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Death: At Death's Door

Japanese comic books, along with cartoons and merchandise, have become an intrinsic part of the American book market, as well as the U.S. comic book industry. Slews of comic book artists have embraced traditional manga art conventions (speed lines, larger than possible eyes, etc.) and have even formed a subset of comic art: "amerimanga" if you will.

The popularity of manga in American bookstores and comic shops may be what puts the nail in the coffin of the American comic book industry, or it might save it. Manga appeals to the younger generations because many tie directly into popular children's shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokemon, so those little ankle biters scurry on over to the bookstore and grab copies of whatever the latest trend or fad is. While they're there, they notice some of the other titles in an ever-growing manga section in the Graphic Novels aisle, and begin picking these up.

So essentially, these kids are reading comic books at an early age, liking them, and continuing to read and buy more of them. This is a damn good thing in an industry where it is next to impossible to interest the younger generation in anything comic book related, thus creating a future fan base and an economic windfall.

Problems arise when it comes to cross-pollination: kids who read manga rarely crossover and begin reading American comic books. It's an understandable stopping point, because of the drastic change in form that would occur during the crossover. Manga is printed in black and white, drawn in a specific style, and at times even printed backwards (in the traditional Japanese fashion, which is great for those few "otaku" who like the idea, but infuriating to the adult comic book fan looking to get into manga).

As of late, comic book publishers have been trying to make the leap from manga to American a little less of a jump, and one of those attempts is Jill Thompson's Death: At Death's Door from DC's Vertigo imprint.

It's the story of Death (the quirky, loves-everyone anthropomorphic personification of the Grim Reaper as a concept) and her two Endless siblings, Despair and Delirium, as they deal with a Hell that has been closed. When the lost souls of Hell show up literally at Death's door looking for a place to wait until they get sent to heaven, figuring they've fulfilled their punishments, things get out of hand.

It seems that Lucifer is tired of running the shop and gives up ownership of Hell to Dream (sometimes called Morpheus), who is searching for a long lost love that he sentenced to Hell out of spite for her rejection. Dream now owns Hell, and a representative from every walk of creation, from demon to a cardboard box (who is really the personification of Order, mind you) to Heaven itself, is vying for a chance to decide what the new Hell will be. Meanwhile, Death has to attempt to keep things under control at her place, while still performing her "soul" profession.

The book is printed in a smaller digest form, and the artwork by Thompson is all done in the manga/anime style. In fact, if I didn't know that Thompson wasn't some pseudonym for a Japanese artist, I would swear the art for this book came straight from the land of the rising sun.

The art is very good and Thompson weaves it well with the story from above. I'll admit that I do like the manga art style up to a point, and I've always liked seeing different artists' takes on characters I am already familiar with.

The story itself is fine; it is mostly a rehashed plotline from Neil Gaiman's fourth volume of Sandman, Season of Mists, with more of a focus placed on what was happening to Death and her sisters, instead of Dream and his search for the woman he condemned to Hell.

And that may be a problem. DC's intention with this piece is obviously to attract some of those manga readers to their product, but they've chosen the wrong material with which to do it. I remember reading my first volume of Sandman and I don't remember it being extremely easy to understand the "anthropomorphic representations of the human condition" all of which started with "d" thing.

I can't imagine what a ten-year old would think when picked up this book and tried to make his way through the high concepts involved, not to mention the fact that the reader is just thrown into the continuity of these characters with only the briefest of explanations of what, who, and why they are who they are. If I didn't have some grounding in the Sandman universe, I would be completely lost when I read this. I still don't know why Destruction is the only sibling who doesn't come to Death's initial party, or why he's missing, and the book gives the reader no hope of closure to those dangling plot threads,

All in all, it's pretty much a companion piece to the Sandman, Death, and Endless series from Vertigo, and will really only appeal to those that follow(ed) these titles. It fails, despite a noble effort by Thompson, to be accessible to it's target audience (the 8-14year olds), and is only worth shelling out the $9.95 for if you are already a fan.

It was a noble effort to recapture the market, DC, but please, try again and with something that doesn't require knowledge of mature themed continuity that a middle-schooler is likely to lack.

Robert Sparling

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