The first graphic novel I ever bought was Death: The High Cost of Living. I was a teenage gothette just figuring out that there were all sorts of strange and wonderful things out there that I hadn't discovered yet, and then one day my friend came to school with a little thing called the Death Gallery, full of these gorgeous pictures of this little goth girl that sorta even looked like me (if you squinted and washed out the color).
What the heck was that? I'd seen plenty of comics but nothing that looked like that. Her copy of The High Cost of Living was worn and well-read and I looked through it and it was a real story, not a jumped-up excuse for people in ridiculous costumes to beat things up. Comics, eh?
Well, DC/Vertigo has given my inner teenage goth girl a gigantic gift with this Absolute Death . That was fifteen years ago--literally half my life--and yet opening this huge slipcased hardcover with its thick, glossy pages is nearly as thrilling as that first look inside. The High Cost of Living and Time of Your Life are in here, as is the full Death Gallery and lots of additional art, the first-ever Death story from Sandman (though not every Death story from Sandman) and additional Death stories from Vertigo: A Winter's Tale, The Sandman: Endless Nights, and a beautiful tale from a 9/11 themed anthology. There's sketches and the script to the Sandman #8 (The Sound of Her Wings, the first appearance of Death) and an introduction by the fabulous Amanda Palmer, and even the short comic where Death and John Constantine explain how to use condoms.
Absolute editions aren't cheap, but us comics people are nuts for them anyway. And really, when you're in love with a medium that is half literature and half visual art, you can't make it too big or beautiful. For while we all love Neil Gaiman and I read each book that comes out, the writing is only half the story here. The art, mostly from Mike Dringenberg and Chris Bachalo but also luminaries like Dave McKean, Jill Thompson (whose Death: At Death's Door mini-manga is not included, sadly), P. Craig Russell and Colleen Doran, deserves these bigger, shinier, fresher pages that I'm afraid to touch except round the edges.
And Death deserves the attention--the morning spent with the book spread across my lap, remembering the first time I read these stories and saw these pictures, remembering what she meant to me then and means to me now, as an adult with a career and little free time for indulging. She understands, I think.
If you are just learning about Neil Gaiman from his fiction, you really ought to give the comics a shot, and you could do far, far worse than starting where I did: with Death.