Death (DC Comics)
|First appearance||(historical) Weird War Tales #1 (October 1971)
(modern)The Sandman vol. 2, #8 (August 1989)
|Created by||Neil Gaiman (writer)
Mike Dringenberg (artist)
|Place of origin||France|
|Team affiliations||The Endless|
|Notable aliases||Grandmother Death (by Nada's tribe)
Teleute (Ancient Greek)
|Abilities||Omnipotence, aspect of death and life, omnipresent, immortality|
Death is a fictional character from the DC comic book series, The Sandman (1989–1996). The character first appeared in The Sandman vol. 2, #8 (August 1989), and was created by Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg.
In the stories, Death is both the end of life and a psychopomp. Like most anthropomorphic personifications of death, Death meets with the recently deceased and guides them into their new existence. However, unlike most personifications of death, she also visits people as they are born, according to Destruction in the Sandman Special: The Song of Orpheus. Evidently, only she seems to remember these encounters. In the special issue, it is also revealed that Death was known in Ancient Greece as Teleute.
Physically, Death is also opposite to the traditional western culture personification of death (see Grim Reaper). In The Sandman, Death instead appears as an attractive, pale young goth woman dressed in casual clothes — often a black top and jeans. She also wears a silver ankh on a chain around her neck, and has a marking similar to the eye of Horus around her right eye. She is pleasant, down-to-earth, perky, and has been a nurturing figure for both incarnations of Dream. This irony has helped make Death one of the most popular characters from Sandman. Death was named the fifteenth greatest comic book character by Empire Magazine.
Other personifications of Death have appeared in the DC Universe. These altering physical appearances may be rationalized as being completely different characters with an unknown relation (or lack thereof) to the overall Death shown in the Sandman series, or may be explained by a sequence at the beginning of the Sandman series. In the sequence where Morpheus is searching for his objects of power, he appears at Martian Manhunter's door, and for a frame we see him as Martian Manhunter sees him: it's nothing like humans see him. This could indicate that the physical appearance of the Endless (the appearance of Dream, at the very least) is subject to the mind of the person doing the observing. Many references are made throughout Death and the Sandman series which indicate that perception of the form of the Endless is subjective, not objective.
In Captain Atom #42 Death appears alongside Black Racer of the New Gods and Nekron (a being embodying the will of "The Black", the solitude and peace death represents from Green Lantern). The story stated that all three were equal, representing different aspects of death. Gaiman has denied this, however, and his stories make it clear that Death of the Endless is the ultimate personification of Death. It might be assumed, however, Nekron, the Racer, and the Black Flash are connected to her in some way. Alternatively, there may be multiple avatars or gods of Death in the DC universe, besides those claiming to be Death. Blackest Night has resolved this apparent contradiction or ambiguity, with Nekron no longer being referred to as an aspect of death but instead as a construct formed of darkness in response to the emerging light of the emotional spectrum.
A more traditional version of Death, a skeleton in a bluish or purplish cloak, appeared as host in such DC titles such as Weird Mystery Tales, House of Secrets, Ghosts, Weird War Tales (including being in the story in issue #94), DC Comics Presents #29, etc. Weird War Tales typically featured Death as a skeleton in some sort of military uniform relevant to the era and locality of the war depicted. This character appeared as recently as Elvira's House of Mystery #2 (February 1986). How this pre-Crisis Death relates to Gaiman's Death, if at all, is unclear, although her older brother Destiny appeared with the character, and both Deaths have appeared with incarnations of Superman. Superman referred to the earlier Death with the term "Grim Reaper", so perhaps that could be regarded as a distinct character, however, in the pages of Weird War Tales, he called himself "Death." He also appeared when Weird War Tales was published under the Vertigo imprint and in the 2010 Weird War Tales one-shot.
Death first appeared as a woman in The Witching Hour #56 (July 1975) in a tale told by Mordred (written by Carl Wessler and illustrated by Ruben Yandoc). She was depicted with short, curly, red-blonde hair, and was a rival for two men's affections. Both men die in successive car accidents.
In Swamp Thing vol. 2, #6, The Phantom Stranger met Death in the form of a middle-aged gentleman, possibly inspired by Death Takes a Holiday. In the story, a young woman, Margaret "Maggie" Brennan, had what should have been a minor head injury and at one glimpse of Death chose to become Death's bride. As someone newly dead herself, she taught Death that he needs to show compassion for the newly dead to allay their fears. He takes her advice and they both serve as aspects of Death. This version of Death was created by Mike W. Barr and Dan Spiegle. Maggie is blonde and bears only minor physical resemblance to Gaiman and Dringenberg's version, though her compassionate nature is a similarity. In The Spectre (vol. 2), The Phantom Stranger himself appeared to be the only psychopomp in the DC Universe.
The current incarnation of Death first appeared in the final chapter of Sandman’s first story arc Preludes and Nocturnes, "The Sound of Her Wings", (issue #8) where she gave Dream direction and a degree of understanding. Death instantly became very popular with readers, and she appears at least briefly in each of the nine subsequent story arcs. However, Gaiman attempted to entice and tease readers by rationing out the number of appearances from Dream’s family, so Death did not appear as frequently as one might expect for such a popular character. At the end of the ninth Sandman story arc The Kindly Ones, there is a lengthy and noteworthy appearance from Death, in which she finally brings her brother peace.
|“||Death is the only major character whose visuals didn't spring from me; that credit goes to Mike Dringenberg. In my original Sandman outline, I suggested Death look like rock star Nico in 1968, with the perfect cheekbones and perfect face she has on the cover of her Chelsea Girl album.
But Mike Dringenberg had his own ideas, so he sent me a drawing based on a woman he knew named Cinamon Hadley — the drawing that was later printed in Sandman 11 — and I looked at it and had the immediate reaction of, "Wow. That's really cool." Later that day, Dave McKean and I went to dinner in Chelsea at the My Old Dutch Pancake House and the waitress who served us was a kind of vision. She was American, had long black hair, was dressed entirely in black — black jeans, T-shirt, etc. — and wore a big silver ankh on a silver necklace. And she looked exactly like Mike Dringenberg's drawing of Death.
McKean also used a series of professional English models for representations of Death on covers of Sandman.
Death's apparent age varies slightly. In the picture above, from Death: The Time of Your Life, she appears to be a teenager. In most Sandman stories she looks to be in her mid-twenties. In the giveaway Death Talks About Life (an AIDS-prevention giveaway), Death appears to be about thirty, with wrinkle lines in her forehead that are not usually present.
Fictional character biography
Death is the second eldest of the Endless, a family of anthropomorphic beings. Death is possibly the most powerful of the Endless (and may be the most powerful being in the universe) having been shown (in a flashback in Brief Lives) to be virtually omniscient and being able to intimidate the Furies, who show no fear of the other Endless, simply by raising her voice in The Kindly Ones. The witch Thessaly mentions that Death is the only one of the Endless who is bound by no rules, supported in Dream's portion of Endless Nights in which she briefly makes an appearance at a conference designed to set functions for entities and leaves before it begins. In addition, it is mentioned in Brief Lives that she is the only one of the Endless who may survive the end of this incarnation of the universe. Death's realm is not portrayed in detail in the series, except for a brief scene in her 'house' in the Sandman Special, Song of Orpheus, and later in The Books of Magic series. This is where she keeps her floppy hat collection, her goldfish Slim and Wandsworth and possibly her gallery. A brief glimpse of her realm can also be seen in The Little Endless Storybook, when Barnabas visits her, although this time in her 'apartment suite.'
One day every century, Death lives (and dies) as a mortal, in order to understand the value of the life she takes. She does this by becoming a mortal fated to die that day. At the end of Death: The High Cost of Living her Endless self briefly converses with her mortal self.
Powers and abilities
Death's popularity saw her spun off into two solo limited series, Death: The High Cost of Living (1993), and Death: The Time of Your Life (1996). Both were written by Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Bachalo, and dealt with Death's encounters with various mortals. Death: The High Cost of Living became the first comic released under the newly instigated Vertigo branding in 1993, at which point The Sandman also moved from the DC to Vertigo imprint. A third miniseries, The Girl who Would Be Death by Caitlín R. Kiernan, was about a girl who purchased an ankh stolen from Death and tried to become her. Death is never actually seen in the series, but she speaks and acts in the third and fourth issues of the four issue series.
In 2003, the manga-style graphic novel Death: At Death's Door portrayed Death's activities during the fourth Sandman story arc Season of Mists. It was written and illustrated by Jill Thompson, and the format proved popular enough for Thompson to produce the similarly manga-influenced follow-up Dead Boy Detectives, featuring minor Sandman characters, and "featuring a cameo by Death."
A one-shot issue titled A Death Gallery (1994) was released as one of several art showcase comics spotlighting various Sandman characters released between 1994 and 1995. The Death Gallery featured representations of Death by more than thirty comics artists, including a rough sketch by Gaiman himself. In Endless Nights (2003) Gaiman shows Death several billion years ago, with a markedly different personality — forbidding and joyless.
She also appears in The Books of Magic (first volume, 1991, also written by Gaiman) at the very end of time, where her function is to set things in order and close the universe down. She meets Timothy Hunter and Mister E there after Mister E has taken Timothy all the way to the end of time, because only there can he kill Timothy without fear of interference. Death stops the murder on the grounds that "I took both of you billions of years ago." She sends Timothy back home, but forces Mister E to return the hard way. John Ney Rieber included her in The Books of Magic (vol. 2 #3-4), in which she lets Timothy Hunter hang out at her house and hold her teddy bear, Cavendish, while he is recovering from the venom of the Manticore. Hunter later encounters Death walking in the rain in The Books of Magic #25, and there was later an arc about her in Hunter: The Age of Magic. In Hellblazer #120, Death appears briefly in a pub filled with ghosts.
She also appeared in Mike Carey's Lucifer series when the eponymous main character was wounded and nearly died. Initially it appears that Death has actually arrived for Lucifer, but in fact she is there for Elaine Belloc who dies (temporarily) saving Lucifer's life. Death admits she's arrived a little early and takes the opportunity to talk to Lucifer who is currently trapped between life and death.
In Madame Xanadu, the title character calls out to her while chained up and denied access to her youth potions during the French Revolution. As she is a survivor from the days of King Arthur, she grows very old very quickly without them. She summons Death and reads her own cards, interpreting her Death card as predictive of her future destiny on earth. Death is so amused by this interpretation that she grants Madame Xanadu immortality, revocable any time Xanadu wishes.
Death has also made occasional appearances in the mainstream DC Universe. To the annoyance of Neil Gaiman, she appeared in Captain Atom #42-43 (June–July 1990), as merely an aspect of Death. Other Giffen stories that feature Death include Ambush Bug Nothing Special one-shot (Sep 1992), a cameo in the Lobo comic book Lobo's Back #3 (Oct. 1992), in which she slaps Lobo for getting fresh with her. She observes the destruction of the Earth in Legion of Super-Heroes vol. 4, #38 (Dec 1992). The character appeared in Action Comics #894, which was written by Paul Cornell. Cornell confirmed that Neil Gaiman has given his approval for the use of Death in the storyline. In the story, while searching for a black power ring, Lex Luthor encounters her. She appears again in issue #900 and in The Flash (vol. 3) #6, part of the Brightest Day crossover.
In the AIDS-awareness eight-page comic Death Talks About Life by Gaiman and McKean (which was first included in various Vertigo titles, and later released as a stand-alone giveaway pamphlet), Death demonstrates safe sex by placing a condom on a banana held by John Constantine. Lightening the impact of the underlying message, she informs the reader that when one is through with the demonstration, "you can eat the banana." This was used in high school health classes and is also reprinted as an addendum to the Death: The High Cost of Living trade paperback.
This version of Death also made a cameo appearance in the crossover special Avengers/JLA #2. She is represented in the Grandmaster's home base, alongside Deadman, Hela and the purple-robed version of Death native to the Marvel Universe, which, as the plots of other crossover comics have hinged upon, exists in the same continuum of fictional universes as DC's. (Marvel's version of Death appears alternatively as a coldly beautiful woman in a purple robe or a walking skeleton (sometimes male and sometimes female in form, depending upon the context).
She made an appearance in the Marvel Universe, at the wedding of Rick Jones and Marlo Chandler in The Incredible Hulk #418 (handing Marlo a hair brush, a visual pun referring to Marlo's recent 'brush with death').
Non-canon references and appearances
Death (not of the Endless) was also the narrator and host of The Big Book of Death (1995), a large format comic in the Ripley's Believe It Or Not "strange but true" genre which came out from Paradox Press, an imprint of DC.
"Death of the Endless" is referenced in the 2009 young adult novel, The Suicide Club, by Rhys Thomas. In it, the lead character describes death returning with the sound of beating wings.
Death is referenced in Sam Keith's "The Maxx". "They're all necro-nerds and Sand freaks. They think death is romantic. Death is hard and cold and ugly, not some cute chick" as quoted by the character Sara.
In the television series Roseanne, posters of Death are seen on Darlene's bedroom walls, and a small postcard of Death hung for a time on the family refrigerator.
Death is also mentioned in Jorge Jaramillo's novel Vallecuervo (México, 2010). Úrsula, the main character, is looking for her brother. In an old attic she discovered he was living in, she finds an assortment of comic books: "While I was looking at that Love and Rockets TPB I sensed I was being watched. To my surprise it was Her. Yes, Her. Death. Of the Endless. The cute chick in black dress from Neil Gaiman's comics. She was there, standing still, looking right into my eyes. I moved forward, I touched Her face. Dust. I folded Her and took Her with me (along with those Rockets and some Rick Veitch's books."
The Virgin Books' New Adventures Doctor Who novel series introduced a manipulative and generally morally ambivalent female incarnation of Death (or rather, as later revealed, one of several Eternals masquerading as cosmic principles). In Happy Endings she quotes from the original The Books of Magic mini-series. Although the bulk of the novel was written by Paul Cornell, the section featuring Death was written by author Neil Penswick, as part of a chapter written in tandem by the authors of the previous 49 novels.
- Irvine, Alex (2008), "Death", in Dougall, Alastair, The Vertigo Encyclopedia, New York: Dorling Kindersley, pp. 54–56, ISBN 0-7566-4122-5, OCLC 213309015
- Jimenez, Phil (2008), "Death", in Dougall, Alastair, The DC Comics Encyclopedia, New York: Dorling Kindersley, p. 97, ISBN 0-7566-4119-5, OCLC 213309017
- "Empire | The 50 Greatest Comic Book Characters". Empireonline.com. 2006-12-05. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
- Secrets of Haunted House #23 and possibly others
- DC Comics Presents #29
- "The High Cost of (Being) Death". SLUG Magazine.
- "The goth Bible: A Compendium for the Darkly Inclined by Nancy Kilpatrick Corrections & Omissions".
- Gaiman, Neil (1994), "Tori Amos", Death: The High Cost of Living, New York, NY: DC Comics, ISBN 1-56389-133-6
- Jimenez, Phil (2008), "Endless, The", in Dougall, Alastair, The DC Comics Encyclopedia, New York: Dorling Kindersley, p. 115, ISBN 0-7566-4119-5, OCLC 213309017
- Thompson, Jill Dead Boy Detectives (Vertigo, July 2005)
- Irvine, Alex (2008), "The Books of Magic", in Dougall, Alastair, The Vertigo Encyclopedia, New York: Dorling Kindersley, pp. 38–41, ISBN 0-7566-4122-5, OCLC 213309015
- Madame Xanadu (vol. 2) #6
- Phegley, Kiel (July 8, 2010). "Lex Luthor Faces Death". Comic Book Resources. Retrieved July 10, 2010.
- var authorId = "41401878" by Richard George. "Lex Luthor's Encounter With Death - Comics News at IGN". Comics.ign.com. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
- Gaiman, Neil and McKean, Dave Death Talkes About Life (DC/Vertigo, 1994)
- Scoones, Paul (November 1996), Wedding Notes: An Annotated Guide to Happy Endings, retrieved 1 December 2008