Death: The High Cost of Living

Death: The High Cost of Living cover

Looking back at a modern classic, Death: The High Cost of Living maintains its quiet charm over a decade after its publication. Neil Gaiman writes, Chris Bachalo pencils, and Mark Buckingham inks the story of Death’s day off.

The opening demonstrates how beautifully Gaiman blends the fantastic and the everyday as Mad Hettie, an apparently scattered bag lady, turns out to be capable of a kind of hedge magic. The dialogue is immediately evocative, with the added Anglophile appeal of British dialect. That’s only prologue, though. The real story is that of Sexton Furnival, a self-involved suicidal sixteen-year-old. He doesn’t love anyone, he doesn’t hate anyone, and he doesn’t see the point any more.

Of course, he’s going to gain a new appreciation of life through his encounter with Death. The appeal of the book isn’t “what happens” but how effectively it’s shown and how amusingly it’s portrayed. Bachalo’s art, in particular, is lovely, contributing a great deal to the appeal of Death. She’s been described as looking like a “goth cheerleader”, not a bad summation. She’s certainly the perkiest life-ender ever, and her drily good humor is contagious. Plus, she’s very cute.

Death: The High Cost of Living cover

Since Death only gets one mortal day every hundred years, she takes every advantage, and she’s thrilled about everyday items we take for granted, like the taste of apples. She also tends to speak in epigrams such as “It’s no harder to be nice than it is to be creepy.” Gaiman has a fondness for obscure bits of knowledge that pepper the pages and surprise the reader.

Overall, the story is about what happens when you wish for something unusual to happen and it does. There’s a lot of synchronicity, with people giving Death things for free and characters running into people they know in surprising circumstances. Any life is an adventure if you know how to view it with open eyes. Sexton has caused his own ennui through being too afraid to commit to anything. Now, with the reader, he learns the appeal of sincerity.

This book also contains the short Public Service Announcement “Death Talks About Life” in which she educates readers about AIDS and demonstrates how to put on a condom. It’s illustrated by Dave McKean, and it’s a pungent reminder of the era in which the stories were originally created.

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