and then there Is . . . Death
"People are used to the idea of Death with a sickle and a cape. I wanted to do a Death that would challenge people's conception. I wanted to do the kind of Death that I would want to meet when I die."
As soon as she walked into the city square on page three of "The Sound of Her Wings" and bounced a baguette off her moping brother's teased hair, fans fell in love with her.
Nobody could help it; Death stole the show. The idea that at the end of your life you get to walk off holding the hand of a girl like that was somehow life-affirming, like everything would turn out all right in the end. Gaiman thinks one of the reasons she became so instantly popular was due to the fact that she was simply very nice in a time when there were very few nice people in comics. Characters were largely colorless or full of angst. "She's sensible, not naive, but innocent. She has the innocence of one who has been there and done that and come out the other side. It's almost a sort of holy innocence. She's the kind of person you'd like to meet and spend a day with."
Death is the peacekeeper among the Endless, likes hot dogs, parties, books with happy endings, and Disney films. She dresses entirely in black, wears too much eyeliner, and was about as far away from comic book characters as you could get. You could see Death in the street, and after Sandman, you frequently did. It was kind of Neil's fault -- he got a lot of women to read comics.
The point that I realized that was happening was about year two or year three, and I'd be going to places like the San Diego comic book convention. Fat, unwashed gentlemen in stained T-shirts would come up to me and extend their hands in gratitude and say, "Let me shake your hand! You brought women into my store." And there was a part of me that always wanted to go, "If you sweep it, they'll come back!"Young gothy women wearing ankhs and eyeliner would drop in at the comic shop, pick up an issue of Sandman, and walk straight out. A lot of them bought other things of course, but there were those who were simply there for Morpheus and his sister.
What was great about Sandman was you had a comic that guys would hand to their girlfriends and say, "Look, read this." And the girlfriends would read it and say, "Have you got any more?" When the relationship would collapse, the girls would take the Sandmans, and they would hand them to their next boyfriend or their next girlfriend. Slowly, they became this sexually transmitted thing. Sandman spread. I was incredibly proud of that. It had always seemed to me just peculiar that half the human race didn't read comics. I was writing a comic for everybody, trying to keep a gender balance of the characters and trying to write something that wasn't the preadolescent male power fantasy (Steel, 2011).
Gaiman had been thinking about giving Death her very own miniseries for a while, until Karen Berger phoned in 1991 and gave him a reason to actually do it.
Before the whole summer convention season, I got a phone call from Karen -- and I'd been talking, actually, mainly with Mike Dringenberg about doing a Death miniseries for a while -- and she said, "Well, we're just about to do a poll, and we're going to put a load of DC supporting characters into this poll for the summer convention season and let the people at the cons just vote for who they want to see." And I said, "So?" And she said, "Well, we were thinking of putting Death on." And I said, "Okay, and . . . ?" And she said, "The thing is, if we put Death on, she'll win. So basically, do you want to do the series now? You know, do you want to do it within a year? If you don't want to do it within a year, we won't put her on the list."
So I thought about it and I figured, okay, it was a nice excuse to actually get me to turn the story from a nice idea and something I wanted to do one day, into something I was definitely going to do. So I said, sure, put her on the list. And she won. The fans voted for Death (Kraft, 1993).
Death: The High Cost of Living came out in three monthly parts from March 1993. Chris Bachalo, whose first professional comics job was on Sandman #12 in The Doll's House, where he got to draw old Bronze Age Sandman, jumped at the chance to do pencils. Mark Buckingham took on the inking duties. "What's interesting is it doesn't actually look like Chris Bachalo and it doesn't look like Mark Buckingham. I'm not sure who it actually does look like, it's sort of like a punk Brian Bolland or something" (Kraft, 1993).
The basic premise is much like Death Takes a Holiday, the old 1934 film starring Fredric March: Death takes on a physical form for one day every 100 years to better understand what it's like to be mortal. She spends her day eating things and getting stuff for free, and "wandering around with a young man by the name of Sexton Furnival, who's about sixteen and considers life unfair, not least because he got called Sexton Furnival." From Sexton's point of view, Didi is just some sixteen-year-old girl who thinks she's Death, figuring that anybody who claims to be the incarnation of death is probably nuts. And the thing is, she might well be just that. There's an element of doubt in the story in which it is "perfectly possibly that she really is just a young lady by the name of Didi, whose entire family was killed a few months back in a rather nasty accident, and who has gone a little bit crazy" (Kraft, 1993).
The thing that sets the story apart from Sandman -- which can, at its darkest, feel like a never-ending sleepless three a.m. -- is that Death is actually funny, which is something Gaiman hoped that people would pick up on. It's quirky and fun and reads in an entirely different way from an episode of Sandman. "It is genuinely terribly funny. And it's got this kind of, I don't know, Catcher in the Rye-ish feel to it in a funny kind of way. At least in terms of Sexton, who in some ways is the hero, and in other ways you just want to slap him around the face and stand him in a corner until he cheers up. You know, ‘What have you got to be weltschmertz-y about'" (Kraft, 1993)?
Didi, on the other hand, is so cheery she doesn't even get upset with old Mad Hettie who harasses her all day -- the one day she's allowed to wander around like a regular person -- because, as she explains to Sexton: "If you know someone really well, it's hard to stay mad at them for very long. I know everybody really well."
The film adaptation has been floating around since the mid-nineties, occasionally being kicked around different production companies, kicked back to the same pro-duction companies, greenlit, then extinguished, and then greenlit again. Said Neil: "Death: The High Cost of Living has been in development heck, which is like development hell but slightly more encouraging" (Sanderson, 2008). He has written several drafts and would like to direct himself. He hung out with Guillermo del Toro on the set of Hellboy 2 to learn how to make a film. But plans for Death change all the time. "It will happen unless it doesn't."
In 1997 the same creative team put together another miniseries called Death: The Time of Your Life, which brought back the lesbian couple Foxglove and Hazel from the Sandman arc A Game of You.
Said Gaiman in 1993: "We did Death: The High Cost of Living, which, categorically and with absolutely no contenders, was the bestselling mature readers comic there's ever been. Everybody would love more Death. And Chris Bachalo has set aside time toward the end of 1994 to begin drawing another Death story. But in the meantime, everybody seems to want more Death stuff, and we don't have another story for them. So it's like, what are we going to do here? The Superman Gallery and the Batman Gallery were very well received, and they primarily consisted of reprint material. So with this one, we thought, let's do a Death Gallery. I know she's one of the favorite characters for convention sketches, booklets, so okay, let's give people a chance to draw her. And let's assemble a great cast of artists to do it" (Previews, 1993).
The Death Gallery was released as a comic and had a run in a comic book art gallery in New York City's SoHo. It included pieces by lots of people, most of whom never had a chance to draw Death at any other point aside from convention sketchbooks.
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains
"There is one way there, and one way only. And that way is treacherous and hard."
This is one short story that started with something small and went somewhere much bigger. It's about a Scottish dwarf in a tiny kilt going in search of a cave full of gold, accompanied by a reaver called Calum McInnes
It's a story that melds Jacobean history with a sixteenth-century legend about the Isle of Skye and something that was supposed to have happened with the Border Reavers 300 years ago -- or to steal a line from Good Omens, it's a story about "the Scots, locked in eternal combat with their mortal enemies, the Scots." It's full of murder and revenge, secrets and ghosts. It was originally written for an anthology Gaiman edited with Al Sarrantonio called Stories, but then the Sydney Opera House phoned.
They asked Neil if he'd like to do something for the Graphic Festival, a celebration of visual art, comics, and other forms -- something that intersected words and pictures and music; something that could be a unique event on stage at the Sydney Opera House. He said he had a story that he'd just finished and that had never been published or seen anywhere before, set in a slightly skewed version of Scotland a few hundred years ago.
"It was the perfect length and it would give them something to work with, and I thought that Eddie would be the perfect artist for that and he's in Australia. It just felt right, the Scottishness and the Australianess meant that I'd be getting something right" (Huff, 2011).
Eddie Campbell is a Glaswegian artist who moved to Australia in the mid-eighties. Back in Gaiman's journalist days, he championed Campbell's autobiographical comics alongside Watchmen and Love & Rockets. Campbell had since contributed to the Sandman Gallery, illustrated a Gaiman-penned issue of The Spirit: The New Adventures (in the style of Will Eisner), and a three-page prologue to a Green Lantern story, but he and Gaiman had never collaborated on something that was entirely new, some-thing that was purely their own. "The Truth" would put a Scotsman back into a cold and craggy place with a palette of purple, black, and green. And despite Gaiman murdering a dozen Campbells in the story, Eddie signed up to do it. He painted thirty-five illustrations to be projected behind Gaiman as he read, pictures of huge black mountains with veins of white water cutting through the shadows, rocks and jagged islands jutting from gray sea like the bones of the earth.
As for the music, that was festival cocurator Jordan Verzar's idea. He sent Gaiman some FourPlay music -- "an electric string quartet famous in Australia for being not only avant-garde but also a rock group, capable of going from classical to The Simpsons theme to torch songs" -- and Gaiman says they had him at the Doctor Who theme. "I was just listening and going: This. Is. Brilliant. And going through every-thing else, and then I went onto iTunes and just bought everything by them and started listening to them obsessively going: this is just perfect," he said in a Graphic Festival interview.
"So I sent the story to FourPlay, they sent music back to me, I sent them notes on what they'd done with some suggestions rather nervously, and then we had a day to rehearse the day before the show. Which was basically me reading with them playing at the same time and at the end of that, that was when we made the big notes. ‘The way you're doing the end is too upbeat, it needs to be more haunting until the end and then move back into the moving theme and then you need to punch up the Lara singing to happen here and here and here to link in the theme and memory . . .' It was that kind of thing. And they would go off into these huddles. FourPlay squabble and huddle better than anybody. It's amazing. Lara is bossy and they all have their roles, like the Fantastic Four. I'm not even going further into that because I know people will start saying, ‘Are you saying that Tim or Peter is Mr. Fantastic?' and I'm not going to get into that" (Huff, 2011).
In the lead-up to the event, Gaiman was terrified. He had no idea if it was going to work, but that was also part of the fun. "I like the fact that it is unique. It's not like anything I've ever done before. You can't really point to a great tradition of authors telling stories while string quartets improv music over it to giant paintings being projected behind it" (Huff, 2011). It was such an oddity that explaining to people what it was became something of a difficulty (for Gaiman and anyone), and the closest anyone got was saying it was a bit like making a movie in your own head. You are given audio, visual, and story, and you combine the elements yourself.
The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains was performed, words, art, music, and all, in August 2010. It sold out the Sydney Opera House concert stage, got a standing ovation when it was done, and it got Gaiman an open invitation to return. The curators of MONA FOMA, Tasmania's music and arts festival, were there that night and asked if they would do it again. It was performed for the second time in January 2011, to three thousand people, with fifteen more Campbell paintings than the first.
The whole weird experiment was such a huge and unexpected success that Gaiman and the band went into the recording studio and did a live eighty-minute take, a clean recording rather than a fuzzy one from the night. "There are places where I start reading and I almost feel like I'm the fifth instrument. A lot of the time I'm there and I'm telling the story, but there are a few places where they'll be playing and I'm reading and because I know where the beats are I can hit the beats with the sentence and it combines and becomes something great" (Huff, 2011).
No one's heard it yet, but ultimately the story will be available in three formats: one, as a graphic novel put together by Campbell, an eighty-page color book with even more illustrations than Tasmania got; two, the book with a recording of Gaiman's voice and FourPlay's music; and the third, an experimental enhanced ebook that will give ebooks further reason for existing and doubters a reason for envy.
The Art of Neil Gaiman, by Hayley Campbell [US edition, Harpercollins]
The Art of Neil Gaiman, by Hayley Campbell [UK edition, Ilex Press]
Text: edited extract from The Art of Neil Gaiman
Images courtesy of Ilex Press, @Ilex_Press