Mark Reads ‘Death: The High Cost of Living’

In the first Death miniseries, Death takes her sabbatical as one of the Endless to live as a human for one day. In the process, she changes a life. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Death: The High Cost of Living.

I am truly glad that I’m not quite done with The Sandman, but I’m even more excited that I get two more stories entirely about Death. Gaiman’s characterization of her is continually fascinating to me, especially because he eschews the idea that she has to be grim, dark, and bleak. I think that’s a lot of what Sexton can’t understand about Death in The High Cost of Living, so that sort of dynamic works well for telling stories, too.

This story centers around the day Death spends as a human once every century, something I’ve wanted to see since it was first introduced as a small detail in The Sandman. This is largely seen through the eyes of Sexton, who might just be one of the most irritating narrators since Holden Caulfield. I think it’s a testament to Gaiman’s skill that I not only hated him so much, but that by the story’s end, I actually came to like him and appreciate what he’d been through. Sexton actually has a lot in common with Holden when you think about it. He’s characterized here initially as a teenager upset with life, going through an existential crisis, and horrifically judgmental and bigot-y towards any number of people. It’s actually entertaining to see him clash with Death’s carefree and accepting attitude, especially since she’s able to deconstruct his thought process in mere seconds.

Sexton starts out The High Cost of Living completely disinterested in the world, but by the time the comic is over, I came to understand why he felt so suicidal. His frustration and angst at not fitting in, as well as the trauma of having to go through his parents’ divorce, left him feeling listless and useless. And that’s not to say he gets a free pass for all the awful stuff he says, but I’m always interested in character motivations. Why is he so rude to people he has just met? Why does he treat Death/Didi with such disdain for at least half of the story?

It’s interesting, too, to see how the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope appears to be used at first, but is ultimately demonstrated to be the choice of Death. She becomes human for a day and purposely affects the lives of those she meets. She is his guide because it’s her choice. In a way, I’d like to imagine that she was almost called to him because he was so close to his death, so she arrives to tell him that perhaps his time should be later on in his life. But Sexton resists this, and he resists it for a very long time. Part of that is, of course, due to the surreal nature of what he experiences during his day with Death. Nothing she says makes any sense to him; he consistently thinks she has a mental illness; and then he starts witnessing things that just get stranger and stranger. But why do these things grate on him so intensely?

I think the answer to that is in the title of this story. The High Cost of Living. What is the cost of living for all of these characters? What price does Sexton pay for merely living? What about Mrs. Robbins, or Hazel, or Foxglove (HELP AMAZING QUEER CHARACTERS WITH A BABY ON THE WAY HELP), or the Eremite or Mad Hattie or Theo? This rumination on the logistics of living is spread throughout the whole comic, and it’s one of my favorite themes that Gaiman’s ever dealt with. That means I need to spend time right now talking about how much I adore Hazel and Foxglove. Here is a story of happiness and newfound love, and we’re shown how these two love life, either through the art that Foxglove makes or the choices Hazel has made to be happy with life. Nowhere in this story is Hazel shamed for quitting her job, for being pregnant, or for being utterly lovely.

I admit to being completely and utterly confused by the entire Eremite plot. I don’t know who he is! I even searched my own posts on this site to see if he popped up before, but I’m totally lost. Why does he want Death’s ankh? Is he a DC character that I’ve just never read about? Either way, I don’t think this detracted from my enjoyment of this story, even if I was a bit lost. His actions inherently cause the entire scene in that basement, and that’s where a lot of the most important dialogue and character development happens. We get to see the first time Death finally snaps at Sexton, which was kind of incredible. And that’s important because it’s part of being human. Sometimes, the cost of life is anger, and in that moment, Death gives in to the building fury she’s had towards Sexton’s disposition, and she explodes. Unsurprisingly, she apologizes for the outburst immediately, and that’s another aspect of her personality that I adore. She’s so nice, genuinely so!

Also, can I take a moment just to appreciate how INCREDIBLE that series of panels is regarding the clown toy? Like, HOLY SHIT. It’s brilliant, and it’s so creepy.

Anyway, there’s a surreal element to what these two characters discuss while Sexton tries to find a way to escape. There’s certainly resistance on Sexton’s part towards understanding who Didi really is, but I like the sensation that these two are working towards understanding their own existential confusion about what they’re doing in life. I know that on the surface, both Death and Sexton are discussing what the Eremite did to them, what he’ll do in the future, and how they might escape, but I think it’s fascinating to think that they’re also questioning the very tenet of what it means to live. Once Mad Hettie and Mrs. Robbins show up, and the scene has a new dynamic. Death experiences motherly love from Mrs. Robbins, and that’s another aspect of humanity that many people go through. Death is here to learn about the life she is taking, and I think you could honestly analyze every single interaction she has with another human in this context. DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH I LOVE THIS? Very much.

Death also has another mind-blowing line when she finds a new ankh from a street vendor. “He’s right, of course,” she says, speaking of the Eremite’s belief that Death’s ankh holds power. “It’s a symbol of life; and symbols have power.” It’s one of those statements that’s crucial towards understanding the world of The Sandman. History has given weight to certain symbols, and that’s related to the power that gods and goddesses and deities have in our lives. There’s a power in the image of the cross, regardless of whether you’re Christian or not. There’s a power in secular imagery as well! You could also apply the same logic to things like corporate logos, business suits, pink bows, and other seemingly innocuous inanimate objects. But in terms of this story, it’s related to why life is so important for these characters and for Death.

That’s what I think the scene at the fountain represents. What do all these symbols and parts of life mean? Is the whole greater than the parts? For Death, I think she appreciates both. She appreciates the chance to experience life for a whole day. At the same time, it’s all the individual parts that give her experience meaning. There are parts that are good, bad, dull, and painful, she says, and they are all parts that represent the cost of being alive. Oh god, and then she “dies” in the fountain and goes to Dream. THAT’S DREAM, RIGHT. RIGHT???? Oh, I miss him so much all over again.

But this ends with Sexton coming to realize that maybe this shouldn’t be his end. It doesn’t mean he’s shed all his bitterness or anger. That’s still there in some way, but it’s expended elsewhere. You can see the clear difference in how he treats his mother, too. Death gave Sexton the appreciation for the cost of his life. The same goes for Mad Hettie, who finds her heart, but knows that eventually, Death will be back. And Death is always going to come back for us, and it’s nice to think that she could be someone just like Didi.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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