Death. We’ve learned from fairy tales and movies to associate death with rotting, black, decay (well, this is the case in the United States at least). It is something to be feared and delayed for as long as possible. Death personified is not a pretty creature. Usually the image of a reaper, cloaked and armed with the trusty scythe, comes to mind. Sometimes it’s a skeleton with dripping bits of clinging flesh. So imagine how surprised I was to behold the character Death in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series.
First, she was a woman. She was compassionate with a biting humor, and she stole every scene. She was ethereal in a way that you wouldn’t expect a character with such dreadful responsibilities to be. Gaiman wanted to change the traditional image of death in the comic, and he succeeded. He gave that note to artist Mike Dringenburg. Dringenburg brought her to life. So to speak. He drew on visual inspiration from a friend to create Death. He drew her as a young woman with a taste for goth. She dresses in all black and wears a heavy silver ankh around her neck. She’s stylish. She was written with a nurturing disposition that really makes you question your assumptions about death.
According to Empire Magazine, she is the fifteenth greatest comic book character. She’s the highest ranking female character on the list. I chalk that up to her strength and quirkiness. It says a lot that she made such a big impact even though she wasn’t featured extensively in the comics. Readers couldn’t get enough of her. Her appearance on the page makes you smile, and yet she portrays something that all of us dread. It can’t have been an easy thing to do, but Gaiman and all the artists who drew Death over the years did.
“Anyway: I’m not blessed, or merciful. I’m just me. I’ve got a job to do, and I do it. Listen: even as we’re talking, I’m there for old and young, innocent and guilty, those who die together and those who die alone. I’m in cars and boats and planes; in hospitals and forests and abbatoirs. For some folks death is a release, and for others death is an abomination, a terrible thing. But in the end, I’m there for all of them.” Death, talking about herself, in Dream Country.