My Misspent Youth — Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman and Chris Bachalo

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

Vertigo Comic launched at the very beginning of 1993. By that point, DC Comics had several ongoing titles that were decidedly off-kilter, particularly in comparison to their usual fare dominated by crusaders wearing capes, and they were generally considered to exist in their own little continuity-optional corner of the publisher’s mythos. Some of the series still involved superheroes, but the inner spirit was drastically different, thrillingly so. Karen Berger was the editor of most of those series and widely recognized as the person who gave visionary creators the latitude to realize strikingly original work. Recognizing that having the usual DC bullet in the upper left corner of the cover didn’t properly signal to potential readers the unorthodox fare to be found in the pages inside, DC created Vertigo and gave official stewardship of the line to Berger, placing six ongoing titles under that banner.

The month it began, Vertigo also published its first official #1 issue. Shrewdly, it was a spinoff of the most commercially formidable title in the whole line, a comic with broad appeal outside of the usual buyers held hostage by years of prior investment and crossover event series. It was also a limited series, set to run three issues, which helped make it feel like a safe place for the curious to jump aboard. Strolling over from the panels within the Neil Gaiman-penned ongoing comic Sandman, the limited series bore the splendid title Death: The High Cost of Living.

Gaiman wrote the limited series and Chris Bachalo, the regular artist on Vertigo series Shade, the Changing Man, provided pencils that were moodily inked by Mark Buckingham. The story centers on the character of Death, who Gaiman devotees will readily inform was introduced in Sandman #8 and is the being who ushers souls away from the physical world at the time of their demise. Gaiman wanted to create a version of the mythical Grim Reaper who would be far more agreeable to encounter than the more recognizable avatar of an imposingly becloaked figure wielding a massive scythe. In Gaiman’s reckoning, that meant a cute, waifish goth girl with a cheerful demeanor and a gently wry sense of humor.

Lasting three issues, Death: The High Cost of Living is set during the once-per-century day where Death takes a holiday and spends a day on Earth as a real-live person. Early on, she encounters a young man named Sexton. He is at an emotional low point, seriously contemplating taking his own life, and Death brings him along on her adventures among the mortals, including a errand she’s roped into by a woman going by the moniker Mad Hettie.

Every bit of the story is utterly charming. It fully exploits one of Gaiman’s greatest strengths, the intermingling of the spiritually fantastical with the plainly mundane in such a way that both extremes are made more vivid and convincing. The sheer delight Death takes in the tactile pleasures of living that are commonly taken for granted, such as munching on an apple, is of course precisely what Sexton needs to revive his commitment to persevering. For the reader, the effect isn’t likely as monumentally transformative, but I suspect a similar sensation is at play. I know a waft of breeze and a brush against grass had a newfound magic to it after I read (and re-read, for that matter) the comics.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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