Ten Things I Learned about Life from ‘Death: the High Cost of Living’

Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel Death: The High Cost of Living was one of my favorite reads as a kid. It was originally released in 1993, but I didn’t read it until some time after the three-issue mini-series was collected into one volume. At the time the book was created, Neil Gaiman was a new name in the literary world and artist Chris Bachalo was best known for his work on Vertigo’s Shade, The Changing Man.

The book left a profound effect on my then-high school freshman perspective, and I find it gratifying to revisit it now that I’m a little older.

On January 28 at 7 p.m., the Comics and Pizza Club will discuss the book in the back room of the Harmon Tap Room.

So in the spirit of the impact Death had on me, here are ten things it taught me about life:

1.     You are not alone

We meet our main character, the young, depressed Sexton Furnival, while he’s typing out his suicide note. Forced to put off his fatal task, Sexton’s mother instead sends him outside for some fresh air. While killing time at a local garbage dump, Sexton falls into a sinkhole, only to be rescued by an endlessly perky goth girl (every straight man’s idiosyncratic dream of meeting a girl in the nineties, right?) and their adventure begins.

To the reclusive-teenage me, the scene symbolized the idea of hope: That life can offer more than what we might see at first – especially if we’re stuck in our own heads, cooped up and depressed.

2.     Appreciate life

In the book, we find that the girl rescuer, Didi (a name signifying duality) is actually the personification of Death. Every 100 years, she spends one day as a living being to experience mortality. As she experiences this one day with little time to savor life, ordinary things like apples become “amazing” to her.

3.     Myoclonic twitch

Improving my vocabulary is always nice. Also, pondering the nature of the edge between reality and dream, life and death can be fun too.

4.     It pays to be nice

Didi’s neverending kindness charms all those around her. Sexton becomes baffled as he watches people return her kindness with freebies like a cab ride, admission to shows, hot dogs, and bagels. It might be a little far-fetched, but it definitely shows that there are benefits to being nice to people, and not much reward for putting on a sour face.

5.     “If you know someone really well it’s hard to be mad at them for very long.”

What’s the point in holding a grudge, right? It’s hard to think of the antagonists as “villains” in this story because the narrative exposes the suffering they experience from their own tragedies.

6.     You can tell a lot about a person by their response to “Which do you like best? Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid?”

What appears to be a simple question can expand to be absorbing and open-ended when people respond – and that response speaks multitudes about an individual’s tastes and attitudes.

7.     Liver and entrails are better than tea leaves for specifics

I don’t really have regular need for divination so I haven’t used this advice yet, but it feels good to know.

8.     Symbols have power

Didi wears an ankh around her neck, an object that the Emerite (one of the story’s two antagonists) desperately wants to steal from her. And early in the story we meet Mad Hettie, a centuries-old homeless woman trying to find her own heart. These two items are the story’s Macguffins as the “power” these objects contain is never explicitly seen (i.e. they don’t give you the ability to shoot magic bolts). But like a lot of placebos and plot devices, we give them their power and they certainly have the ability to affect lives.

9.     Have a good time no matter what

Doesn’t it seem like the most memorable evenings are the ones where an unexpected monkey wrench is thrown? Nothing brings people together like overcoming a challenge.

10. You can’t see the true worth of life without perspective

Just like the mountain is best viewed from Tacoma, you won’t be able to realize the value of life until most of it has passed by.

Come share what you learned from Death with the Comics and Pizza Club, and learn more about the club itself. See you soon.

Illustration by Michael Fitzgerald.

Illustration by Michael Fitzgerald.

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