July 29, 2009

Death: The High Cost of Living

This graphic novel features characters from Neil Gaiman's popular Sandman series, but because it is a standalone story, it can be read on its own and is a great introduction to the series. The protagonist is teenage Sexton (he's heard all the bad jokes about his name, so don't bother), who sits at his computer composing a suicide note. He wants to check out, not because his life is unbearable or horrific, but because it is empty and meaningless. He is jaded, bitter, and bored.

His mother decides to spring clean the apartment, despite the fact that it's actually summertime, and Sexton gets kicked out of the house for the day while she gets to work. He may seem a bit spoiled and melodramatic, but he gains the reader's sympathy with his matter-of-fact kindness and respect for the severely handicapped boy he passes in the hallway on his way out. He heads to the city dump, a place that reflects his dark mood.

When the pile of garbage he's standing on collapses without warning, Sexton plunges into the pile of trash and is trapped beneath a refrigerator. A lovely dark-haired girl answers his cries for help, introducing herself as Didi. She takes him back to her apartment so he can disinfect and bandage his wounds.

She tells him that she is Death, brought into the world to live as a human once every hundred years so she can fully experience humanity, the better to understand the value of the lives she takes. He thinks she has some serious psychological issues, but when strange things start to happen, Sexton finds himself along for the ride. Suddenly life doesn't look quite so meaningless - and when he finds himself locked into a dark underground room by a crazy, scary man, and is stuck there with a dead body and Didi, life starts looking pretty precious indeed.

The characters drive this compelling tale, and Death is the star. She is charming, upbeat and funny, exactly the sort of person you'd like to have waiting for you on the other side (or to help you cross over). Although as I write this, it occurs to me that I also have a great fondness for Discworld's Death. I would love to be a fly on the wall if the two of them are ever in the same room together.
This is an excellent introduction to the world of the Sandman and his family of immortals. Oh, and a word of caution - these books are dark and violent, definitely for mature readers. The illustrations are lush and colorful, and as an added bonus there is an informative and amusing public service story about STDs, narrated by Death, with practical advice on safe sex. For those who choose not to follow her advice, Death smiles and says, "I'll be seeing you!" I've been meaning to reread the first few books in the series and continue on through to the end, and my visit with Death in this book has made me impatient to get started.

Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham an David McKean; with an introduction by Tori Amos (DC Comics, 1994)

Also reviewed at:
Fyrefly's Book Blog: "At base, there’s not a whole lot to this story other than watching Death bubble her way around New York City trailing Sexton in her wake… but she’s so charming that it’s just about enough."
Things Mean a Lot: "this one does hold a special place in my heart. It’s a Sandman spinoff, but you don’t need to have read the series to understand and enjoy the story."
Valentina's Room: "Reading Death felt like reading a Charles de Lint short story, for some reason. Just this is enough to qualify as a great read. The fact that it was in graphic novel form gave it an extra appeal."

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