I’ve been trying to think of a counter-argument to the assertion that Death is Neil Gaiman’s most iconic creation. What I’ve decided is that my view of Gaiman may be too rooted in the 90s to see any such argument as valid. Numbers-wise, more people have read American Gods, have seen Coraline— hell, have seen Mirrormask—than have read Sandman. This is true, and yet my brain will not accept it.
So perhaps Coraline is more iconic. Or her disturbing Button-Eyed Mother. Or Mr. Wednesday (Shadow Moon is too much of a cipher/POV character for me to think of him as iconic, no knock on Ricky Whittle, who gives the character considerable more heft, dramatic and physical, than the text). But my gut says that none of these had the cultural impact of Death, even if that impact was located within a certain generation and a certain subculture of which I happened to be a denizen.
I’ll focus more on Death’s popularity when we get to her miniseries, but by way of introduction, she’s Dream’s older sister, funny and cute in ways that might make her a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl—note her first appearance includes a hapless boy developing a fatal crush. I seem to recall, although I can’t find evidence now, that she was visually based on Phoebe Cates? Might have made that up, but I’m sure whoever gets cast as Death in the upcoming television version, there will be minor online riots from long-time devotees. Her aesthetic is best described as Mall Goth, and it seems like no coincidence she shows up in comics within a few months of the first Hot Topic popping up in Montclair Plaza (Sandman #8 came out in August of 1989, Hot Topic launched in November).
I realize Mall Goth sounds pejorative, and that’s not my intent. Death represents the visual aesthetic of a goth divorced from any connection with goth music or the attendant scene—she shows up touting Mary Poppins rather than The Hunger.
In terms of capital G Gothic, Gaiman’s Death is almost anti-Gothic. She represents an untroubled reconciliation of life and death, and her answers to what comes next are comforting and Zen-like without bridging into New Age pablum.
For the Sandman series, the introduction of Death also introduces a balancing feminine figure to the moping protagonist, and does so explicitly by having her council him out of his post-quest funk. Set aside that the “throwing bread in the air joyfully while looking curiously like Robert Smith” version of Morpheus who closes out issue eight will not be appearing in issue nine, or any subsequent issue.
Death is here to take apart the heroic quest narrative of Preludes & Nocturnes, dragging Dream along with her for a day’s work to remind him that the Endless have shit to do. In the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, everything begins with the Call to Adventure, when the hero exits his community to seek fortune and glory or whatever. It’s a heroic act if your eye’s on the hero, but it’s also a Shirking of Responsibility. Someone is going to have to go to Tosche Station and pick up those power converters now that Luke’s skipped town. The unavoidable nature of duty become key aspects of Dream’s story, and the derailment of his course as itinerant hero happens here, led by Death’s example.
In doing so, she effectively displaces Dream as the protagonist of his own comic, and introduces our first iteration of the type of feminine character that will fill the role. Women in Sandman tend to fall into two categories. The first are the ex-girlfriends: Nada, Calliope, Alianora, Thessaly. In the text, they tend to represent past mistakes— “After a traumatic life event, a man tries to make amends with his exes” is not an entirely inaccurate description for the larger plot of Sandman. Then there are the women on quests: Rose Walker, Barbie, Delirium. In an inversion of the traditional feminine role of guide, these women don’t assist Dream so much as they spur him to action or, more often, drag him along. In this issue, Death is the first of these characters, although from here out, she serves more as a moral compass for Dream, akin to the counseling role she plays here.
I would like to add that this issue sets up a truly poignant character moment that won’t pay off until the end of The Kindly Ones:
Issue eight serves as an epilogue to the first seven issues, but also marks the first time the book feels recognizable as what it will eventually become. Some of the horror tropes bleed over into The Doll’s House, and Dream’s slighting of Lucifer sets much of the larger plot in motion, but Dream and Death’s conversation by the fountain feels like Gaiman talking to himself, looking back on issues that range from passable Alan Moore imitations to truly disturbing horror, and seeming weary, in need of something new.