The most popular character of The Sandman isn’t the gloomy dream lord who graces the series title. It isn’t the horrible nightmare with mouths for eyes, nor the cigar-chomping, pumpkin-headed janitor, nor the adorable baby gargoyle (at least until he gets his own spinoff series!). Inspiring countless works of cosplay, fanart, tattoos and a general attitude of positivity and acceptance towards our own inevitable mortality, it’s got to be Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg’s personification of Death.
Death of the Endless is our protagonist’s older sister, always ready to cheer her perennially dour brother with a kind ear or sound advice…as long as he’s not too proud to call her. But as the de facto embodiment of Death in the DC Universe, the existence of Death of the Endless raises some questions about some other personifications of the concept we’ve seen through the years. How do all these different interpretations mesh together?
Maybe that’s the wrong question to ask. But just so you can keep your head on straight when you encounter them through your comic book travels, let’s get a field guide together to spotting Death in the DC Universe.
The Grim Reaper
Prior to The Sandman, Death would show up in mystically inclined titles from time to time in his more traditional guise of a scythe-wielding skeleton \in a robe. Occasionally, such as in The Phantom Stranger, Death took the form of a handsome man not too dissimilar to Frederich March in the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday. Like much of The Sandman’s supporting cast, Death even has a history as the narrating host of an anthology horror comic—in his case, Weird War Tales, an anthology which ran for 124 issues from 1971 to 1983 where he often donned the guise of a skeletal soldier. This more traditional take on Death has completely disappeared from DC comics since the debut of Death of the Endless, perhaps suggesting he was a prior aspect of the entity.
Black Racer is a death entity with a very specific function: to bring about the death of the New Gods, otherwise too mighty to cross over to the afterlife by traditional means. Many have been host to the Black Racer entity over the years, most significantly quadriplegic Vietnam War veteran Willie Walker, who took up the role in Jack Kirby’s New Gods. In execution, Black Racer is less a god and master of death than what mythology deems a “psychopomp,” an entity whose job it is to escort beings from the mortal plane to whatever comes after. Which is to say that if Black Racer isn’t an aspect of Death, it may be that he works for her.
Speed Force Emissary
Like Black Racer, Black Flash exists to realize the inevitability of Death for those otherwise too fast for it to catch—in this case, individuals attuned to the Speed Force. Although early appearances of the fearsome Black Flash in Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s ‘90s run on The Flash has kept his nature ambiguous, more recent appearances have made it clearer that the entity exists as a manifestation of the Speed Force to protect itself—both from outside threats which would encroach upon it, and those who would exploit it for too long. Nobody, not even the best of us, gets to run forever.
God of Fire
The fearsome, fiery H’ronmeer, perhaps the most revered of all the Martian gods, represented death, fire and creativity. It was a fitting trio of functions, as fire represented both the Martians’ greatest fear, and their desire to create something new. In The Sandman #5, Morpheus appears to Martian Manhunter as Lord L’zoril, the Martian god of dreams. We can extrapolate from there that if J’onn were to look upon Death of the Endless, he would see H’ronmeer before him.
Lord of the Unliving
If psychopomps like Black Flash, Black Racer and Death of the Endless have jobs to gather the dead, then Nekron’s position is to keep them there. In appearance, Nekron remains the closest entity we have to the classic “Grim Reaper” figure, albeit on a cosmic scale as an enemy of the Green Lantern Corps. Nekron’s motivation often appears antithetical to Death of the Endless, cast as a super-villain who seeks nothing more than to hurry up the business of life in the universe so that all can come under his dominion. Never was this clearer than in Blackest Night, when Nekron waged war on life itself to reclaim those who had escaped his grasp over the years. As far as Nekron is concerned, when you say “The Death of Superman,” there are no takebacks.
Goddess of Nanda Parbat
The true nature of Rama Kushna remains a mystery, apart from the fact that she’s a cryptic, omniscient entity who inhabits the temple on Nanda Parbat with some dominion over life and death. Her most reputed agent on Earth is Deadman, the ghostly Boston Brand stuck between realms until he can earn his spot in the afterlife. Is she just another aspect of Death, or is she something else? We may never know. And if we ever find out, we may eventually disregard the answer and return them to mystery. That’s how it’s done with these cryptic entities; just ask Phantom Stranger.
Olympian Death God
Hades is the Greek god who typically comes to mind when you think about death, but he’s not so much a god of death as he is a god of the underworld. The true Greek god of death is Thanatos, a relatively minor figure in Greek mythology and the child of Nyx, goddess of the night. In The Sandman comics, we see Dream in several issues existing as one and the same as Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. It’s safe to extrapolate from there that Death and Thanatos share a similar connection.
The Candlemaker as we see him in Doom Patrol is a manifestation of a very specific type of death, specifically horrible calamity. He’s not so much a god as a being born from humanity’s own imagination—although, as The Sandman posits, that’s ultimately true of all gods. It’s really more accurate to say that Candlemaker is a manifestation of the horror of death, as opposed to Death itself.
Angel of Death
Azrael, the biblical Angel of Death, hasn’t made a lot of specific appearances in the DC Universe, but the avenger of the Order of St. Dumas as embodied by figures such as Jean-Paul Valley and Michael Lane take up their mission in Azrael’s name. There is one notable time Azrael has shown up, in an episode of the Superboy TV series in 1991. She happens to look a lot like Death of the Endless there, which probably isn’t a coincidence.
Teen Titans Go!
The goofy, bombastic “Uncle Death” who appears as sort of a cross between your classic Grim Reaper and the Spectre only appears on Teen Titans Go!, where he seems to be Raven’s uncle. Whether that’s a literal or figurative relation is an exercise left to the viewer. All we really know for sure: he’s a sooouuul collector, baby!
Of course, there’s a bunch of regular guys running around who just call themselves Death, but don’t really have anything to do with Death on a metaphysical level. One-time Golden Age enemies of Spy Smasher, Bulletman, Shazam and the Spider have all gone by the name Death. Batman’s oldest recurring villain, Karl Helfern, went by Doctor Death. Former Royal Flush Gang leader Amos Fortune had a Death of his own when he switched from a playing card theme to tarot cards. Some villains over the years, from the Wonder Woman villain the Adjudicator, to the mad scientists of Oolong Island, to the forces of Apokolips themselves, have engineered artificial Deaths of their own to fill out the cast of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (or Apokolips, as the case may be). But these we include only for the sake of thoroughness.
DEATH OF THE ENDLESS
The High Cost of Living
And here’s our girl, embodied in the Netflix series by the wonderful Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Once, in an issue of Captain Atom, writer Greg Weisman attempted to classify Neil Gaiman’s Death as the aspect of death as mercy, as opposed to the more aggressive Nekron. The story goes that Gaiman wrote The Sandman #20 as a refutation of this idea, and that his Death was all-encompassing.
Death of the Endless is not a kindness, but a pragmatism. Her warm nature towards humanity is how she may manifest at present, but over time and space she has been all conceptions of death. Every death we’ve ever seen in any medium is Death of the Endless in some other form, or some servant of Death like the ones Dream hosts in his own realm. But given our choice of Deaths to meet at the end of our own lives, and knowing full well that nobody gets out of here alive, this is the one we’d most like to see.
All eleven episodes of The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge as Morpheus and Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death, are now streaming on Netflix. For more dreams, fables and recollections, visit our official Sandman TV page.