Stuff We Love: Death’s own graphic novel brings a grim reaper to life

When you think of a grim reaper, the first thing to come to mind is a menacing, skeletal specter draped in black robes and clutching some nightmarish instrument of death, or at least the cheap Halloween costume version of it.

Neil Gaiman’s iteration wears head-to-toe black—but that’s where the similarities end. Death may be the most human grim reaper ever to take you on a one-way trip to the underworld. The sister of Dream and Delirium, who first led disembodied souls to the afterlife in The Sandman, is a quirky Gothette. And she's just about as far away from the spooky stereotype as you can get, which is why her eponymous graphic novel is an eternal favorite in my crypt.

This shrine to the not-so-dark-hearted Queen of Darkness really brings her humanity to life with an in-depth look at scenes from Sandman and other short stories, including an info-comic from the early ‘90s during the AIDS scare, which has her discussing safe sex like your best friend.

Death doesn’t just snatch a soul from its body with a ruthless grin on her face before spiriting it off to the shadows. She often feels compassion for and even a strange fascination with humans at their mortality. Nowhere is this more obvious than her stint at being one (she gets the opportunity to roam the earth as flesh and blood once every hundred years). Death approaches a suicidal teenager more like a sister than a scythe-wielding psycho, trying to get him to share her hot dog instead of throwing him down to Hades. She sympathizes with those on the brink of death and understands their backstories, instead of imposing an instant sentence to eternal darkness. As in the case of the emperor who thought he defied time by locking his palace into some bizarre parallel existence where phantoms can have no rest, she often gives her “gift” as a mercy rather than a punishment.

Moonlit vision of Death by Chris Bachalo.

Buried in the catacombs are miniseries Death: the High Cost of Living and Death: the Time of Your Life”, Sandman issues “The Sound of Her Wings” and “Façade” along with the chapter “Death in Venice,” short stories “A Winter’s Tale” and “The Wheel,” and “Death Talks About Life,” which needs to be mandatory sex education in high schools and college dorms everywhere. Not to mention the eerie intro by Tori Amos, who muses on death as an entity rather than a phenomenon, and an art gallery that is more magical than morbid.

Next time you run into a mysterious pale figure with raven hair, black eyeliner swirls and an ankh necklace dressed in black from her top hat to her boots, it’s probably just me in cosplay (as either the classic or Victoriana-Goth version), but this deeply personal look into one of Neil Gaiman’s most iconic characters has succeeded in taking the terror out of something so universally human.

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