Near Miss: Kill Your Boyfriend and Death: The High Cost of Living

(Since I have been unable to troubleshoot my WordPress problems, I am mirroring this on my Tumblr account. It has pictures!)

Earlier this week, College Humor posted a fake trailer for a live-action Daria movie, starring Aubrey Plaza as the title character. As someone who has been watching Daria episodes lately (as well as a lot of Parks & Recreation — hey, Netflix, where’s last season? I’m waiting …), I found it completely charming. And there was a big part of me that wanted it to be real.

So I’m sure being a teenage girl is strange at any time. It’s not something that ever gets easier, after all. But I’d say being a teenage girl in the ‘90s was a fairly unique experience. Unlike a lot of times, we were offered a pretty broad range of role models. While Daria came later than I thought, it was a still a decade that started with Riot Grrrls and My So-Called Life and ended with Spice Girls and Britney Spears.

The ‘90s were also an interesting (both in the “good” and “bad” senses of the word) time for comics, and definitely saw growth from more “adult” lines like DC Comics’ Vertigo, which published both Kill Your Boyfriend and Death: The High Cost of Living.

angel-loveI imagine some of you may think that 1995’s Kill Your Boyfriend wasn’t aimed at teenage girls. And maybe it wasn’t on purpose, but Grant Morrison’s and Philip Bond’s drug-, sex-, and violence-filled romp speaks more about being a teenage girl than you realize.

Our unnamed schoolgirl protagonist is basically your typical frustrated everygirl — she’s dissatisfied with the role she’s handed in life. She’s smart but undervalued. She has a dumb boyfriend that she has just because that’s what’s expected. Her parents belittled her and accuse her of having sex when she’s not. No one listens to her, no one respects her.

Is it any wonder she’d want to act out? Is it really any wonder why she’d want to break out?

I think it’s really left up to the reader to decide if everything that happens after she encounters a charismatic drifter in a fast food restaurant is real or fantasy. I don’t think it matters. As they indulge in a prolonged spree of murder, substance abuse and anarchy, our heroine gets to see the side of life she’s always been missing — one that allows who to be whoever she chooses to be, to try on new roles. She can be unabashedly sexual, dangerous and bold.

Morrison’s writing and Bond’s art are surprisingly playful and counteract the many dark elements of this tale. It’s a romp from beginning to end and it’s meant to be.  The final page is a little bleak, but I think mostly, Morrison and Bond are telling young women to choose a different fate — that there’s more than one path open to them.

While there’s definitely a lot of this that declares itself to be a mid-90s book from Vertigo, it doesn’t  feel dated. Some of the references and aesthetic firmly place it in its time, but there’s a freshness to the voice that I think could feel relevant to a lot of young women now.

While many women did and do love The Sandman, the Death books always seemed to be marketed toward a slightly different (and younger) audience. Tori Amos wrote the introduction to 1994’s Death: The High Cost of Living (let us not dismiss the huge impact Amos had on many of us as teenagers in the ‘90s); and the introduction to the later Death: The Time of Your Life was written by Claire Danes. Even the newer The Absolute Death collection had its introduction written by Gaiman’s wife, Amanda Palmer. For good or bad, Death’s stories are aimed toward women.

Despite her name being in the title, Death: The High Cost of Living isn’t actually that much about Death herself. It’s about a depressed/superficially suicidal teenage boy named Sexton. Written by (of course) Neil Gaiman with perky, manga-inflected art by Chris Bachalo, Sexton is presented as approachable and cute in a Kurt Cobain kind of way (it was the ‘90s!) and after his meeting with the sweet, gothy Didi (in a landfill of all places!) — Death during her one mortal day a century — changes his mind about life.

If you’ve read The Sandman, you know Death is quite a bit more complicated than just a cute and quirky girl who likes top hats and Disney movies and tends to charm people into giving her things. Her happy-go-lucky optimism serves as a counterbalance to her dark responsibilities. But out of the context of that mythology, she’s just another girl that serves her purpose for a male protagonist before dying. Separated from Death, Didi just feels like a means to an end.

In that way, it’s a story that feels different to me now. I was never a huge fan of the character of Death anyway, it was easy to identify with her in this book as a teen. There was a sense of “Well, I wear weird clothes and like strange things. Maybe some boy may recognize how cool I am too.” But as an adult, I recognize how many Sexton Furnivals there are in the world and I wonder why their stories get told more than women’s. Why did we get the story from his perspective and not Didi’s? Death: The High Cost of Living is a cute little fable, but it’s story overall is one I’m tired of.

I wish I had also read Kill Your Boyfriend as a teen alongside Death: The High Cost of Living. I think they play off each other nicely. Teenage girls deserve more than the one story they’re usually given.

Near Miss is a semi-regular feature that will be appearing on Comicsgirl throughout 2013. This project is sponsored by Big Planet Comics.

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