Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

Dainel Clowes’ “Eightball” — A Personal Reminiscence : Part Two

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What were your comics reading habits like in 1989? I was still in high school, but man — was I ever in the mood for something different. At that point, Watchmen was hardly the distant memory it seems today and the reverberations of what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons had done were still being felt far and wide across the mainstream super-hero landscape. Yes, the superficial trappings of that already-seminal-by-then  work had been effectively cheapened and co-opted by “The Big Two” almost across the board — most books were suddenly much “darker” and “more realistic” — but by and large it seemed like DC and Marvel were in the early stages of trying to figure out “okay, where do we go from here?” now that their entire formula had been so successfully deconstructed right in front of everyone.

I would argue, in fact, that they’re still trying to answer that question some three decades later. Grant Morrison was doing his level best to respond to it in Animal Man (and would soon do the same with Doom Patrol),  while Neil Gaiman was successfully building upon the classical- literature foundations of Moore’s prose in the pages of The Sadman, but for the most part it seemed like no one was willing to pick up the gauntlet Moore and Gibbons had thrown down. Vertigo was still just a pipe dream in Karen Berger’s mind and the publishers still had nothing like a firm grasp on what a “mature readers” comic really meant even though they’d just published one that, essentially, blew the doors open and should have resulted in a veritable onslaught of genuinely good and interesting titles.

Rather than embrace this new reality fully, though, DC and Marvel opted to do what they pretty much always do — batten down the hatches, keep pumping out more of the exact same shit they’ve been doing for decades, and hope to dumb everybody back down to the point where predictable dross seems normal. Sadly, it worked — and it continues working to this day.

Fortunately, there was a burgeoning “alternative” comics scene that started to blossom in the early ’80s,  thanks in large parts to the efforts of brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (and, early on, third sibling Mario) in the pages of their magnificent Love And Rockets, and these guys felt no need to tap into the current zeitgeist of superhero comics because, well — they just plain didn’t give a fuck. Soon, their ranks were buttressed by the likes of former Weirdo editor Peter Bagge, who unleashed his first “solo” series, Neat Stuff, in the middle part of the decade,  and one Daniel Clowes, whose early “professional” work saw print in Weirdo (among other places —including, would’ja believe, Cracked, during the legendary editorship of Mort Todd). This new generation of “non-mainstream” cartoonists was far more influenced by the likes of Robert Crumb and his wife, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, as well as by Kim Deitch, Mary Fleener, S. Clay Wilson, and assorted other underground luminaries, than they were by, say, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, or any of the other (sorry, but it’s true) second-rate, highly-derivative superhero comics creators of their youth. You know who I’m talking about — the guys who drove the bus into the ditch that Moore and Gibbons had just tried to pull out of.

Weirdo gave these artists and others (like Clowes’ good friend, the criminally-underappreciated Rick Altergott) the chance to rub elbows, metaphorically speaking, with a number of the great just-referenced underground cartoonists of years past  by putting all their work side-by-side in the same magazine, but by the late ’80s many were certainly looking to spread their own wings a bit further than a standard multi-creator anthology series would allow. The Bradley family had proven to be popular characters in Neat Stuff, and Bagge soon sent eldest brother Buddy off on his own to join (and in some cases to invent significant parts of) the nascent “Generation X” or “slacker” scene just underway in Seattle in his own solo book, Hate, while Clowes created Lloyd Llewellyn, a magazine-sized series starring a perpetually-disinterested, “too-cool-for-school,” proto-aging-hipster named — well, you guessed it.

It went just about nowhere. After seven issues its publisher, Fantagraphics Books (pretty much the “go-to” publishing house for independent cartoonists at the time, with Drawn + Quarterly still a few years away from bursting onto the scene), lowered the boom on poor old Lloyd citing poor sales, but head honchos Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, who had maintained a somewhat tight editorial control over the just-failed series, were amenable to giving their writer/artist more free reign with his next project. He’d played things their way and it didn’t work. What harm could there be in trying things his way this time?. Forget commercial considerations, Clowes figured, they’re hardly relevant in the world of marginally-selling indie comics, anyway (or at least they weren’t at the time). If he was only going to get one more crack at this whole thing,he was going to do what he really wanted to do .

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What he really wanted to do, as it turns out, made its debut in Eightball #1, cover-dated August of 1989, and it was a book with no real set “format” — just a loose collection of stories that were in no way affiliated with each other apart from coming from the same mind and pencil (and, okay, pen). Clowes’ intentions were clear — he’d  be making it up as he went along, following his own muse, and the publishers could either take it or leave it.

They took it, and we should all be damn glad they did. In the first issue alone we got the opening salvo of the surreal David Lynch-ian nightmare that was “Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron,”  we met uber-stereotypical “young hotshot” comics creator Dan Pussey (and his boss, an octogenarian sleazeball named Dr. Infinity who was obviously based on Stan Lee), we were treated to the Jack T. Chick-on-crack religious fanatacism of “Devil Doll?” (later reprinted in  traditional tract format for inclusion inside a Jello Biafra spoken word album), and hey — Lloyd Llewellyn even made a brief return appearance to help bridge the gap.

It was amazing. It was astonishing. It was every other time-worn superlative my brain can’t think of right now. And you know what? It still is.

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Oh, sure, Clowes didn’t invent the single-creator anthology by a long shot — there were, in fact, several others running at the time — but he absolutely got the balance exactly right here. The long-form narrative grounds the book and ensures readers will be back for more. The shorter works take aim at easy and popular targets (Christian fundamentalists, the comic book industry) with as much flair and panache as they do well-deserved venom. Toss in a couple of one-or-two-page gag strips to keep the old-school underground fans happy (I particularly loved the visual adaptations of interviews with nursing home patients that Clowes cobbled together from David Greenberger’s Duplex Planet ‘zine), and you’ve got a winner.

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Okay, make that a modest winner. Eightball #1 wasn’t exactly the talk of the comics world when it hit, but it sold out its initial run of something like 5,000 copies and went back to press no less than five times. Good luck finding a first printing at anything like a reasonable price these days (still got mine! Hah!) No earth-shaking tremors reverberated out of it, by any means, but   it definitely went some way towards cementing the idea that, while the mainstream was definitely moribund on the whole, there were interesting things happening in comics at the margins. And they were about to get exponentially more interesting pretty quickly.

I talked in our first segment about the four creative “phases” Eightball went through in its 15-year history, and “phase one” began right here. For lack of a better term we’ll call if the “Velvet Glove Phase,” and we’ll take a nice, long look at the story that was at the heart of it in our next segment. Hope to see you all back here then!

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One Hand, Two Heads, All Heart: Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man by Emily Scott

How best to judge an unfinished work? Is it fair to contemplate what might have been and fill in what you can imagine the artist would have done next, or is that too presumptuous? Is it better only to discuss the parts that actually have been finished, even to the ultimate detriment of that work?

These are the questions I wrestled with while planning out this article on Neil Gaiman’s Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man, and I never really came to a satisfying decision. Sure, I went on some mental tangents about how da Vinci maybe meant to paint some eyebrows on the Mona Lisa and never got around to it, but as far as figuring out the best way to analyze art that never got the chance to fulfill its potential, I was torn.

Mona Lisa
Clearly what da Vinci intended all along.

It can be tricky to apply the concept of completeness to a comic book, which, by its very nature is usually meant to be ongoing, but Mr. Hero, published in 1995 by the short-lived Tekno Comix, has to be one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had reading anything because of just how incomplete it is versus how much potential it had.  This book posed so many questions, set so many mysteries in motion, and it stopped having resolved exactly zero of them. Of course, reading it 20 years after it was first published and facing an ever dwindling number of issues, I knew it would end before I found out everything, but what made me want to punch a wall instead of just shake my fist, was how close to some of those answers it came.

Seriously, if the whole company hadn’t stopped putting out comics, I would be convinced Mr. Hero stopped when it did just to aggravate me as much as possible. Like me personally. That’s how it felt. The last issue even says The End, even though it ends in the most cliffhanger-y way possible.

What I saw.
What I saw.
What it felt like.
What it felt like.

Of course, the reason it bothers me so much that I’ll never find out what happens is that I was genuinely invested in the comic and intrigued by its premise and characters.  If it were terrible, I wouldn’t have spent several paragraphs ranting about how there isn’t more of it. In that light, I suppose I could tell you more about the things that actually happen in this comic rather than the things that never will. Let’s cleanse the palate with a page of a moustachioed robot beating people up and then dive right on in, shall we?

Hero 1Meet Mr. Hero, the robot best friend you and I and every other person in the world have always wanted. (If you say you’ve never wanted a robot best friend, you are either lying or a self-hating robot.) Mr. Hero was one of a line of comics conceptualized by some very big names in science fiction, including Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov, and Leonard Nimoy, for Tekno Comix, which, this being a 90s comic website, I feel compelled to point out is the most 90s sounding name a company could possibly have.  Neil Gaiman created Mr. Hero,  and the book definitely has some Gaiman-y trappings to it, but it was Eisner Award winning writer James Vance who entertainingly brought the metal man to life and built something unique around him.

From the very first page, it’s obvious that Mr. Hero the Newmatic Man will defy easy categorization, as we are introduced to a hellscape called Kalighoul run by a giant evil lizard named the Teknophage, who seems to be building an army of Victorian-era robots powered by melted souls. Or something. The specifics on how the automatons are created are a little fuzzy, one of many aspects of this world I was disappointed not to see fully explored. So right away, we get a little science fiction, a little steam punk, and some metaphysics, which will soon be joined by healthy doses of action, adventure, and comedy, all rolled in  a shiny metal package.

Mr. Hero 2
I could actually tell that this comic would be quite funny from this page too, but now that I look at it, and myself, critically, that just might mean there is something seriously wrong with me.

Mr. Hero is shipped off by the Teknophage to Earth to be of future use to  in taking it over, but in the meantime he becomes a part of a magician’s act, learns boxing, accidentally punches a punter, gets boxed up, and does not reemerge until he is discovered decades later, sans head and one hand, by our human protagonist, a young mime/aspiring magician/museum worker named Jennifer Hale. Credit where it’s due to artist Ted Slampyak (pencils), both for having an amazing last name and for being insanely prescient in drawing the location of the missing head, a piece of artwork that doubles as a bike any modern hipster would trade a significant portion of his vinyl collection for.

Forget Mr. Hero, or even Mr. Fix-it; meet Mr. Fixie.
Forget Mr. Hero, or even Mr. Fix-it; meet Mr. Fixie.

When Jennifer puts the head back on Mr. Hero and essentially brings him back to life, a whole host of the Teknophage’s baddies come to reclaim him, but, as evidenced in the page above, Mr. Hero is more than adept at giving some rapscallions what for. Much of the earlier issues is devoted to such skirmishes and the schemes of these minions, but the specifics aren’t particularly important, not because they are bad, but without resolution, much of the meat and potatoes of the plot seems random, and a “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” vibe is pervasive. I attempted to lay out just the basic plot points for my own use, but it sounded so convoluted that I abandoned any notion of describing the comic that way. If I found myself muttering, “Why exactly is this happening?” to myself while actually reading it, I can only imagine how erratic it would sound to someone who didn’t.

What is important are the antagonistic characters themselves, a very motley crew working in various capacities for the Teknophage, everything from genetically modified men who can camouflage themselves with any background to actual monsters to sniveling bureaucrats.  One of my favorites is a man named Mr. Kingman who is sent to Earth to oversee the capture of Mr. Hero. He does exactly what I would do if I were sent away from a hellscape to a relatively cushy planet, which is not give a shit about anything I was supposed to be doing and enjoy some earthly comforts for a while. Did I mention he thinks dressing like Elvis will help him fit in?

It never occurred to me that those metal ball things could be played like a game, but now I really want to sneak into some middle manager's office to try that out.
It never occurred to me that those metal ball things could be played like a game, but now I really want to sneak into some middle manager’s office to try that out.

Considering Mr. Kingman’s fascination with Elvis and video games and the fact that one of the main antagonist plots revolves around subjugating Earth’s population through their TVs, I assume that there was much more pop culture satirization planned for future Mr. Hero issues. As it stands, in addition to all the other genres intermingling in these comics, Vance finds some room for comics’ favorite genre, the superhero. Two of the Teknophage’s genetically modified goons are introduced to Kingman’s comic, and they do pretty much what anyone with superpowers and a newfound knowledge of superheroes would do: demand costumes and cool names:

Mr. Hero Creampuffs
From now on, I will find any excuse to say, “Grab the cryin’ towels, creampuffs – it’s blubberin’ time,” and there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to stop me.
If every comic book cover looked like this, I would have started reading them a lot sooner.
If every comic book cover looked like this, I would have started reading them a lot sooner.

If the letters pages of these issues can be taken as an accurate representation of how readers felt about these characters, fans were decidedly split over whether Deadbolt and Bloodboil were great additions to an already great comic or bad enough alone to ruin them outright. For my part, they were a great injection of humor at a point in the story that could have easily been bogged down by exposition leading to no satisfying resolution. (Something to do with a group of rich guys who are against technology and a plan to take over the world using a Sasquatch-y looking character, who seems neither to be human or one of the Teknophage’s experiments, as a mouthpiece. I’m not sure how this storyline would have fit into an overarching plot, but it does give me an excuse to mention of my favorite classic Dr. Who stories, which it reminded me of, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Watch it and thank me later.) I enjoy how they ably demonstrate that superpowers alone doth not a superhero make, and I appreciate how they add yet another layer to an already complex universe, but their most valuable asset is the amount of just plain fun they bring.

Some of the best genre-mashing Vance pulls off in Mr. Hero combines the grotesque with a dash of humor, particularly when it comes to satirizing corporate culture. A revolving door of terrified cronies come to cower before their big boss man, and the slightest infraction or failure is met with swift and horrific retribution. The Teknophage maintains an air of etiquette and refinement, all while committing unspeakable acts, and I’m sure the conspiracy theorists who believe the upper echelons of society are lizard people would read this and think that there isn’t even any satire involved.

Mr. Hero Tekno 1

Pictured: Events happening in real time.
Pictured: Events happening in real time.

The Teknophage is a tricky character for me because a big dinosaur who has conquered countless worlds, subjugated untold numbers of people, and harnessed pure soul power is an antagonist who sounds downright terrifying on paper. The problem is that I see the big toothy smile and the proper suit, and it just looks a bit, well, silly. Almost, dare I say…cute? He’s handing out man cubes, and I’m having a hard time not going, “Tee hee!” Is it my fault dinosaurs wearing clothes are adorable? (side note: so are snakes wearing hats).

I do not intend that comment to be a criticism of the character itself so much as a criticism of my own ability to sometimes take things seriously. The Teknophage is a fascinating specimen, juggling many schemes and machinations at once, always one step ahead of his adversaries. Any time they think they have gained an advantage over him, he reveals they have been playing into his hand all along, and you get the impression you have yet to see the limits of his power. He is formidable. It is one of my biggest disappointments in the premature end of this title that we don’t find out more about his plans and motivations, though some of the answers I seek might be found in the solo title I’m thoroughly unsurprised the Teknophage received.

Mr. Hero Ad
TEKNO COMIX…more than just exploding heads….but also, exploding heads.

There are so many things I could say about this ad, but it so thoroughly speaks for itself that it would feel almost disrespectful to add anything. Just bask; just take it all in.

Some of the Teknophage’s plans are more well thought out than others, and one that doesn’t lead the places I thought it might is a plot to corrupt Jennifer Hale. The basic idea is that they will give her a lot of money, let it corrupt her, and then take it all away. I like that the Teknophage is convinced the best way to take over the Earth is through corruption, but using her as a trial run doesn’t make much sense since he already seems well aware of the corrupting influence of wealth. He also doesn’t let her keep the money long enough for it to have much of a corrosive influence on her, but they still consider the plan a success, even though the worst thing she does is use a grade school insult on a boss who’s being a bit of a prick.

Mr. Hero Lottery
This is just a more polite version of what ANYONE who came into a large sum of money would say to their boss.

While we don’t delve deeply into the Teknophage’s corruption and subjugation of Earth, later scenes on Kalighoul give us a frightening glimpse into what centuries of his dominion look like. More disheartening  than his sadistic tyranny itself is the affects it has on his subjects, many of whom would rather worship old revolutionary legends than be their own heroes. The ease with which people will accept, and then come to depend on, being ruled is not one of the more flattering sides of humanity, but it is well worth exploring.

Many stories examine what exactly it is that makes us human,  and some of those stories contain robots, but Mr. Hero may be the first I’ve encountered that does so without using the robot as the vehicle for that philosophizing. For as many aspects of this comic as I have touched upon, the one part of Mr. Hero you may have noticed conspicuously absent is, well, Mr. Hero. The biggest reason for his absence in my retelling of his own story is that his role in it is mostly reactionary. He fights because he is attacked; he seeks answers because those around him pose questions. Even when he discovers that he was once a flesh and blood man, with a wife and children and a rebellion to lead, there is not time for even a moment of introspection. He just kind of goes, “Blimey!” and everyone goes on with their day in a hell world.

Just because he is not given the opportunity to develop a great deal of emotional complexity, though, does not mean he is a shallow character. For starters, this is one automaton with not one, but TWO heads, one for ol’ timey boxing and one for thinky times:

Normally I would complain there's no reason he can't just have one head that's good at fighting AND thinking, other than his creators thought it was cool, but when the results are this cool, who am I to argue?
Normally I would complain there’s no reason he can’t just have one head that’s good at fighting AND thinking, other than his creators thought it was cool, but when the results are this cool, who am I to argue?

Granted, the heads aren’t normally on his body at the same time, but we still get some nice Jekyll/Hyde by way of the Odd Couple bickering between the two even when we only get them one at a time. The pipeless head is the one you want to show up to your party, quick to defend his friends, endearing in his simplicity, an all around good bloke. The head with the pipe, who goes by the Ratiocinator, is the one who will come to your party only to recite poetry, then insult you when you ask if he could just not. I think it goes without saying that this is a character who is easy to like and to want to know more about (I mean, did you look at that picture?), but the only time he takes initiative is setting out to find his missing hand, which we never find out the story behind!

I know I have sounded like a broken record about all the things that don’t happen in this comic, but I’m no less torn at the end of this article than I was at the beginning when it comes to how to discuss it. How do you assess, critique, recommend, etc. something that promised so much but never made good? On the one hand, I think it would be yet more tragic if this comic were to be forgotten, but on the other, can I really suggest anyone should read something that will ultimately lead to frustration? (I mean, to be fair, I do still recommend Firefly…screw it, read the comic.)

Perhaps if you do read Mr. Hero, it will wet your whistle for later this year when we take a closer look at Tekno Comix!

Mr. Hero CrossoverSomething a little closer to look forward to, though, is the rest of Madness in the Month that happens to be March here at the Unspoken Decade! Next up is Darry Weight’s look at Venom: the Madness!

Smile Because It Happened – Death: The High Cost of Living by Emily Scott

Every once in a while I read or watch something so mind-boggingly good, so paradigm changing, that all I can do is get pissed off. While that might seem like an odd reaction to discovering a great piece of art, I believe those who, like me, love nothing more than tumbling down the pop culture rabbit hole and losing yourself to someone else’s world, will understand. The best works, the ones we revisit over and over, feel like they were made just for us, and it’s hard not to rue all the time lost we could have spent loving them with our whole hearts, to wonder how someone, anyone could not have put something so obviously meant to be enjoyed by us in our hands any earlier.

At the top of this list for me is Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s probably for the best that no one gave it to me as a teenager because it may have actually blown a crater into my mind, but when I did finally lay eyes on it, I became so enraptured and thought it so perfectly suited to my tastes that I was baffled it hadn’t found its way to me sooner. I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know weird gothy kids who liked to read. What I do know is that Sandman would have been so hugely influential on me at such a formative age, both as an aspiring writer and a fervent reader, that it might have changed the whole direction my pop culture path took. Hell, I might have even started reading other comics.

Scandalized
I call the last one Unbeloafable.

Yes, that’s right, people reading a comic book blog, I was not what you would call a comic book fan. I was too busy reading Neitzchse and Camus and thinking it made me very smart and cultured (news flash, 15-year-old me: it mostly made you kind of a douche). It never would have occurred to me that I could have found anything as profound as the philosophy I was pretending to understand in a comic. I just wish now that someone would have told me that not only could I do that very thing, but I could also read about angsty cosmic entities while doing it. (The first person to make a joke in the comments about Neitzchse’s Superman gets a prize.)

By the time the proprietor of this blog, Mr. Dean Compton, gifted me the first volume of Sandman (for which I will always be grateful), rightfully insisting that my loving it was a foregone conclusion, I had grown out of much of my literary snobbery. Four years of assigned reading in college had taken much of the appeal and romance out of reading things because they were “important,” and I had spent the following several years discovering all the other places beauty and wisdom could be found on a steady regimen of the best fantasy literature and science fiction had to offer. Now I much prefer my profundity to be accompanied by wizards or spaceship battles and always get a little disappointed when a book is lacking them.

I am disappointed in the Internet that I could not quickly find a picture of wizards on a spaceship.
I am disappointed in the Internet that I could not quickly find a picture of wizards on a spaceship.

That is not to say, though, that I think my tastes have gotten more lowbrow. My definition of what constitutes great literature has merely expanded. The cream of the comics crop could stand up to any work of literature in any genre, and I can’t imagine that many who encounter Sandman would argue it doesn’t deserve its place in that conversation. It’s heartbreaking and funny, epic and intimate, weighty and whimsical, a story about stories, and its popularity, critical acclaim, and endurance are all more than justified.

No small part of that popularity and longevity is the character Death, sister of Dream, the titular Sandman. Her actual part in the series may be small, as Gaiman wanted to parcel out her appearances specifically because readers liked her so much, but she more than makes up for lack of panels by being every different kind of awesome when she does show up.

I love how the contrast of Death's perkiness with Dream's sadsackness makes Dream's word bubbles seem to drip with that much more ennui. I also love that I am not the only one who loves the word 'fantabulous.'
I love how the contrast of Death’s perkiness with Dream’s sadsackness makes Dream’s word bubbles seem to drip with that much more ennui. I also love that I am not the only one who loves the word ‘fantabulous.’

Just as I have encountered almost no one who has read Sandman and not liked it, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t enjoy Death. Few characters in any work seem to be as universally loved. (A short list of other fictional characters no one hates that Dean and I came up with because you know you were curious: Indiana Jones, Wolverine, Robocop, the Ghostbusters, Tyrion Lannister, Ashley J. Williams, the Dude, and David Bowie. Yes, David Bowie counts.) Her popularity was something even I was aware of as early as the mid-90s, when I barely knew who Neil Gaiman was, and I assumed it had a lot to do with the fact that all most of her fans would have to do to cosplay her is choose from any of the 1,000 black tank tops they already owned, put on slightly less make up than usual, and rock their favorite ankh necklace with pride. (In the interest of full disclosure, my favorite ankh necklace was a large silver number with a yin yang symbol in the middle that I wore to church to get a rise out of people.)

Even after I read Sandman and discovered for myself what the fuss was about, it still didn’t necessarily make it obvious why Gaiman had chosen to portray Death as an enthusiastic, compassionate, attractive young woman. All the love I and countless others have for her might be evidence enough that Gaiman made a good decision, but I think there is more to it than idea that he made her likable so that we would like her or even that she works so well because her Not-So-Grim Reaper stands in such stark contrast to so many other portrayals of Death. She, just like Dream and the rest of their siblings of the Endless, are meant to be the embodiments of their respective concepts, and there is no denying that we, as a species, are a little obsessed with death, drawn in and attracted to its mystery, anxious to flirt with it, unable to forgot about it even if it’s been a while since we’ve seen it. What more fitting way to portray that than a fun and charming pretty girl? (It’s also established that the forms of the Endless are subjective, so it’s also possible Death’s appearance is something of a commentary on her intended audience, just as I assume the artists drew Dream to look like an even floppier-haired Neil Gaiman.)

Of course, it could just be coincidence, as Dream also appears to herald the coming of Sad Keanu.
Of course, it could just be coincidence, as Dream also appears to herald the coming of Sad Keanu.

Given the character’s likability, it’s unsurprising Death received her own miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living, in 1993, about midway through Sandman’s original run. The story revolves around a day that Death spends as a mortal, which she must do once a century to better understand the lives she must take away. Just as in Sandman, though, we don’t consistently see a great deal of Death, or at least not as much as I might have expected for a series that is purportedly about her.

We open instead with a haggish pile of an elderly woman named Mad Hettie and a few Cockney street punks, the sort of characters I will assume appear in everything Gaiman writes till I read otherwise. The woman has tasked the youths with finding her a dove, but when they are no longer satisfied with her five quid compensation and attempt to rob her, Hettie proves herself to be more than you’d expect. The street toughs, exactly as you’d expect, prove not to be so tough, and leave her to perform some blood magic, also something you’d expect from the moment you knew that a lady named Mad Hettie wanted a particular kind of bird.

If it weren't for Monty Python, I might never have noticed how often, true or not, people get accused of witchcraft in popular cultural. I will now give you a moment to hear the entire "she turned me into a newt" scene in your head…….all right, we good?
If it weren’t for Monty Python, I might never have noticed how often, true or not, people get accused of witchcraft in popular cultural. I will now give you a moment to hear the entire “she turned me into a newt” scene in your head…….all right, we good?

We next meet Sexton Furnival (who seems to have a silly name so he can repeatedly and resignedly acknowledge he has a silly name), a sixteen-year-old who, more so than Death, functions as the story’s true protagonist. As a protagonist he suffers from the same problem that all teenagers do, real or fictional, in so much as he is not particularly pleasant to be around. While I’m sure I would have identified more with him had I read this comic as a teenager, it’s not a given, as my hatred of teenagers was never so intense as when I was one.

Reading it now, more than a decade removed from my adolescence, I just cringe as I remember my own mopey, self-important musings (and then cringe a little more when I think about how I’ll probably do the same about the things I say now when I’m 40). My new standard for how well a teenage character has been portrayed is how retroactively embarrassed they make me for my own teenage self, and by that measure, Sexton is pretty damn accurate.

With the ringer tee, that haircut, the Nirvana poster, the complaining about his mother's wishy washy hippiedom, and his writing a suicide note à la Doogie Howser diary, the only way this could be more 90s is if the next panel contained Will Smith showing Alanis Morisette how to do the running man.
With the ringer tee, that haircut, the Nirvana poster, the complaining about his mother’s wishy washy hippiedom, and his writing a suicide note à la Doogie Howser diary, the only way this could be more 90s is if the next panel contained Will Smith showing Alanis Morisette how to do the running man.

Sexton is suicidal because…just life, you know, man? I’m being glib, but he states he doesn’t have any particular reason for wanting to die beyond not having any particular reason to want to live, which is a worthwhile distinction to make. As the story progresses, Sexton encounters more than one person who has more reason (i.e. an actual reason) not to go on but still does, and it serves to throw his own more nebulous woes into stark relief. While that might not be the most exciting choice narratively, I appreciate that Gaiman is addressing the fact that depression often needs no specific catalyst and that at an age where you are trying to figure out what your life is going to be all about, it can often feel like there is no point to any of it. You’re old enough to start to recognize that adults are enormous hypocrites and that being one might not be something to look forward to after all, but you’re too young to do anything about it except resign yourself to becoming one.

While Sexton can be insufferable, he is nonetheless relatable. I may want to smack him when, for example, he tells the mother of the wheelchair-bound neighbor boy that that he can TOTALLY understand how her son gets really bored, but I still remember a time when I was the one deserving that smack. We have all deserved that smack. We have all inflated our problems or lack thereof, taken our health or our youth or the gift that is life for granted. Had Gaiman given Sexton a more concrete or tragic source for his suicidal thoughts, it would only remove some of that universality and muddy the waters by putting an emphasis on life being worthwhile in spite of its ugliness rather than it being worthwhile because of all its beauty, no matter how small.

Sexton finds himself at a garbage dump and manages to end up trapped underneath a refrigerator, leading to, what we would call in the parlance of our time, a meet cute with the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Death rescues him from the refrigerator and offers to clean him up, all the way remaining indomitably cheerful in the face of Sexton’s relentless snideness. We learn that she is spending the day in the guise of Didi, a teenage girl whose family was recently killed. Sexton learns that his savior is the manifestation of Death living a once-in-a-century day as a mortal and responds how anyone not being on the right side of the fourth wall might.

Death’s face in the last panel is what I will now picture every time I shrug for the rest of my life.
Death’s face in the last panel is what I will now picture every time I shrug for the rest of my life.

After storming out of her apartment, Sexton gets taken hostage by Mad Hettie, who extracts a promise from Death/Didi to find her heart, which the 250-year-old woman has apparently hidden and forgotten where. Now on a mission to locate the missing heart AND get the most out of her short time in the flesh, Didi embarks with Sexton on an adventure of free cab rides and hot dogs on what would be a pretty ideal New York City day if it weren’t for his refusal to enjoy anything and her being the temporary physical embodiment of a cosmic entity with a few hours left to live.

The crazy kids end up at the show of a family friend of Sexton’s, where he continues to mope about with the sort of fervor only the young have the energy to muster. He meets a young girl who tells him what is basically the SADDEST STORY EVER, obviously about herself, a fact that, along with the point, completely passes Saxton by.

Cool story, bro.
Cool story, bro.

Our dichotomous duo soon find themselves taken prisoner by a man known as the Eremite. Ultimate-source-of-all-human-knowledge Wikipedia tells me the Eremite is suspected to be Mister E, bent on revenge on Death following the events of another amazing series of Gaiman’s, Books of Magic (which I’m sure we’ll take a look at here at The Unspoken Decade at a future date because what’s life without something to look forward to?). While not knowing the Eremite’s identity doesn’t especially detract from the story, knowing it does help him from feeling like just a random crazy dude around to wreak havoc.

I have been going through the main points of the plot pretty thoroughly so far, but the more I talk about them, the more obvious it is that they are inconsequential. Not to say that the story is bad or uninteresting, but the real meat of these books can be found in the quiet conversations rather than in the major narrative conflicts, which are resolved almost by afterthought. Didi and Sexton are rescued by Mad Hettie and Didi’s awesome neighbor, the heart’s recovered, and Death’s ankh, stolen by the Eremite, is simply replaced with a cheap version from a street vendor.

In any story where the main antagonist is thwarted by a deli owner, you know he was never much of a threat to begin with.
In any story where the main antagonist is thwarted by a deli owner, you know he was never much of a threat to begin with.

This is ultimately a story about Sexton and Didi, about the sort of unforgettable day you only seem to have when you’re young, where everything and nothing seem possible at once, where a random encounter with a sympathetic stranger can make all the difference between delight and despair. The idea that you have to take time to enjoy the small things or appreciate life in all its complexity is nothing new, but the many intimate and poignant moments mean that, whatever their sum, the individual parts make the story.

We like spending time with Death, whether she is thwarting a mystic plot or merely laying some hard truths on a misguided kid, and delight in her presence the same way she delights in something as simple as eating a bagel. (I totally get the bagel delight. If I only got to live one day every century, finding a fresh bagel would be at the top of my To Do list too.) No matter how serious the subject matter, High Cost of Living never takes itself too seriously, giving it a decidedly more easygoing feel than much of Sandman.

ProfoundThe drawback to this breezier tone was that the overall work felt a little frothy, a little insubstantial on first read. Once I had given it time to percolate in my brain, I realized I was comparing it to Sandman, which just isn’t fair. Not that one is good and the other is bad, but this book deals with its weightier topics on an intimate, micro scale rather than the epic, multidimensional cosmic clusterfuck that is Sandman. Had I read this when it came out, I probably would have just mentally inserted it into the larger Sandman tale, where it would have fit perfectly, not just because it’s the same author with a shared character but because Sandman was a book that told so many different stories in so many different ways. Reading it  now, the best thing to do for me and the comic seemed to be to judge it as a standalone, both because it could easily make its case as a great and poignant piece of art without Sandman even existing and because it makes it feel less methadone after a Sandman binge.

My other initial quibble was that we don’t really gain much new insight into Death, since her role in the narrative is mostly as a vehicle for Saxton’s character arc, but I quickly came to the conclusion that I was dumb for thinking anything else would happen. It’s fitting that we don’t learn a great deal of significance about Death because Death as a character is meant to be the embodiment of death itself, and death with a small ‘d’ will always be a mystery till Death with a capital ‘D’ comes for us all. I am more than happy to enjoy the little things, a fresh bagel here, a good comic there, till that happens.

The Death of Me