On December 21, 2012, my dad unexpectedly passed away from liver disease. He had battled the disease for six months and the ordeal had taken an emotional toll on my family, especially my mother. It took a month for my father’s death to start sinking in. During that month, I bought a Sandman graphic novel collection called Death.
At the time, I was just browsing the comics and graphics novel section of a Books-A-Million when I saw the book. I hadn’t read all of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels but I had read one featuring Death and ended up taking a liking to her. I liked Death partly due to my sometimes morbid taste in dark characters and the fact that she was the exact opposite of how I expected her to be.
Before I saw The Sandman’s version of Death, I was exposed to other versions that included the traditional skull-faced guy with a hood and scythe, a Sailor Scout ( i.e., Sailor Saturn), and a comedic version from the cartoon The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Of all of these, I liked Sailor Saturn the most, but The Sandman’s version of Death was on a whole other level.
This Death is a part of a pantheon known as The Endless, serving as the end of life as well as a guide to their new existence. She also happens to be an attractive cheerful goth girl. The first time I saw her, she was checking in on her brother Dream and spouting lines from the film Mary Poppins. It was the most random thing I’d ever seen Death do in any medium and I liked that. I also found it amusing that she went from quoting Mary Poppins to giving tough love to her brother in a few pages. Even though Death was an immortal, she was one of the most human characters I’d ever seen.
The graphic novel contains every comic from The Sandman series centered on Death. Out of these, my favorites are the ones titled “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Wheel.” The first story shows a more vulnerable side of Death as she recounts her early days of learning to take lives. The second story is from the point-of-view of a child that’s a grieving, suicidal victim of the 9/11 attacks.
These stories had empathy and tough love, relating to me as a grieving person and as someone who has been battling depression for years. “A Winter’s Tale” comforted me by allowing me to see Death as someone who might not always be happy doing their job, and yet willing to be a friendly face for the recently departed or the grieving.
At the same time, Death as a character doesn’t glamorize the experience of death. In “The Wheel,” she and Dream talk the young boy out of jumping off a Ferris wheel in a sensitive and realistic manner. A key part of this is Death teaching the young boy to accept what will always be. Death will always happen and it will always be hard to experience, but you can still try to make the most of life and improve the world before you leave it.
In her own way, Death helps the dead and the living by showing what we don’t pay attention to. When you’re dying, want to die, or dealing with someone dying, it is easy to lose sight of what makes life worth living. Neil Gaiman’s Death makes death a less lonely experience and makes life more valuable.