Thankfully, Not So Dead Serious: Death: The High Cost of Living Graphic Novel Review

scanned cover to Death: The High Cost of Living, cover by Dave McKean

The argument can be easily made that Sandman was the greatest comic series that’s no longer running.  For those of you who aren’t acquainted with the series, it’s a comic that started in the late 80s and ran for several years, and gained many hardcore fans in the process.  In a nutshell, it’s about Sandman and his seven siblings, each one a personification of a different aspect of human life (such as Delirium, Desire, and Despair), and how they interact with the lives of mortals, often with disasterous consequences to themselves and others.  Out of all the characters Neil Gaiman created for his grand mythos, Death is the most popular.

Instead of appearing as a skeleton in a cowl carrying a scythe, Gaiman’s version of death is a likeable punky/spunky young woman whose usually optimistic and rather nice to the people whose lives she’s ending.  She’s so popular, she’s inspired a handful of spin-offs and cameos in other series, such as the graphic novel Death: The Time of Your Life, and her appearances in The Books of Magic, and a recent cameo in Action Comics, conversing with Lex Luthor of all people.  

Up until now, I thought I’d read everything Gaiman wrote as part of the Sandman series, but somehow Death: The High Cost of Living eluded me until I happened to find it at a library.  At that time, I didn’t even know it existed.

It really is a lovely book, especially for those who love Sandman.  For one, it has highly detailed and stylized artwork by Chris Bacchalo (pencils) and Mark Buckingham (inker).  Anyone who reads a lot of X-Men will recognize Bacchalo from his frequent contributions, but his artwork here is rather different than what he’s done before.  It’s not colorful and flashy, and doesn’t feature characters leaping into the air and shooting lasers.  Instead, Bacchalo goes for a certain amount of realism.  Mark Buckingham has been doing most of the penciling for Fables for its entire run, so it’s interesting to see him as the inker here.

The plot involves a few of the characters from the Sandman series, including Fox Glove and Hazel, who were side-characters in the Sandman graphic novel A Game of You and who took center stage in the other Death spin-off, Death: The Time of Your Life.  Fox Glove and Hazel are two highly likeable characters.  Also, Mad Hettie, the 150 year old woman, makes an appearance, although I never really understood what her deal was in Sandman.

The story begins with a sixteen year old boy living in complete ennui in the suburbs contemplating taking his own life.  By happenstance, he has a near-death experience, and from that ends up befriending Death, who, it turns out, is having something of a holiday.  It’s the one time every century that she’s supposed to take mortal form and re-experience what living and dying is.

They are then confronted by a strange vagrant who tries to subdue Death so as to utilize her power as his own (as you might recall, the whole Sandman series started with a man trying to capture Death, but got hold of Morphius by mistake).  The entire story is just three issues long, so I won’t give away any more of the plot.

Also included are an introduction written by Tori Amos (who’s a friend of Neil Gaiman’s and has even mentioned Sandman in a song) and a short feature at the end where Death makes a public service announcement about safe sex practices.

I’d recommend you go and read the Sandman series (if you haven’t already) before reading this, but make a point to read this afterwards.  Death: The Time of Your Life is also really good.

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