I admit it. I love Death. Have from the first time she appeared in The Sandman. She’s beautiful, perky, compassionate, and not afraid to tell it like it is. If she’ll pardon my saying so, she’s the most human of all the Endless… and it seems there’s a good reason for that. It is said that “One day in every century Death takes on mortal flesh, better to comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like, to taste the bitter tang of mortality: and this is the price she must pay for being the divider of the living from all that has gone before, all that must come after.” This quietly enchanting 3-part miniseries, written by Neil Gaiman and published in 1993 (during Sandman’s run, near the end of the “Brief Lives” storyline), follows Death as she spends twenty-four hours mortal in New York City, tasting life and making new friends.
We meet Sexton Furnival, a sullen and angsty teen vaguely planning suicide because he feels life is pointless. We catch up with Hazel and Foxglove, the lesbian couple last seen in Sandman’s “A Game of You” storyline. And we meet Didi, the incarnation of Death (whose name just has to start with a “D,” like all the Endless). It’s not clear exactly who or what she is: a temporary shell for Death? A real girl imbued with a bit of the Endless’ essence? Didi does seem to have a history and friends who remember her, but that might just be a bit of retroactive memory. What’s obvious is that she’s not just some delusional mortal girl: a few of her offhand remarks (“As my older brother would say, some destinations are inevitable.” “My sister has rats. She loves them deeply.”) indicate she knows way more about the Endless than any mortal should.
And all of these characters deal with death (small “d”) and life in different ways. Sexton contemplates suicide but eventually learns to appreciate life. Hazel is expecting a baby. Foxglove sings about her dead ex-girlfriend. Didi, as is her function, enjoys the hell out of every experience: breathing, eating, meeting people (even the creeps), the good and the bad, living her perfectly ordinary, perfectly special day.
(There are a couple of plots, but they’re not terribly important. Mad Hettie, an immortal homeless woman previously seen in Sandman, is looking for her heart and demands Didi’s help. A blind wizard called The Eremite plans to steal Didi’s ankh and thus gain power over Death… to stop people from dying, maybe. That’s the problem with being Death, I guess: too few people appreciate your work. There are always sorcerers and whatnot trying to control you for the “good” of humanity. Roderick Burgess did it way back in Sandman #1, and he probably wasn’t the first.)
The art, by Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham, is phenomenal, and in my opinion consitutes the best representation of Death. They perfectly captured her sweetness, innocence (maybe not the best term when talking about the second oldest being in the universe, but there you go), serene wisdom, and, well, lovability. Some of the visuals were quite striking: I especially loved the scene of Didi helping Sexton to his feet, in the garbage dump where she found him. It worked on an additional level, since Death usually takes the recently departed by the hand as she leads them to what lies beyond. (And I could go on about Didi pushing the fridge off Sexton’s legs being deep and complex symbolism for Death releasing us from the burdens of life, but I think I won’t go there. Sometimes a fridge is just a fridge.) And the panel of Didi by the fountain, silently embracing the world moments before her death, still gets to me, even ten years later.
Death: The High Cost of Living is conveniently collected in a trade paperback, which offers a nifty little bonus: Death Talks About Life, a six page insert in which Death discusses safer sex, assisted by John Constantine and a banana. It’s as awesome as it sounds.