London, who hid something important a long time ago and can’t remember where; and the Eremite. Hettie wants Death to find what she’s lost. The Eremite wants Death’s ankh, because then he will have power over her. Sexton is drawn along on Death’s quest for Hettie’s lost object. Before morning, he will face real danger and real death, and change his perspective on life.
Sexton is a convincingly sullen teenager but we see a glimpse of the “real” Sexton early in the story, when he is kind and respectful to the developmentally disabled boy that lives down the hall. On his adventure with Death, he does an accidental kindness to an up-and-coming singer named Foxglove, and hints that his mother’s perkiness may be bipolar disorder.
Death seems to grow more confused the longer she stays in the body of Didi, but she never lacks clarity about her mission. When Sexton mentions the old movie Death Takes a Holiday, Death says she is working, even now, everywhere — from dying villagers in an African country to the death of a planet light-years away.
The Eremite is a real and frightening villain who doesn’t understand Death any better than we do. When the stolen ankh fails to grant him what he wants, he comes after Death again, but he is too late. Didi’s time is up. In a centerfold spread we see ripples of water from a fountain resolve into the body of Didi, who then sits up to greet — herself. When she says she wishes it didn’t have to end like that, Death says, “It always ends. That’s what gives it value.”
Thematically, I enjoyed the contrast between Dream’s use of a talisman and Death’s. In SANDMAN Dream put his own energy into a ruby amulet, with terrible consequences for him and for humans when it is stolen. Death is never seen without her ankh, but she gives it up to the Eremite without any hesitation. When Sexton asks her if it wasn’t important, she says that it is the most important thing in the universe. Then she buys another ankh off a street artist. (“It isn’t real silver, is it?” she asks, and the vendor says, “For ten dollars, you’re lucky it’s metal.”) Death understands that we give the object meaning, not vice versa.
“The Wheel” was written for the comics collection 9-11. Young Matt, confused and despondent over the death of his doctor mother in the attack on the World Trade towers, climbs to the top of an abandoned Ferris wheel, intending to throw himself off. In this way, he thinks, he will meet God, for whom he has some questions. Instead he finds the car filled by Death and a character we rarely see any more in stories of the Endless — Destruction. The artwork in “The Wheel” is intentionally super-pretty, with bright colors and sharp edges. Death looks like she was inspired by Prince’s Purple Rain period. “The Wheel” is touching although it fails to answer any questions. Death’s advice to Matt is just to ride the wheel of life, but she delivers this advice in a way that does provide comfort for the boy.
“The Time of Your Life” is the longest story in the collection, or at least it feels that way. This one satisfies me the least. It’s too long; it feels very self-indulgent with its preoccupation with the risks of fame; and the plot is a cheat, relying on a spear-carrier or “redshirt” character to resolve an issue that really should be decided by the main characters. The writing is beautiful, and so is the artwork; shifting from somber rain-drenched grays and browns to lavenders and silvers, to lively multi-color panels surrounded by a black-and-white checked pattern representing a media tour. Foxglove, a singer, is about to become the next Tori Amos; however, her manager insists that she remain “in the closet,” treating Hazel, her lover, as a secretary. I think this is a dated concept. In the 1990s when this was written, it was probably good advice — now, it seems shallow and false, unnecessary. Anyway, Foxglove’s love for Hazel and Hazel’s son Alvie is tested by the appearance of Death. So that’s the story, but it takes an awfully long time to get there. This story feels self-indulgent; more of a meditation by Gaiman on the price of celebrity versus a real story about the impact of Death. That said, it’s still beautiful.
The fiction section ends with “Death and Venice,” a bite of rich and bitter chocolate at the end of the banquet. When Sergei was a little boy, he went to Venice to visit his cousins. On an island picnic, he met a strange dark-haired girl with a spiral tattoo by her eye. She sat by an old rusted door in a stone wall. He asked her what she was doing, and she said she was waiting for it to open. Sergei tried to open it, but couldn’t. When his cousins found him, they were frantic, telling him he had been missing for hours. To him it seemed like a few minutes. Years later, on leave from his special army unit, Sergei vacations in Venice. In the early pages of the story, he sees a street vendor selling slender paper puppets that dance, the vendor says, when they hear music, because there is a magnet inside them. An American tourist is charmed by them. Sergei intervenes and tells her it’s a lie; there’s no magnet. The vendor has the puppets strung on monofilament line, and twitches the line. Thus, the puppets appear to dance. It’s hard not to miss the symbolism here. Sergei goes to the island again, and meets the girl, now a young woman, Death. He kicks open the gate, and Death confronts a Venetian alchemist who found a way to hide himself from her centuries before. Death takes Alain, the alchemist, and tells Sergei she will see him again. The story loops back on itself deliciously; did Sergei become the kind of man he is — someone who volunteered for his “special” unit — because of that early encounter, or did Death meet him on that island because she knew the kind of man he would become? In the final frames (which feature the hapless puppet) Sergei thinks, “…like the puppets, each of us is pulled upon invisible strings until the night comes, and we are put away.”
After a gallery of Death, drawn in a number of styles by various artists, the book closes with Death’s public-service announcement, “Death Talks About Life.” In this short piece, Death talks about AIDS and demonstrates the correct way to put on a condom, using a banana. This was a powerful bit in the early 1990s and, unlike some of the stories, has not become dated. John Constantine makes a guest appearance.
Death: The Deluxe Edition, is a hardback book priced accordingly. It will work best for fans, or at least casual readers, of SANDMAN or other stories of the Endless. For example, the male character who appears in “The Wheel” is never named; much of Foxglove’s reminiscing will sound like aimless small-talk to those who haven’t read SANDMAN and won’t realize who she is. For fans, though, this is a beautiful book, beautiful words and beautiful artwork, beautifully packaged.