Death: The High Cost of Living
Neil Gaiman, writer,
Chris Bachalo, artist
(DC Comics, 1994)

If Death ever proves to be a real being, I hope it comes just as Neil Gaiman imagined.

The incarnation of Death, as first portrayed by Gaiman in the highly acclaimed Sandman series (from DC Comics' Vertigo line), is a perpetually young, pale and perky woman -- a charming person who is friendly and nice and genuinely cares about people, who has a fondness for ankhs and umbrellas and hot dogs, and who never seems to make death seem like a bad thing.

She comes into her own in a brief DC mini-series called Death: The High Cost of Living, a three-issue run collected and reprinted as a single volume in 1994. (Death is uncannily portrayed on the cover by Tori Amos, who also wrote the introduction.)

The book begins with the dove-guts prognostications of Mad Hettie, an older-than-America not-a-witch bag lady who has lost something precious, and the musings on love and life (and the cessation of life) by 16-year-old Sexton Furnival. The setting is London in June, and New York in July.

We meet Death in a garbage dump, near a discarded portrait of Andy Warhol and a toppled refrigerator. She is, as usual, in a good mood. Sexton, who is trapped beneath the fridge, is not.

Death, by the way, is Didi. Didi is Death's way of experiencing life from a mortal perspective, something she does once every century or so. She uses words like "peachy-keen" a lot, likes Disney cartoons and happy endings, and hardly ever pays for anything.

Of course there's a quest involved. Didi and her unwilling Sexton set out to find a missing heart, a good party and insight into the human condition. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying they find two of the three. If you read this book, you'll come away with at least one.

Along the way you'll meet the eyeless Eremite, the clueless Theo, Foxglove and Hazel and a few more interesting, surprisingly real characters.

Of course, I can't go away without mentioning the art ... you know, the "graphic" part of a graphic novel. It's good. It's simple and dark and exciting, and it moves the story along nicely. People look like folks you'd see on the street, and Didi herself is someone you'd really like to see. If only that didn't mean ... yes, well. I can wait. Art credits go to artist Chris Bachalo and inker Mark Buckingham, plus Dave McKean for cover art and design, and Steve Oliff and Olyoptics for coloring.

McKean also provided the art for a bonus feature at the end, Death Talks About Life. This isn't a real story, and the art is actually disappointing, but it's a healthy message about life, sex, AIDS and condoms. And it has a brief cameo by another Vertigo star, John Constantine.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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