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Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Death: The Time Of Your Life

Written by Neil Gaiman
Pencils by Chris Bachalo with inks by Mark Buckingham (pgs 1-47)
Pencils by Mark Buckingham with inks by Mark Pennington (pgs 48-88)
Colours by Matt Hollingsworth
Publisher: Vertigo

What’s It About?
Foxglove and Hazel were once poor and in love. Now Foxglove is a pop star, her career taking her around the world and Hazel is a stay-at-home mother to their child Alvie. Out in the world no one knows that Foxglove’s secretary Hazel is in fact her lover ,or that Fox is a second mother to Hazel’s child. Somehow, she doesn’t know how, Fox ended up in the closet and Hazel ended up alone for months at a time.

One rainy night, Death comes for Hazel and now Foxglove is following a vision back to LA in the hope of rescuing her. But how do you rescue someone from the single inevitability of life?

What’s Good About It?
The centre of this story isn’t the magic involved or the presence of the figure of Death but the relationship between two women. This relationship is shown to be complex and multi-facetted with a detailed history behind it. Over the course of the book we are given various accounts of Fox and Hazel’s early days and the beginnings of their relationship, our understanding of the characters and how they relate to each other builds over time with our understanding of their past. Their relationship is treated with a great deal of respect by Gaiman in that he gives them the ups and downs of a proper couple, this is no tokenistic portrayal of two women in a simple, uncomplicated relationship, this is two women in a relationship written as people.

The realism of the story is certainly helped by the sex and the swearing. No, seriously. This story was published under DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint for “mature readers” so the writer doesn’t have to shy away from either the characters’ relationship or their emotions. If the situation calls for a character to swear they swear, if it doesn’t they don’t, it isn’t gratuitous. The same goes for the sex: Hazel and Foxglove’s sexual relationship is portrayed but it isn’t there for titillation value, its there to show that this is a full, working relationship.

In spite of the magic and the figure of legend that takes the title credit this is ultimately a very personal story of two women, the life they lead together and the choices they make as a couple. There aren’t huge fight scenes or giant robots or invading aliens but a complex web of human relationships and well-crafted characters acting in consistent, well-thought out ways.

What’s Bad About It?
This is a damn short book. The Time Of Your Life ran to only thee issues and so this collection comes to only eighty eight pages of story. Generously it can be called an evening’s reading, this is not a book to pick up if you have a long trip or want something to keep you going for a few days.

There are some back references to other works by Gaiman. The characters of Foxglove and Hazel appeared in two previous books, briefly in the first Death series The High Cost Of Living and as major characters in The Sandman: A Game Of You. Both these appearances are covered in flashback so there’s no need to read those stories to understand this one but what this means is there are some events that are only reported rather than shown, a violation of the “show don’t tell” rule of writing but a necessary one.

Oddly, Death doesn’t get much time in this book. Despite the title and her place on the cover, this isn’t a Death story, this is Hazel and Foxglove’s story and no less compelling for that. However, Death herself is one of Gaiman’s most interesting creations and this story doesn’t serve as the best introduction to her for a new reader.

Finally, and this is the pettiest thing I’ve ever said on this site or in fact anywhere, there’s the page numbers. Yes, the page numbers, horribly stamped over the art as they are, little white circles slapped over the art, distracting the eye by their presence, a poor artistic choice by the collection editors.

What’s the Art Like?
As you’ll have noticed from the creative credits at the head of the review the art in this book is split into two halves, quite literally. Until page thirty two Mark Buckingham inks Chris Bachalo’s pencils but then Bachalo leaves and Buckingham pencils while Mark Pennington inks. Sometimes creative changes like this mid-book are problematic (imagine a film where suddenly the entire cast is replaced by wildly different actors at the one-hour mark) but here, while still noticeable, it isn’t as flow-breaking as it can be.

First we have Bachalo inked by Buckingham. Bachalo’s art is cartoonish and expressive with rounded, somewhat exaggerated facial features such as the massive glasses on the reporter or the expressionistic few lines used to convey Foxglove’s expressions on her tiny face. Most of the collection, regardless of artist, is played out in the style of this page: small panels in lines and columns, a focus on close-up shots of the characters and their expressions. Sometimes the style breaks to allow larger panels for effect, such as here:
The effect being “Good grief, look at how big Foxglove and Hazel’s front room is”. As I say, this approach changes very little when Buckingham moves to pencils. The differences between Bachalo and Buckingham’s style is also muted by the fact Buckingham contributed to the finished look of Bachalo’s pages, further softening the shift between two already similar style. Here we have a page pencilled by Buckingham:
Buckingham’s lines are a little more delicate than Bachalo’s, a little less exaggerated in some regards though still a little cartoony, especially with the male characters. Perhaps this was a conscious decision to keep in style with Bachalo but it serves Buckingham’s art just as well as he too makes a great deal of expression and emotion in his art. The only noticeable difference comes in the larger panels which under Buckingham have a more stream-of-consciousness style:
Here we have Hazel telling Death a story about Foxglove and we follow the art through following the speech bubbles around the page.

Finally, I’d like to point to the work of Matt Hollingsworth, the colourist on this collection. Hollingsworth is one of the best colourists in the business with a real attention to palette and colour composition. His job is one that is often ignored in favour of the creators further up the list but I definitely recommend taking a moment to look at the colouring on pages like the one with Hazel and Death where he uses a very small and subdued pallet to great effect.

Other Information
Amazon lists Death: The Time of Your Life (ISBN 1-56389-333-9) as currently out of print (though I have seen new copies recently in bookshops so this might be a temporary situation) but second hand copies are available here and here so its well worth looking out for a decently priced copy.

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