Ok, so The Sandman isn’t exactly a new comic. Sandman Overture is newish, but a lot of us have probably been familiar with Neil Gaiman’s classic for some time (did I say classic? I meant life-changing freakin’ masterpiece). Still, seeing as it’s such a beloved comic, it’s worth examining it and asking, what is it about the story and characters that makes us love them so much?
Dream, of course, gets the spotlight. He’s contemplative, tortured, and (spoiler!) ultimately sacrifices himself to save the realm he cares about so deeply. He’s an amazing character, and as I read the comic, I was ridiculously invested in his welfare. When I got to his death, I was traumatized. As in, I spent an inordinate amount of time just staring blankly, numbly at the wall in front of me.
But Dream isn’t the only amazing character in the comic. His sister Death is pretty damn intriguing, as well. She’s a favorite of cosplayers and emo girls alike. I’ve seen any number of Death tattoos on the interwebs. So why is she so popular?
First, she’s just so darn friendly. Her siblings are all caught up in their own drama and problems, but Death seems to have her stuff together. As a result, she’s able to be a supportive presence for others. She’s kind, funny, and insightful. And I think this is comforting to us. So often in fiction, the personification of death is shown as a Grim Reaper-like figure, dark and menacing. And that can’t bode well for what may come after our transition. But the idea of this hip, likeable young woman ushering us from here to the afterlife is a much less terrifying notion of what happens when we die.
And as mentioned, she shows up for others. She’s deeply compassionate, both toward her siblings and those not among the Endless. When Desire brings up Dream’s failed love affair with Nada, upsetting him to the point where he has to leave a family gathering, it’s Death who comforts him, and encourages his decision to make things right with Nada. It’s Death who delivers the news of Dream’s passing to Hob Gadling, his sole mortal friend – and she does it with great kindness, giving Hob time to reflect at length. And when she finally has to take Dream’s life, she does it with so much love that at least a little bit of the sting is removed.
Death also comes across as wise – and she has a very poetic wisdom. When a brick wall falls on Bernie Capax – a lawyer who has been alive for around 15,000 years – and kills him, he asks her, “But I did okay, didn’t I? I mean, I got what, fifteen thousand years. That’s pretty good isn’t it? I lived a pretty long time.” And Death responds, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.”
She realizes that there are those who are prepared for death, who know it’s their time – like Element Girl, after whose death, she says, “For some folks, death is a release, and for others death is an abomination, a terrible thing. But in the end, I’m there for all of them.”
And it’s Death who realizes that Dream has, on some level, given up on life, after having had to kill his son. She reveals this to him shortly before his own passing.
Being there for someone’s death is a very intimate thing, and she has done it countless times, over the span of ages. This gives Death a deeper insight – and a wider perspective – on what it means to live a mortal life. And that wisdom makes her a highly compelling character, because these are the existential questions we all grapple with.
So it’s not just the fact that Death wears big, black boots and is oh-so punk that makes us love her – although that doesn’t hurt. It’s also her friendliness, compassion, and insight. She’s a highly unique character, meticulously developed and brilliantly realized. And of course, we get to see all of this examined more in Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life. It all comes together to form a character you can’t help but fall for.