Death, or Endless Charm

by Andrea Macalino

▶︎ There is, obviously, something about Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg’s version of Death. An anthropomorphic personification of her name–just like the rest of the Endless, their version of death is decidedly in-your-face goth, so it is easy why any teenage girl (even boy, but as I am not one, I cannot posit how valid that is) would be drawn to her–or at least, I know that at age fifteen, I was. Besides, she’s full of catchy sayings that you can go around quoting to friends without them being overly worried about your mental health–well, not immediately anyhow.

But these are all easy reasons to point out. Here’s another one: Death as a woman  presents a more caring view of one’s demise (vis-a-vis the image of Mother Nature, or even of Mother Earth, and versus the image of a too-often conceived male hooded figure with scythe in tow, just for effect). It’s a complete subversion, although Death of the Endless does indulge to show people what they think she should look like, skulls and blood and fascinating morbidity and all, when provoked. For proof, just take the time to read the manga re-telling of Season of Mists by Jill Thompson, entitled Death: At Death’s Door.

Maybe it’s something about the early twenties, I think, this new appreciation for Death. Free from any faux-fascination with goth culture (my friends will know what I am talking about), new to the actual lived concept of “yuppie,” and having shunned certain opportunities for others while wondering why the fuck the cab drivers are so picky with destinations these days, I’ve found that the character of Death created by Gaiman and Dringenberg is enticing because she’s simple–and by simple, I mean refreshing.

Case in point, I finally downloaded a copy of Death: The High Cost of Living two nights ago, and was pleasantly surprised at all the (re)new(ed) reasons to love the character. The premise for this specific spin-off? Let me quote:

“Every 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 gone before, all that must come after.” Death: The High Cost of Living, Chapter 3, page 3

So that in itself is a hell of a premise. More significantly, if you’re familiar with The Sandman, you’ll know that the reason Death is such a welcome little ray of sunlight is because in many ways she’s Dream’s foil character. Dark, compelling, and magical though Dream is, it is only when Death pops up that readers realize how deep inside Dream’s self-centered and indulgent psyche they’ve been drawn. So Death marches along and reminds us to be silly, even if she has to conjure the spirit of Mary Poppins, as she does in The Sound of Her Wings.

But in High Cost of Living, I fell in love with the idea of Death again when I realized how charmingly she simplifies life–and it pays us all to remember that to simplify something doesn’t necessarily mean to reduce it.

Because, I think, in your twenties, you have this immense capacity to go past Sexton’s teenage angst; and yet you have that voice in your head that insists on making you believe that indeed you are jaded, and you can go head-to-head with any senile old (wo)man who would wrestle that title from you.

Still, regardless: you haven’t yet shaken off the optimism that is one part childhood naivete and just your so-far supply of realist views. And if you’re lucky enough, this is enough to convince you that kindness goes a long way–not that it eliminates the bumps on the road, but that it makes the being jostled and juggled around more fun, filling spaces with laughter and the tired smile at your fellow-passenger, because you both know how tired you both are.

And that’s who “Didi” is in The High Cost of Living. She’s the girl who can strike up a conversation and, without any ulterior motives, score a free hotdog, cab ride, and entry to The Undercut. She’s the one who will insist on accountability (the faintest trace of the immortal Death in her though Didi herself has but the smallest trace of understanding), but graciously accepts what others have to offer her with a ready smile and thanks.

At the close, she’s Death of the Endless, but she is so very much all the good things we hope for–and grant me this, do experience–that in truth she behaves more like life.

Postscript: In retrospect, I think of all the other things this entry could be, and I think that it could be the one that tells of how both gratifying and infuriating it can be to see a mighty character you admire suddenly become confused and uncertain of what she should do. In another sense this could review how a simple plot is a subtle and no-nonsense almost-criticism of how, in contrast, deliciously complicated the rest of The Sandman graphic novels can be–at the same time that it can be posited how the unanswered questions about its characters such as Mad Hettie and the Eremite leave much to be desired–in a bad way.

But this is also: to note how this is an entry that stands to stall in the meanwhile, as I think of what it is about Ligaya Victorio Reyes’ short stories in Leopoldo Y. Yabes’ Philippine Short Stories, 1941-1949, that makes my heart expand and shrivel in a vast spectrum of emotions.

And, of course, to posit that had this entry been written much early on in my life, it would be blind to the faults of the narrative because it would mainly be squealing over Gaiman’s spectacular storytelling. Which leads me to think again, how much more reading I need to do of local fantasy–noting, too, how my love for Nikki Alfar’s “The Stranded Star,” Michael A.R. Co’s “The God Equation,” and F.H. Batacan’s “The Gyutou” continue to persist. ***

Andrea Macalino is a graduate student of Comparative Literature. This was published in her blog in April 2012.