The Source of Death - Netflix's The Sandman
Updated: May 29
With the news of casting for Netflix's The Sandman getting firmed up, we have Tom Sturridge playing Dream of the Endless and Kirby Howell-Baptiste playing Death. Hearing of the news, there's a bit of personal fun going back to one of my late 80s infatuations.
The character 'Death' in the DC Comics universe has a bit of history. Where Death was a recurring presence, woven through-out several Silver Age comics and stories, it was typically portrayed, as it often is, as an imposing male. He may wear a dark purple cloak, a simple fedora shadowing the features of his visage. A faceless man. He may also be a skeleton in a cloak, as is often portrayed since the Middle Ages.
With The Sandman introduced by DC in 1989, comic fans were introduced to gorgeous, organic mixed media covers - a world apart from the standard two-dimensional, very traditional, ink covers. Looking at the carefully woven and intricate art of Dave McKean for cover #1, we knkow what we are in for. It is mystery, it appears religious. It is about time, it looks something like death. I met DC Death when reading an old issues of The Phantom Stranger.
[Don't get me wrong, there other, rich covers before - Dave McKean also did the cover for Black Orchid (another Gaiman and McKean collaboration). Bill Sienkiewicz perhaps started the trend in the early 80s - with very arresting Moon Knight or Wonder Man covers. My favorite Sienkiewicz is anything he touched with Daredevil, The Shadow or with Batman. I wouldn't mind framing any of the pages within the Arkham Asylum graphic novel.]
With Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, the interior art was just as intricate and, well, dreamy.
In issue #8, we are introduced to Death, the sister of Dream (the titular 'Sandman'). Like the Sandman we all know, he is the shaper of dreams, a personification of our sleeping life. He moves between worlds as an immortal, with powers almost as if a god. His sister, seemingly against type, being younger and sleight - is actually a far more powerful being. In the first eight books of the series, Death comes at the very end to give perspective to her brother.
Gaiman uses Death sparingly, yet, after a single appearance and few others she became a wildly popular character in the early 90s.
Death's character design was based upon a friend of a friend. Gaiman was going for an obvious hip rock look - a pale woman with high cheek bones. Gothic rock was a sub-genre from the 80s and had well entrenched in sub-punk circles. So the look would have played well near the band room - where colored hair, piercings, or safety pins in a busy array across one's leather jacket - these were already in the zeitgeist. Cinamon Hadley became the direct inspiration for the look, with all of the chains, heavy makeup and wild mystery that came with it.
Death caught on at the same time that post-punk, prescient grunge came to the fore. The look and feel of Death saddled between these two ages of rock - the (seemingly) dark chaos, non-conformity, self-loathing and dispassionateness of the trend.
In my opinion, Death was also the forerunner of the manic pixie girl - an impossibly hot girl unware of her sexual magnetism. Death was a young, porcelain like doll - but, below the dark tank top was a power that literally shook the universe to its core...should she ever decide to use it.
The danger and enticement came together in the unassuming smirk. Remember, she is Death - she is there to take life or bargain life - and not there to give solace, or warmth of life. For a 90s hetero guy, this is pure catnip. For women, it was empowering. Death was a character that didn't need a man to complete or drive an arc. She was impassively strong.
Death is Goth. As comics hit their Modern Age period, and popularity soared, she too introduced the concepts of gothic subculture, first popularized in the UK in the early 80s.
For digestible introductions to Death, here is an short clip that captures a little of her "DC Showcase - Death - Animated Short Clip" from 'The World's Finest'
For those intrepid enough to read - my introduction outside of The Sandman was:
- Death: The High Cost of Living
or for those that want a bit of an anthology
- The Absolute Death
And, over the years both cosplay and fan art has been rife with Death or Death-adjacent work:
The Sandman Cast List:
Tom Sturridge - Dream of the Endless
Kirby Howell-Baptiste - Death
Niamh Walsh - Young Ethel Cripps
Kyo Ra - Rose Walker
Jenna Coleman - Johanna Constantine
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