A Young Woman Called Death…
On Neil Gaiman, the Sandman Series, and the Way We Gender the Grim Reaper
In the lobby of a hotel in Turin, Neil Gaiman found himself faced with a daunting task: to condense the entire Sandman series of graphic novels, which he had finished seven years earlier in 1996, into twenty-five words or less. “The Lord of Dreams,” Gaiman finally decided, “learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” It was fitting that Gaiman chose to speak of death in connection with the protagonist of the series, Dream of the Endless, since Dream’s sister, Death, most often represented as a friendly goth girl wearing an ankh around her neck, is perhaps the most iconic character in the series. The wonderful, highly literary Sandman graphic novels—published from 1989 to 1996 and amongst the first graphic novels to receive acclaim by literary critics, partly due to their novel engagement with texts by Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, and others—follow the Endless siblings, each of whom represents some aspect of the universe: Dream, Death, Despair, Destruction, Desire, Delirium, and Destiny. They are more than personifications of these ideas; it might be most accurate to refer to them simply as a point of view of each of these concepts.
And Gaiman’s choice to represent Death—so often personified as either male or without a specific gender—as a woman is intriguing. The Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago was known for something similar, as his beautiful novel Death with Interruptions depicted death—here not capitalized—as an old woman who sends people purple letters informing them of their impending demise. I love both of these portrayals for different reasons, and they each join a long tradition of how writers and artists have depicted death. And while it might just seem like an arbitrary choice on the surface to choose a gender for Death, I think Gaiman’s decision in particular raises fascinating questions about how we may think about the end.
How we describe or personify things, after all, says as much about them as it may about us—and perhaps nothing says more about our lives than how we personify death. Characters often come to us as writers because we need them, even if we do not know it. Death of the Endless is such an incredible figure not simply because of how she looks, but how she acts—for it is her kindness, perhaps above all, that kills so many of us, in a different sense of the word. Compassion is a tremendous power. Most grim reapers, grinning in graveyards under gray growling skies, are meant to menace when they smile. Gaiman’s character, by contrast, shows the power of empathy. Indeed, she even occasionally saves lives, at least temporarily. She can be quite frightening when she wishes to be, can lift Munchian screams from mortals and deities alike—but that she chooses not to makes her that most unusual of Deaths: the kind you might actually want to smile at, even if she catches us raging, raging against the dying of the light.
* * * *
The first story in The Sandman series begins with a plot faintly similar to, but more malicious than, Saramago’s Death with Interruptions. In Gaiman’s version, a group of corrupt men are trying to capture Death through sorcery; if they can trap her in a magical prison, they believe they can prevent anyone from ever dying again. A later story, “Death: A Winter’s Tale,” is actually more like Saramago’s; Death stops taking life, for a time, because the pain of the job—the revulsion people felt towards seeing her, the miasma of sadness—became too much to bear. As Dream says in the final story in Preludes and Nocturnes, humans fear his sister’s gift, despite her kindness; she never tells the recently dead what will happen to them after dying, but we always hear “the beating of her great wings” as she brings them to what she calls “the sunless lands.” “A Winter’s Tale” reveals that Death becomes her kind self after deciding to spend a day, every century, as a mortal, to see what it would feel like to meet death, that is, herself, and she learns the virtue of being gentle and compassionate to the dying, even when they greet her with loathing. So pretty is Death, inside and out, that in The High Cost of Living, almost every mortal stranger she meets, regardless of gender, is willing to give her something for free just because they like her—unaware of what she truly means when she tells them she will “see them again soon.”
Gaiman had always imagined his conception of Death as female, but she originally looked quite different. “In my original Sandman outline,” Gaiman reveals in The Sandman Companion, “I suggested Death look like rock star Nico in 1968, with the perfect cheekbones and perfect face she has on the cover of the Chelsea Girl album.” Artist Mike Dringenberg claims that Gaiman also wanted Death to originally look like iconic flapper film star Louise Brooks, “with a sort of short, black bob, and much more stylish.” Later, Gaiman was sent a drawing of a woman from Salt Lake City, Cinnamon Hadley; Cinnamon’s appearance, which is much like Death’s, struck him. As if by fate, the same night he saw the extraordinary drawing, Gaiman and artist Dave McKean “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 hair, was dressed entirely in black—black jeans, T-shirt—and wore a big silver ankh on a silver necklace. And she looked exactly like Mike Dringenberg’s drawing of Death.” Despite the fact that Death would appear only sporadically in the ten Sandman volumes, she was immediately the most popular character.
For Langston Hughes in “Ways,” a poem he published in 1925, the end is also feminine: “Death comes like a mother / To hold you in her arms,” he writes of someone who appears to have committed suicide, using language that makes death seem almost gentle and loving. This, perhaps, is the contradiction of death: that, like those we love the most, it is capable of both hurting and soothing us all at once in ways that seem cruel and contradictory. Death and love, of course, are not the same; but it can be surprising, and disquieting, how many characteristics they can seem to share.
* * * *
I dressed as Death the first time I presented female to my university department, two months before I came out to everyone as transgender. It was Halloween. In Dominica, we rarely recognized Halloween—our pumpkins were more likely to end up in soup than as a chthonic face on someone’s porch—but the day’s presence was hard to ignore, particularly as teenagers and children, as the many American channels on our television service filled the lethargic October air with chills that our balmy temperature never quite reached. We had witches and demons of our own in the island in our collective imagination, and ghost stories existed all year round, but I always had a vague sense that I was supposed to think of the gulf between the living and the dead more in October because of the pervasiveness of America’s influence. I enjoyed Halloween’s contradictoriness, the way its eeriness could be artifice or actuality, the way masks could be false, or truly monstrous. And, as a closeted trans girl, the idea of a mask as face seemed all too accurate.
For days before the party, I practiced my makeup with the martial rigor of a soldier. I was terrified of getting anything wrong; I wanted to show the department a side of myself most of them had never seen before. The night of the party was filled with the leaf-tugging wind of a cheap horror film. I almost didn’t leave my house after getting dressed, pacing and trembling with the dreamlike mania of a politician about to face a hostile press conference. But I fortified myself with a shot of Chianti, put on a vulpine black smile for my mirror, retied my boots’ laces, and then stepped outside.
Later in the evening, a friend of mine told me she hadn’t recognized me, but had just thought I was a “beautiful girl she didn’t know.” I was blown over. Joy sang encores in the opera hall of my mind.
In a silly way, Death was beginning to give me, too, life.
The first time I imagined Death in a story I wrote, which was before I had come across The Sandman, she was a girl with blue curly hair, an image I kept returning to in my writing whenever she, Death, appeared; her appearance partly reflected my love of anime. But it is also possible I imagined Death as a woman because I had not as yet come out, and I often lived in a silent agony; death and womanhood were flips of a coin, it seemed, with life only being life if I could live as my truest self. Perhaps this is all wrong, and it was a coincidence. But it’s difficult for me to think that how I, or anyone else, personifies something is entirely coincidental.
We are, after all, always part of what we create.
* * * *
Death is woven into the fabric of human history. Death breathes life into almost every aspect of human society at some level, a presence-absence we often forget unless we are inundated with it, but which we are always in some sense working for or against. Because it intersects with so many human beliefs, particularly in the realm of religion, we’ve often transformed it into a human image: a human skeleton, a masked being with a scythe, or any number of sundry variations. In many cases, death is personified as male; in others, death is genderless, and, in a few others, female. In the hallucinatory images of The Book of Revelations, Death is a man on a “pale horse.” In the text to Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, Death plays his violin. Frederic March’s renowned 1934 film, Death Takes a Holiday, portrays the reaper as a dapper American man. Indeed, in Gaiman’s The High Cost of Living, a young man named Sexton meets Death and does not believe her when she tells him that she is Death because, as he thinks to himself later, “Death’s this tall guy with a bone face, like a skeletal monk, with a scythe and an hourglass and a big white horse and a penchant for playing chess with Scandinavians.” Though Death, like the rest of the Endless, tends to take a certain form, she seems able to become whatever someone views death as, meaning she could look like a tall man with a face of bone, but that she chooses not to allows her to confound expectations like Sexton’s.
How we personify things often suggests something about the personifier. That something as omnipresent as death is so often a male figure is likely an implicit nod to patriarchal assumptions about gender and importance, which makes Gaiman’s, and other historical versions of death as feminine, all the more notable. Personification, like many things, is political. Portraying death as female is not necessarily empowering to women, of course, nor to any other gender; but, to me, Gaiman’s humane version feels utterly uplifting.
* * * *
Towards the end of World’s End, volume eight of The Sandman, a human named Brant Tucker briefly sees a vision of Death. “I think I fell in love with her, a little bit,” he says. “Isn’t that dumb? But it was like I knew her. Like she was my oldest, dearest friend. The kind of person you can tell anything to, no matter how bad, and they’ll still love you, because they know you.”
Tucker’s words capture her well. Gaiman’s Death is a sister and best friend in all the complexities that those things can mean: a character who will chide you for doing wrong, who can hurt you tremendously with a look, yet who seems to radiate love from nothing more than her smile. Indeed, her first appearance is as a hurt, concerned sister to Dream, chiding him for not asking for her help and trying to cheer him up by quoting Mary Poppins. So humanlike is she that, in “Death Talks About Life,” a special extra after the end of the Sandman series, she’s depicted casually speaking to the reader about sex awareness and AIDS; charmingly, midway through, she takes out a banana to demonstrate using a condom. In a speech from 1998, Gaiman reveals that he would even “get letters from readers who had used my character Death to get through the death of a loved one.”
In “Only Death,” Pablo Neruda writes that, in “the sound of death which is silence… Death arrives among all that sound / like a shoe with no foot in it… Nevertheless, its steps can be heard.” The Sandman’s Death is here to help its living readers—but perhaps it helps, too, to be able to picture a smiling face, should we begin to hear those ghostly steps.
* * * *
The Sandman isn’t without controversies, and the one closest to my heart encircles defining womanhood. In A Game of You, a trans character, Wanda, is infamously denied a chance to contribute to a spell; the deities require menstrual blood, and the witch performing the spell, Thessaly, excludes Wanda (who boldly tells the gods they “can take [their gender essentialism] and shove it up their sacred recta”). Later, Wanda, the series’ only iconic trans woman, dies, and in death she is shown as a woman with more conventional features; she now “passes,” so to speak, as a cisgender woman perfectly.
Gaiman actually spoke with trans women friends of his for these chapters. The chapters felt painful, even cruel, yet when I came to their end, I found them surprisingly empowering; after all, The Sandman’s gods are clearly fallible, and seeing Death embrace Wanda as another woman—for that was how Death, the wisest, possibly most powerful character, a figure capable of holding back even the fearsome figures of the Furies, saw her—made me smile. If Wanda wished to have more conventional features, there’s nothing wrong with that. While I understand the concerns some trans readers have with Wanda, I am one of the many trans readers who accepted her depiction. Despite the tropes in her appearance, Wanda feels fairly real to me; the discrimination she faces is what, in some form, many of us have faced, or continue to endure. That she defies deities themselves in her claim to womanhood is brilliantly powerful; those gods are crude biological essentialists. In death, Wanda breaks free of an appearance she seems to have felt uncomfortable in, gets to be seen last in a pretty form she seems happy in. There’s nothing wrong with having a body like Wanda’s—before or after her death. Some of us are happy in our bodies as is; some of us want to look different; neither is better than the other. Certainly, were it written today, Wanda’s depiction might differ, as Gaiman himself has acknowledged, but, for 1993, she actually seems somewhat progressive.
“Literature does not exist in a vacuum,” Gaiman writes in the introduction to The View from the Cheap Seats. “It cannot be a monologue. It has to be a conversation, and new people, new readers, need to be brought into the conversation too.” Whether or not we agree about characters like Wanda, I think it’s admirable that Gaiman listens to his readers.
We don’t always get to be who we wanted to, in death. But how lovely it is, to me, that Gaiman’s character lets us perhaps be who we are for a bit longer, before bearing us away on her wings to an undiscovered country.
* * * *
“Portion of this yew / Is a man my grandsire knew,” begins Thomas Hardy’s well-known poem about what happens to us after we die. “This branch may be his wife, / A ruddy human life / Now turned to a green shoot.” “We’re made of star stuff,” Carl Sagan famously said on multiple occasions. For Hardy and Sagan, death and birth are connected: we are made up of many things, and we return to them as we expire. Of course, “we” here is a romanticization; our consciousness, what makes us “we,” is what is likely truly deceased.
What is Death, really? On the one hand, Death seems a paradox: a character who represents the termination of life seems lively and loving, a lighthouse of humaneness to follow. Personifying death can comfort us, and it’s very human to believe that we would turn even the removal of life into something symbolized by life, yet it can also be deceptive; after all, we may end up romanticizing death by portraying it as a lovely young girl, or as a human at all. Personifying death is another way of imagining an afterlife of sorts, even a temporary one; it gives us something, or someone, to look forward to, even if we do not believe in an afterlife. As much as I love Gaiman’s vision of Death, I am aware that she allows me to deceive myself that the end is probably not attended by someone kind.
But I think there is ultimately something enriching about portraying death like this. Maybe it’s not so bad to imagine a hand to hold when the starless night comes, as long as we make sure we value the real human hands to hold around us. And it’s wonderful to see a female character in such a powerful role: powerful not simply because she is perhaps the strongest of all the Endless, but because she is gentle and kind, a mundane superpower in its own right. Death can teach us how to live better.
“Peachy keen,” as she famously says.