Neil Gaiman (text), with Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, and Dave McKean (artistic rendering), Death: The High Cost of Living (Vertigo/DC Comics, 1994)
These two graphic novels, originally published as two three-issue miniseries, are spin-offs from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. They're centered around one of the most popular characters from that series, Dream's elder sister Death.
You don't have to have read The Sandman to understand these books, but it does help. You'll recognize a lot of characters, from Preludes and Nocturnes, A Game of You, and one or two other places. You'll recognize situations and references, too, like Foxglove's songs, and how Hazel's life became complicated. If you've read Gaiman's original miniseries The Books of Magic, that'll fill in one or two more details. But it's not necessary.
One day in every century Death takes on mortal flesh, better to comprehend what the lives she takes must feel like, to taste the bitter tang of mortality: and this is the price she must pay for being the divider of the living from all that has come before, all that must come after.
As you might suppose from the above quote, Death spends a day among the living in Death: The High Cost of Living. If that plot summary sounds a bit familiar, perhaps it's because at least two movies have been made that could be summed up the same way. If you've seen either of them, please set your expectations aside, and prepare for something different.
Enter Mad Hettie, a two hundred and fifty year old haruspex, who buys a dove from a trio of bully girls, somewhere in London. "She had to come back sooner or later," she says. Enter Sexton Furnival, a sixteen year old boy who has decided that his life is too boring to be worth living. He wants to kill himself. Driven out of his apartment by his mother's urge to do some belated spring cleaning, he heads for the city dump. Enter Didi, who rescues him from underneath a refrigerator and takes him home to patch up. Didi tells Sexton that she's Death, and he decides she's insane. Very shortly, he learns what insanity really looks like, as Mad Hettie takes him hostage and sends the two of them on a quest for her heart. Along the way, they'll listen to a very nervous young woman named Foxglove play her first gig in a club, be captured by a man with no eyes who calls himself the Eremite, be rescued because of tea leaves, and receive a number of things for free. This last puzzles Sexton a great deal, but Didi assures him that no one lives for free, especially not her.
This book was actually my introduction to Neil Gaiman and The Sandman. A friend and I picked it up because it had an introduction by Tori Amos, a singer-songwriter we'd recently become enamored of. I was so charmed by it that I immediately began to buy the regular issues, even though the series was then in the middle of the arc The Kindly Ones, which Gaiman himself says is one of the few places that it's almost impossible to jump in and have anything make sense.
The character Death is based on one little "What if?" What if Death were a person, and not a scary Grim Reaper, but a nice person, somebody you'd be happy to meet at the end of life, somebody who loved you, no matter who you were or what you'd done?
So Death is a goth girl, perky and sweet and charming, wearing a top hat and a smiley button. As she walks the world of the living, she seems innocent, wondering at the taste and texture of apples, the chemical aftertaste of hot dogs, the sensation of breathing. She wanders off with a guy who's obviously a scumbag. She's nice to everyone. But she knows a great deal more about human nature than she can express, and that lurks behind everything she says. If she marvels at the world, it's because everything is special to her today, the one day she gets to spend as a human. If she heads blithely into situations none of us would want a teenaged girl to get into, it's because she accepts anything that might happen as part of life. She's Death, and she's only got twenty-four hours to live, and everything that happens during that one day is uniquely sweet.
The rest of the cast of characters are very real. Sexton sounds like any number of teenagers who believe they're disillusioned with life. The girl with the gloves, who gets no more than a page to tell her story, puts a lump in my throat every time. Hazel and Foxglove, the lesbian couple expecting a baby, who have had their lives brushed by the deeply strange, are so real I feel like I ought to have their number written down on a random scrap of paper, like I met them somewhere....
The artwork of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham (penciler and inker, respectively) is just as alive and real. There's life and truth in the grubbiness of a London underpass, the smash of a bottle, the curling cloud of exhaled smoke. Little things, sequences of small panels, like a weeble-clown being knocked over and failing to bounce back, like an unregarded cigarette slowly burning down to the filter, bring depth to this story in a way difficult to emulate in printed words. Artists like these, and the things they can do, are why writers like Gaiman do graphic novels.
A reader paying close attention to the illustrations may notice that the color transitions a little oddly in places, and that it's not applied with as much detail as perhaps the linework might indicate. This is because the coloring for The High Cost of Living was some of the first at DC to be done by computer, under the hand of veteran colorist Steve Oliff. These days, a great deal of coloring is done by computer, and very good it looks, but as a first project with the technique, it's still a little rough. But it's something mostly noticed by the nitpicky, like me. The colors are still vibrant and lovely, and even where the edges show, it's not especially jarring.
Also included in this volume is the six-page short "Death Talks About Life," in which our beloved anthropomorphic personification discusses sex, venereal disease, AIDS, and safer sex. She gives a brief demonstration of how to put a condom on a banana, aided by a very embarrassed John Constantine (from the comic book Hellblazer). A warning is plainly given for the squeamish and reticent. The PSA is starkly drawn by Dave McKean, the fellow who did the covers for every single issue of The Sandman.
There's an introduction by musician Tori Amos, which manages to blend whimsy and good sense in the stream of consciousness so typical of her songs and interviews, and a "Brief History of Death" from Tom Peyer, which briefly details all of Death's appearances in her brother's comic up to the point at which the trade paperback was published.
If you haven't read The Sandman, and you're wondering if you'll like it, this makes a pretty good taste-test. If you have read Sandman, and haven't yet gotten around to the Death miniseries, trust me, they're just as good.
Death: The Time of Your Life is another chapter in the life of Hazel McNamara and her girlfriend Foxglove. In The High Cost of Living, Hazel was extremely pregnant and Fox was giving music a shot. On that night in the club, when Sexton and Didi were in the audience, there was also a representative from a major record label. Hearing how much Sexton liked her, he asked for a tape. Now Fox is a rock star, the "new queen of acoustic rock and roll." Her new album has just debuted, she's done the theme song for a new movie that's slated to be a hit, and she's appearing on Letterman. But her life leaves the fields she knows when her manager, whom she supposes to be on a flight back to LA, shows up in her dressing room, imparts a cryptic message, and then burns up in front of her. Hazel and her young son Alvie need Fox at home, and, after being called out of a movie premier that's good for her career to hear some bad news, Fox heads across the continent to be with them. When she arrives, with Vito the Buddhist Jockey Shorts Guy and Boris the Spider in tow, Hazel and Alvie are gone. They're on the border of the Sunless Lands, talking to a pretty goth girl with Eye of Horus makeup. They are with Death.
If the first of the Death books was about appreciating life, this one is about appreciating love. It's about paying attention to the person you're with, and how you really feel about them. Because, if you stop, it's all too easy to lose track of your love.
Foxglove isn't really cut out to be a rock star, as she's told by her bodyguard. "It's no fit life for a human being." And that life has taken its toll on her, and on her relationship with Hazel. It was a relationship that was strong enough to withstand a night of sheer insanity, strong enough to withstand the revelation of Hazel's infidelity and accidental pregnancy, strong enough to withstand the poverty that came with that pregnancy. Now it's in tatters, and she's not sure she wants it anymore.
Hazel really isn't cut out to be a rock star's wife, or secretary, which is what they tell the world she is. She is cut out to be a mother, and she loves little Alvie enough to have made a deal with Death to keep him by her. She loves Fox, too, and all she really wants in the world is to have her back, for the three of them to be a family again. She's isolated in their Beverly Hills mansion. She doesn't see Fox for months at a time. She has no friends in California.
If the supporting cast is a little less vibrant than that in the previous book, it's not surprising. The High Cost of Living was about being in the world, and living fully. The Time of Your Life is about more private landscapes, more personal moments. However much of it is happening in the outside world, almost all of it is happening inside Hazel's and Foxglove's heads. It's also unsurprising in that the characters in The High Cost of Living were everyday people, folks any of us might meet on the street or have as neighbors. In The Time of Your Life, we have an artistic manager, a musician's bodyguard, and an underwear model. Most of us simply don't know many people like that, and have difficulty relating to them. We come closest with Vito, the med-student-turned-jockey-shorts-model, who, we keep being told, is a Buddhist, and who is completely out of his depth. He hangs in there anyway, wanting to be supportive, wanting to find out what's going on. The bodyguard nicknamed Boris and Larry the manager are interesting and entertaining, even if they aren't so familiar as Mrs. Robbins, the neighbor in The High Cost of Living.
I mentioned above how much of this story takes place on internal landscapes. It's an important aspect. The topography of Death's realm is psychotropic, illustrating everything Hazel feels and remembers. And there are Foxglove's dreams, one in each chapter (and each chapter was originally published as a single issue of the miniseries). Fox dreams of flying, and of how to deal with the heights.
The Time of Your Life is much the darker story of the two, and the more complex. The artwork, though from the same artists, reflect that. Borders are frequently black, or checkerboard, or nonexistent. The colors are darker. I could spend hours pouring over the background details, especially of the scenes in the Sunless Lands. It is beautiful, and frequently strange.
I said the same artists, which is almost true. Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham are back, but this time Buckingham gets a shot at penciling an issue, plus the epilogue which was added to the trade paperback, and they add Mark Pennington as inker on those pages. Matt Hollingsworth as colorist used a palate both subtle and rich.
There's an introductions by actress Claire Danes, an afterword by the author, and a gallery of various artists' impressions of Death. Good stuff, this.