I’ve always been pretty open about my passions. Always loved horror, always loved weird, fantastical fiction, superheroes, and all of my genre interests, niche and mainstream alike. My love of comics is definitely one of the oldest loves I can remember. I don’t even remember the name of the store now, but when I was very young, there was this place that had an old-school spinner rack, where comics cost less than a dollar. Even to write it now, it sounds like something my parents would have grown up with. That whole model had pretty much disappeared by the time I was born. The comics were old, too. Those first comics I ever owned, picked up on that rack, were issues of Shazam, Tarzan, Conan and Brave and the Bold ranging from ten to twenty years before I was born. The only time in my life I ever attempted to put those interests on the back burner was during high school, and I can’t for the life of me really explain why. I still would read the occasional trade of Ultimate Spider-Man, but not with the frequency I devoured that title in middle school. I have no idea what I thought would be gained from trying to hide a few interests in high school when all I did was flaunt all the other things I was passionate about. But it went on like that, until a favorite teacher that got me back into comics. She did what all teachers should do, saw the things I wrote, knew the things I loved, and recommended next steps to fuel that spark, creatively. So she recommended I read Sandman and I am still indebted to her for that.
I had known of Sandman, for sure. I’d heard it mentioned often in the pages of Wizard, I had a friend who tried to get me into it in middle school, I’d seen action figures of Morpheus and Death at the local comic shop and at Spencer’s. But knowing and reading are completely different things. I’ll admit, though, that when I first started reading Sandman in high school and collecting the trades, I found the first volume a little difficult to get through. It was dense, dropped me into a complex mythology and didn’t wait for me to catch up, and featured appearances from several DC characters I was only half-familiar with. Then came issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” the last story featured in that first trade paperback collection. And the comic that became, from pretty much the moment I first read it, my single favorite comic issue of all time.
It also cemented Gaiman’s version of Death as one of my all-time favorite characters. I think a love of Death, the character, and this issue go hand-in-hand. This is the issue that introduces readers to Sandman’s incarnation of Death, one of the Endless, older sister to our protagonist Morpheus/Dream. The entire issue sets up not only exactly who she is, but why. It’s basically a 30-ish page statement of character and intent that’s perfectly executed. Morpheus is feeling unsatisfied and depressed after reclaiming his kingdom, as he is unsure of what his next steps are supposed to be, given that he has been out of the world for so long. He’s unsure of his purpose, of how or even why to execute his duty, when the world has gotten by without him performing that duty for nearly a century. Death, in an effort to both cheer him up and give him some much-needed tough love, invites him along as she goes about her day’s work.
So many things are endearing about this character right from the first page. Her goth appearance isn’t much of a shock, considering the way her brother dresses, but it is fascinating that, between Dream and Death, Dream is the more depressed of the two. Death has a bubbly, spunky, genuinely upbeat personality. That’s the hook, that’s the thing that immediately draws people to this character, the notion of Death as someone who is genuinely peppy. The brilliance of the character, though, the thing that makes her genuinely one of the greatest characters in all of comics, is why she is the way that she is. And I think this issue executes that perfectly.
Gaiman’s Death isn’t just a cute and peppy goth. Her confidence, her outlook, these things come from the concrete knowledge that both she and what she is doing are important. She has the worst job in the world, but to her, it isn’t. Her outlook makes every kind of sense as you get to know her over the course of this issue. This is a demeanor that stems from the unwavering knowledge that you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, that the job you perform is right and good and utterly necessary. Most people never get that, and it’s a big part of why we’re rarely as content and peaceful as Death seems to be all the time. The other thing, though, is I think the most beautiful aspect of the character. And that’s that she doesn’t think of this as “a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.” Not remotely. For Death, being there for people when they go, being that comforting hand on their shoulder to help them pass, it’s a genuine honor.
And while I’d barely experienced death in my life at the time, had brushed up against it only fleetingly, reading this issue for the first time was a kick in the pants I truly needed as a teen. I was a mopey, whiny teen, without a doubt, and sorely needed the perspective that this comic offered. Morpheus is complaining about, essentially, having everything he wants again, he just doesn’t know what to do about it. And while he had certainly been through a lot, as he follows Death along for a day in her life, walks in her world for a bit, it makes his problems seem pretty trivial. It certainly made me realize that mine were. After all, what does he truly have to complain about in comparison?
While I’d barely even brushed up against death as a teen, though, I was still terrified of it. I’ve always been more afraid of risks than I’d like to admit. Even writing that, I feel the special kind of embarrassment that only comes from honesty. Reading, watching, even writing horror had helped me to start to make sense of the fact that lives end, sometimes violently, and in some ways, always unexpectedly. But “The Sound of Her Wings” was the first thing to ever make me feel even remotely at peace with it. I think part of that stems from the kinds of death that are experienced over the course of this one issue.
There’s an old man who pleads that he’s not ready, for a moment, as he realizes who she is, before resigning himself to his fate. It’s almost instinctual, like the natural response when greeting Death is to beg for life, even if you’re as accepting as you could possibly be. Then there’s a woman electrocuted by her microphone during a standup routine, acknowledging that she could have been one of the greats, and Death is there to listen to her and walk her toward the exit. Then, the moment that still makes my heart sink to read, a baby who dies in their crib. They study the scene as Death takes them in her arms, saying, “Is that all I get?” Death is there for them, too. Then at the end, an air headed soccer player who hit on Death at the beginning of the issue, gets hit by a car and doesn’t even realize what happened, so Death has to be the one to break the news.
She provides the same service to everyone. A kind hand, a warm presence, a listening ear, at the most terrified and uncertain moment anyone will ever have. And yet it’s a different service for every individual, because no two people’s needs are the same, especially in death. She’s there for absolutely everyone, and therefore, can be in two places at once, probably often more. She’s respectful of all religions, all beliefs, she’s there, as she says in issue #20, “for old and young, innocent and guilty, those who die together and those who die alone.” In Death: The High Cost of Living, in which she gets to live one day in a mortal body, she’s even there for herself. There’s no judgment from Death, ever. She’s simply there to be there, to help you move to where you’re going, to be a presence so that you’re not alone, when you simply need someone to be there most. There’s a great line Death says later on in the series, when she shows up for a man who, after living fifteen thousand years, dies when a piece of a building falls on his head while walking down the street. He’s lived a long time and his circumstances are unconventional, and he asks if he did okay, having lived a pretty long life. To this, Death responds, “You lived what everybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” Even though that line comes much later in the series, it is, I think, the thesis of this particular issue.
One of my favorite things about Death, even made clear in “The Sound of Her Wings,” is that she doesn’t seem to truly know where you’re going, she only helps you to get there. This is fascinating because, by this point in the series, we had already been to Hell. Morpheus went there to face Lucifer, challenge a demon and reclaim his helmet. This is a concrete place within this universe, and Heaven is mentioned as well. I simply love the idea that Hell can be presented as an afterlife but not necessarily the afterlife. I love that in a series that deals with not only God and the Devil, but in many ways all gods and all devils, that there is room for uncertainty. That just because Heaven and Hell are places on the map, we don’t know that’s where we’re going anymore than we know we’ll wind up in Albuquerque.
To see Death from Death’s perspective, to give that concept a voice and to explore it, that was foundational for me. And even though I was seventeen and had barely lived, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it changed my outlook on life, at least somewhat, at the time. It’s the issue that made me truly fall in love with Sandman and, as such, opened up my horizons to the kinds of comics and even fiction that I wanted to read and certainly changed my life creatively, in that regard.
Yet as much as it’s been my favorite comic book issue since I first read it back in high school, I’ve rarely revisited it. Doing so now, as an adult, has only cemented its status as a personal favorite story. My outlook on it has changed a lot since high school, and I think has only strengthened. When I first read “The Sound of Her Wings,” I had known a few losses, my great-grandmother, as well as a grandfather that I, at that point, hadn’t seen in years, and that was really it. Now I’m older. I’ve lost a parent, and that is a fundamental loss, I won’t pretend to downplay it. This past Christmas, I lost a grandfather that I would see plenty of times growing up, and at least once a year, even after I moved away. I’ve had and lost my own pets, including a cat earlier this year who gave me ten of the best years of my life. I know death a lot better now than I did when I was seventeen. And I find this comic all the more beautiful because of it. I understand it now in a way I couldn’t have possibly understood it then, even if I thought I did.
The greatest stories are the ones that are there when you really need them. Something to turn to when you’re lovesick, when you’re scared, or even when you feel you need to be scared, or be sad. They unlock exactly the emotion you need, and that’s why we gravitate toward them in the first place. That’s how they become favorites. Others, though, strike an even more personal chord. They’re there to give you a perspective you need, or want, something you know they can provide, something you know you’ll believe when you read it. Or sometimes what you don’t want to hear, but know you need to. I’ll be honest, I lose sight of the meaning of this comic more than I should. It’s just natural. I get scared, I worry, I panic about death or start leaning into my natural inclination toward being a neurotic hypochondriac. It happens. But whenever I need it, this comic is there to remind me, to balance me out. To provide perspective. That’s what the best stories do, that’s certainly what “The Sound of Her Wings” does, and that’s what Death does in all of her strongest appearances.
Because of that, I would have no problem arguing for Neil Gaiman’s Death being one of the greatest characters ever written, in comics or otherwise. I cannot believe that after so, so many years of false starts and development hell, that The Sandman is finally on its way as a Netflix series. Hell, I can barely even believe that it just got the great audio drama treatment that it had. To see the cast of Netflix’s Sandman has reignited a passion for this series that was long-dormant, even as strongly important to me as it is. I cannot wait to see what Kirby Howell-Baptiste does with the role of Death, in particular. It feels like we’ve been waiting forever at this point, and I have no idea when the series will actually premiere. Again, though, the uncertainty is healthy, natural and important. All we can say at this point is, as is true for every one of us, we’ll see her when we see her.
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