Jill Thompson, Death: At Death's Door (Vertigo, 2003)
Fans of Neil Gaimanís Sandman will remember Jill Thompson. She penciled Brief Lives, in which Morpheus goes in search of his lost brother Destruction. Thompsonís most memorable visual contribution was her depiction of Delirium: mischievous, mad, a punked-out and hung-over teenager one moment and a skipping child the next, growing magic mushrooms from the floor and granting a momentary erotic encounter to two little chocolate people filled with raspberry cream.
At Deathís Door is a Sandman spin-off, drawn manga-style and starring Death and Delirium. It takes place at the same time as Sandmanís Season of Mists, in which Dream is given the key to Hell. And that is where the problem begins. But not where it ends.
If youíre familiar with Season of Mists, you will notice that an annoyingly large amount of At Deathís Door is lifted directly from it, scene by scene and line by line. (If you've never read Season of Mists, there is absolutely no reason to read At Death's Door.) At first itís amusing to see familiar scenes and characters re-interpreted as manga. Morpheus seems entirely at home as a broody bishounen (pretty boy), and even Despair is cute.
But it quickly becomes apparent that thereís a dearth of new material. And when an original plot finally appears, itís slight in the extreme. Damned spirits are released from Hell, and they show up at Deathís cozy house. Death leaves Despair and Delirium to keep the souls in line, and goes to try to sort things out. While sheís gone, Delirium throws a party.
"Delirium throws a party" is the theme of the book as well as its plot. Not much happens, everything is chaotic, and while thereís lots of cuteness possibly more than you can stand it doesnít add up to much. The story and characters are so insubstantial that the book erases itself from your memory as you read it.
Darker themes appear, then are abandoned without exploration. Quirky bits from Sandman, like "green mouse and telephone ice cream," are resurrected but not given a good payoff. The final punchline is not only obvious, but not even wittily phrased. There is no particular reason for this story to be drawn as manga unlike Thompson's adorable Little Endless, who were drawn as podgy picture-book characters because they were part of a children's story so the style seems disconnected from the story. The most enjoyment I got out of this was when it prompted me to re-read Brief Lives and Season of Mists.
At Deathís Door is like cotton candy: it looks tempting and the first bite is evanescent and sweet, but eventually you have to force yourself to finish the sickly stuff. Then itís gone, leaving you with a sugar rush, a stomach thatís still nine-tenths empty, and a slightly lighter wallet.
[Rachel Manija Brown]