Picture Death. What do you see? If it’s a pale, thin girl with big hair, dark clothing, and a silver ankh, Neil Gaiman’s to blame. In a moment of inspiration that will long outlive him, he chose to make his personification of death not terrifying or beautiful but cute.
Over the course of Absolute Death (which collects two miniseries, three one-off stories, and various ephemera), she quotes Mary Poppins, jokes about pigeons, and ushers the newly dead into the afterlife.
Her first appearance was in “The Sound of Her Wings,” an early issue of Sandman. In it, she’s presented as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl before that term existed, a chipper, delighted foil to her brooding brother, Morpheus. She takes him along on her route–her job–and he’s shaken out of his funk in the process. In “Facade,” another issue of Sandman, she helps a depressed person find the end she seeks.
Death: The High Cost of Living, the first of the miniseries, again gives us Death as foil to a brooding male, this time an adolescent boy. They work together to find the heart of an old woman; in the midst of this, they’re captured by a forgettable bad guy (in a charming scene, he’s thrown out of a restaurant by a big-hearted NYC type). As is often the case with Gaiman, the overall plot is less convincing than the small character moments and dialogue.
Death: The Time of Your Life, the second miniseries, focuses on Foxglove and Hazel, a lesbian couple first introduced in Sandman. The story, involving a deal with Death, is, frankly, absurd; nevertheless, it works, and it works because Gaiman’s chops have strengthened so much, and because the characters feel utterly real. Formally daring, taut and wise, it remains satisfying even when it’s titular character is off the page, which is often. Interestingly, Death here is much quieter, much more serious. There’s less joy in this series, but more artfulness.
The best of the rest is “Death In Venice,” of which I’ll spoil nothing.
Out of the nine full-length comics contained herein, three are available in other Absolute Sandman editions. Even forgetting that, it’s a short volume for the cost. Death is expensive. But we’ll all pay the price in the end.