There is one thing we all fear. One thing, above all else, that we can not feel creeping up on each and every one of us each and every day. We push the thought of it to the back of our minds as much as possible, but there, in our moments of great joy and our moments of great sadness, the idea is. One day, likely sooner than we would like, we will be no more. Like the man said, you might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later, you dance with the Reaper.
Sure, some people will claim otherwise, but if we can be honest, all of us get spooked at the idea of no longer existing. I suppose that, for some people, the fear of dying is not knowing what happens after that. Does our consciousness go on to something else, or do we cease to exist all together? There’s only one way to find out, and I’m not rushing to that finish line. I’m hoping Ray Kurzweil is right, and the singularity is right around the corner.
Still, there is good in death. It is, undoubtedly, the one thing all humans will experience. It connects us to our neighbors in a way we may not think on too often. When you make a friend, when you spend time with a loved one, you are telling them “My time is short, and I want to spend it with you”. That idea, I think, is romantic as all get out. Maybe that was what Neil Gaiman was thinking about when he created his version of Death in the pages of his seminal work, Sandman.
Readers were introduced to the big sister of Morpheus in the pages of Sandman volume 2, issue 8. We had spent the previous seven issues seeing Morpheus, held captive for decades by a man who was trying to ensnare his sister, break free from his prison and return to rule his kingdom of the dream realm. Now, Morpheus was taking a day to sit in a park and feed the pigeons when his sister showed up. They spend the day together as Death goes around taking people from one plane of existence to the next. Throughout the issue, the people she takes all have the same question for her, from the old Jewish man who spent his life pretending to be a Gypsy, to the newborn baby who hasn’t had a chance to experience life, “Is this all I get”? Her answer, ever poetic, is simple but true, “You got what everyone gets, you got a lifetime”. Well, she never says that in the issue, that quote would come later, but the idea is there from the start.
Death herself is the opposite of what you may expect from a person who spends their time bringing people to the afterlife. She is filled with joy, a love for life that so few of the living, and certainly none of her six siblings, can find. Her favorite movie is Mary Poppins, and she shows up to help her little brother get out of his own emo funk.
In design, Death is a contradiction as well. She is pale, but vibrant. Dark but filled with light. Her look would be what every goth girl would try to copy throughout the 90s. If I can speak personally for a minute – when I was a freshman in college, there was a real cute goth girl who worked in the campus shop. I could never figure out a way to talk to her outside of “one Kit-Kat please” until I went in one evening and she was wearing a shirt with Death on it. This shirt to be exact:
As a comic nerd, I got excited and asked “You read Sandman?” She looked at me confused, like I was speaking another language. I pointed out that the shirt was a character from the comic and she said “Oh, I just liked the shirt. I don’t read comics”. Sandman, with a massive push from his sister, was really the first comic to break out from just comic fans to reach other cliques. If the comic was just showing up for the first time today, I’m sure it would be huge on Tumblr.
Gaiman takes little credit for the look of Death in the book. He has claimed that his description of the character was singer Nico circa 1968, but artist Mike Dringenberg based his design on a woman he knew named Cinamon Hadley. Gaiman loved the look, and that was the birth of Death. Well, the birth of Death in modern DC comics.
Death proved to be so popular that she got two miniseries of her own. In the first one, Death: The High Cost of Living, we follow Death as she takes mortal form for one day (as she does every century) in order to stay connected to humanity. Death, taking the name Didi, spends her day with another teen, a boy named Sexton, who is suicidal. Throughout the day together, Sexton falls in love with Didi as Didi, through a whirlwind of eating various foods, meeting random people, and just plain enjoying being alive, shows Sexton why he should not take his own life. Sadly, when her twenty four hours are up, Didi herself dies. In the second miniseries, Death: The Time of Your Life, a woman makes a deal with Death in order to bring back her dead son. While still a good story, it isn’t nearly as wonderful as the first mini.
The personification of Death was old hat by the time Neil Gaiman & Mike Dringenberg created their version. There is no known start to the personification of death, but we certainly have many versions of it from various cultures. In Ugaritic myth, which is the oldest version I can find, death was called Mot and he was the son of El (which, by no coincidence, happens to be the family name of Superman aka Kal-El). The Greeks called their version of Death “Thanatos”. The name may ring a bell, even if you don’t know much about Greek myth or comic books – Thanos, the big bad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, got his name from this myth. In the comics, Thanos is obsessed with Marvel’s version of Death, who is also a woman, but tends to be more skeletal than DC’s version. Thano believes that if he can wipe out every living thing in the universe, Death will love him. We’ll see what happens with that plan in the next two Avengers movies.
The Celtics, who like to really creep everyone out with their ideas, had two versions of Death. One was called Ankou, and was never the same, yet always similar. Ankou was not Death itself, but a minion of Death who was actually the spirit of the last person to die in a town now looking for someone to take their place, They rode on a cart with a creaky axel, the cart overfilled with corpses. The Ankou’s head was a skull that was constantly revolving so that it could see everything around it. If it stopped in front of a home, it meant that someone inside that home would soon die. Then there were the Dullahan; a headless man on a black horse. He would carry his head under his arm – the head was always smiling, with the grin reaching from one ear to the other. To keep his horse moving, the Dullahan used a human spine as a whip. Behind the horse was a wagon covered in the macabre, from bones used as spokes for the wheels, to human flesh used as wagon covering. If the Dullahan stopped and called your name, you would drop dead right there. If the Dullahan caught you looking at it, it would throw a basin of human blood at you. Gross.
The Dullahan were the inspiration for Washington Irving’s classic story, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Well, part of the inspiration. Irving first started to gather ideas for his story when, at fourteen, an outbreak of yellow fever in Manhattan forced him to move to Tarrytown. While living there, Irving first learned about the secluded glen called Sleepy Hollow and the local ghost stories that the Dutch residents were so fond of telling. Later in life, Irving’s brothers would send him on a two year tour of Europe so that he could become a well-rounded rich kid. Instead of hitting up the usual educational spots of Europe, Irving became obsessed with the folklore of the various countries he visited. It was during this trip that Irving learned of the various headless horseman stories of Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia. He took these tales and started to create one of his own. Basing his hero on two men he met, a school teacher named Jesse Merwin and an army captain named Ichabod Crane, Irving crafted his tale about a superstitious schoolmaster and his attempts to win the hand of a woman, only to be foiled by the local jerkface.
The best known version of Death, the Grim Reaper, with his black robes and scythe, came into being at some point in England during the 15th century, but was not given his name until 1847. Throughout the centuries, Death has been looked at as an evil figure as well as an angel of mercy. Jewish tradition calls Death “The Angel of Light and Dark” because there is no real evil to the entity – it is just doing it’s job. In Talmudic lore, the archangel Michael is Death. Michael, the coolest of the angels, is also the guy who beat Satan during the war for control of Heaven. In Catholicism, Michael is looked at as a guide to Heaven, here to help the dying reach their place of rest. It is unclear if Michael is the version of Death that appears in Revelations, being that they look very different.
In Judaism, it is believed that God created the Angel of Death on the first day, well before creating man. God gave over his power of deciding when and where living beings die to the Angel of Death. Looking to outdo the Celtics for creepy designs, the description of the Jewish Angel of Death is real freaky. It has twelve wings and is covered in eyes. At the hour of your death, it appears above you with a sword. On that sword is a drop of bile. As soon as you see the Angel of Death, you try to scream and as your mouth opens, the bile on the sword drops into your mouth, and you die. Other stories in the Torah suggest that the Angel of Death likes to change up how it takes a life. Moses says to God, “I fear the chord of the Angel of Death” suggesting that the Angel of Death sometimes chokes people to death. The Angel of Death is quoted in the Torah as saying it would kill man as man slaughters an animal, but God will not allow it, suggesting that the Angel of Death really likes killing people.
Islamic beliefs call the Angel of Death Azrael, though this is up for debate. From what I can find, the Angel of Death has no name in the Qur’an other than Angel of Death. Unlike the Jewish and Catholic versions, in the Muslim faith, it is still God who decides when man dies, sending the Angel of Death out on specifics tasks.
Even in the comic, there were disagreements on the look of Death. Original Sandman artist, Sam Kieth, left the book with issue seven. For years, people believed he left because he disagreed with Gaiman’s version of Death – this theory was further made plausible when, a few years later in his own amazing comic, The Maxx, Keith has a high school kid throwing tomatoes at a poster of Gaiman’s Death while explaining that there is nothing cute about dying. Sam Kieth, in interviews, would later explain that he didn’t leave Sandman over Death, but because he felt “like Jimi Hendrix in the Beatles”. He didn’t fit what Gaiman wanted the book to be.
Whatever Death looks like, be it a twelve winged being covered with eyes, or a skeleton in robes, or a cute goth girl, or maybe nothing at all, we’ll all learn one day. If you happen to meet it before I do, tell Death to keep away from me. Like Woody Allen said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
*Photos: Vertigo Comics, DC Comics