Reimagining the Personification of Death in Popular Culture

Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

When people learn that I am studying death and comics they will invariably ask if I mean the grim reaper. Usually I say no, because that’s not at all what I’m doing, but sometimes I say yes, just to see where the conversation will go, to find out what they know about the thing that piqued their interest. Often they will tell me their favourite incarnation of Death: the blue eyed Death from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, Kravitz from The Adventure Zone, and The Grim Reaper from Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey to name but a few. And, while in terms of personality and motivation they are all very different characters, what really struck me was that in all of these imaginings, regardless of the medium or intended audience, they all look more or less the same: tall, skeletal, clothed in black robes, more often than not armed with a scythe, and male. Overall, it is not a look that inspires comfort. Instead, it is one designed to induce fear or at the very least unease. Death — the personification of the end rather than the act of dying — is a figure who has come, uninvited, to take us away from life. We are not supposed to be ready for the appearance of death, and we are definitely not supposed to welcome them. We are supposed to be afraid, and the visual aesthetics of Death that we cling to within our popular imaginings reflect that.

Skeltons dancing, Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493
Danse Macabre, Michael Wolgemut, 1493

None of this is a contemporary issue. Skulls (and skeletons) have been used as symbols of death and mortality for centuries with art like the various incarnations of the Danse Macabre and Hans Holbein the Younger’s 1533 painting, The Ambassadors, standing as testament to this. Skulls were used as a symbol for death long before anyone at the pop culture factory got their hands on them. Death in the 15th and 16th century was a very different social (and physical) experience than it is today. The traditional death, as it existed prior to its medicalisation and as exemplified by Tony Walter in his book The Revival of Death (1994) was very much a part of everyday life. People encountered death frequently whether they wanted to or not. Mortality rates were high and the majority of deaths, whether from sickness or injury, occurred within the home. Similarly, funereal processes such as cleaning and preparing the body for burial would take place at home under the care of family members. Outside of the home, public executions were not uncommon and, often considered a form of entertainment, were well attended. The result was that for many years, within the west, people were able to encounter death close up. At this point, the motifs surrounding death were less about inducing the fear of death and more about instilling the fear of what came after.

Today, death, at least in terms of one’s proximity to a body, has been increasingly removed from the public gaze. No longer something that happens at home surrounded by family, death is now something that happens primarily behind closed doors in hospitals and hospices. As a result, the close up visual reality of human death has all but been removed from the majority of our everyday lives and the observation of death in this manner is no longer the norm as people are now very often only in a position to witness what Walter calls “dying, not death” (48). When we do witness death (and the dead), usually via media – television, film, etcetera – the “morbid” gazes, (a term coined by my incredible supervisor Ruth Penfold-Mounce) we enact enable us to separate ourselves from the reality of the situation. As such we are no longer looking at a person, but merely an object that used to be a person. It allows us to step beyond the humanity and the initial shock of being confronted with death (something we are not usually permitted) and to view something that (within contemporary western culture) is considered taboo in a safe and forgiving space. However, it is the neglected humanity of these images that is embodied in our depictions of Death. Because Death is not just an object that used to be a person. They are instead a living manifestation of all the fears we associate with dying. A reminder of what is coming for you. Of what is going to happen to you behind those closed doors.

With this in mind, I wonder: how do we move toward a culture of death positivity when death as Death is coded into our consciousness and ingrained into the fabric of our popular culture from movies to literature and cartoons to comics? We do what anyone looking to change public opinion does — we rebrand. I argue that through the reimagining of the personification of Death we can work to reduce some of the subliminal fears associated with dying by repositioning Death within the cultural landscape as a point of consolation rather than one of terror. It’s a big ask but it’s also a relatively small step because there are already a lot of examples of Death being subverted into something of a figure of fun or ridicule such as Grimm from The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy or the cab driving reapers from The Mighty Boosh. So while it is clear that creators have begun to take steps in this direction, there are very few that commit to a complete reimagining.

Death: The High Cost of Living (cover), Writer: Neil Gaiman, Art: Chris Bachalo, Dave McKean, Mark Buckingham, Vertigo, 1993
Death: The High Cost of Living (cover), Writer: Neil Gaiman, Art: Chris Bachalo, Dave McKean, Mark Buckingham, Vertigo, 1993

Some prominent examples that do make this leap come from contemporary (western) comic books. Most famous is Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and its sister series Death, and Kim from Sarah Graley’s Kim Reaper being a more recent example. In Sandman, Death is amongst The Endless and is potentially the most powerful being in the universe. She is reimagined both visually and in terms of her role. Inspired by Cinamon Hadley, Death is presented as young and female, and is placed into a role more akin to a caretaker, arriving not only to chaperone those who are dying but also to greet the newly born. Through this reimagination Gaiman has taken what has long been a figure of fear and transformed them into one of comfort, a friend to help you along the way. Kim Reaper, described as a part time grim reaper and full time cutie, gives us another take on who and what Death could be. Kim is a self-funded student who takes up reaping as a part time job to help make ends meet, she is however still new to it so she is currently only allowed to reap animals souls. And while she does still carry the traditional scythe, albeit one with a pink handle, her robes have been traded in for a cropped black hoodie and skinny jeans. Much like Death in Sandman, Kim makes a point of explaining that her job is only to guide the souls and not until they are ready.

Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings (cover), Writer: Sarah Graley, Art: Sarah Graley, Oni Press, 2018
Kim Reaper: Grim Beginnings (cover), Writer: Sarah Graley, Art: Sarah Graley, Oni Press, 2018

Both of these reimaginings show the potential for something new. Something that can be embraced and used to help us move forward, especially in the case of Kim Reaper, which is aimed at younger teens. It is difficult to take a character that is thoroughly ingrained in the public imagination and turn them into something almost entirely new while still retaining enough of their key features to make them recognizable, but I think both Death and Kim prove that it is not only possible but possible to do well, in a way that retains the core while subverting the message. Visually, the changes could be considered small things — drop the weapon, put on your outside clothes — but in what could almost be considered a rebranding they are enormous, because if we, as a public, could jump from death to Death in a way that doesn’t automatically conjure up an uncanny personification of fear, could we also remove some of the subliminal fears about what it means to die? I don’t know if Death or Kim could change the way that Death is perceived on a cultural level, but I think they show that there are other ways of communicating concepts like death that don’t rely on spooky skeletons or unconscious fears. No one wants to go anywhere with an armed skeleton at the best of times, but a person? Someone who reminds you of you, or your children, or your friend. That’s a different story.

At the beginning I said that this wasn’t really what I was studying, and, while technically it’s not, it also sort of is. My research looks specifically at how we gender the presentation of death in comic books and what sort of effects this has on the readers. People die a lot in comics, there really is no shortage of visual data. And I know visual sociology is looked down upon by the old guard, but I think that this has more to do with a lack of visual literacy than any real methodological concerns. Opening sociology up to the study of visual data, especially that which is consumed en masse, allows for us to consider the messages that are being are propagated, and as highlighted by Caroline Knowles and Paul Sweetman in Picturing The Social Landscape: Visual Methods and The Sociological Imagination, how they “are produced, what they encode and how they are consumed and opens up a vein of date that richly complements the types of information social scientists usually mine” (18). I see this as an opportunity to develop new frameworks for analysis in an area of media that is also vastly underrepresented in academic discourse. Comic books, like all forms of media, reflect the societies and cultures they are created in. Whether consciously or unconsciously they mirror the moods and politics of the times in which they are created, deconstructing and recontextualising the messages of the day via visual means for the sake of entertainment. 

When we consider that this is done visually and as Marian Meyers states in Mediated Women: Representations in popular culture,  images work “cumulatively and unconsciously to create and reinforce a particular worldview or ideology that shapes our perspectives and beliefs about the world and ourselves” (3) it becomes important for us as sociologists to consider what effects these images are having. Which worldviews or ideologies are shaping our beliefs through these works? We spend all day looking at things but spend very little time considering how these things affect us. And not just in terms of surface reactions, unconsciously too. Unless, of course, you are studying body image in which case you probably think about it a lot, but that’s important too, because we are inundated with images all day every day and so long as we continue to live in a visual society, it is our duty as sociologists to consider exactly what it is we are looking at.


References

Howarth, G. (2010). Death & Dying A Sociological Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press

Knowles, C. and Sweetman, P. ed., (2018). Picturing The Social Landscape: Visual Methods and The Sociological Imagination. Abingdon: Routledge

Meyers, M. (2008). Mediated Women: Representations in popular culture. Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press

Penfold-Mounce, R. (2015). Corpses, popular culture and forensic science: public obsession with death. Mortality, [online] 21(1), pp.19-35. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13576275.2015.1026887?scroll=top&needAccess=true&instName=University+of+York [Accessed 1 Jul. 2018]

Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2002). Practices of looking. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Walter, T. (1994). The Revival of Death. London: Routledge

Essay adapted from a paper delivered at Death and Culture II, 2018.

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