Black Death Matters: ‘Sandman’ Creator Neil Gaiman Fiercely Defends Casting Decision

Last week, producer Neil Gaiman announced much of the main cast of the upcoming Netflix series, Sandman based on the DC/Vertigo comics series created by Gaiman, to a tremendous slew of backlash for casting a Black woman as the character of Death.

Some stemmed from Gaiman’s decision to hire a number of non-binary  actors in the roles. The implication in the outrage was that Gaiman had ben “bought” and was now kowtowing to Hollywood “woke” culture.

Gaiman said in a Tweet: “I give zero fucks about people who don’t understand/ haven’t read Sandman whining about a non-binary Desire or that Death isn’t white enough.”

According to Entertainment Weekly: After an announcement last week confirmed that nonbinary actor Mason Alexander Park will play Desire, a nonbinary character in the source material, and Black actor Kirby Howell-Baptiste (The Good Place, Cruella) will play Death, who is visually depicted as white in the comics, some commenters online lashed out at Neil Gaiman, who originally co-created The Sandman with artists Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg, and is a producer of the Netflix version alongside David S. Goyer and showrunner Allen Heinberg. But Gaiman hit back with equal passion.

“I give all the fucks about the work,” Gaiman tweeted in response to someone who accused him of not safeguarding the material. “I spent 30 years successfully battling bad movies of Sandman. I give zero f—s about people who don’t understand/haven’t read Sandman whining about a non-binary Desire or that Death isn’t white enough. Watch the show, make up your minds.”

Above: Death’s first appearance in Sandman #8 (1989). This issue is often credited as an early turning point for the series that helped elevate it from dark fantasy to genre-breaking, zeitgeist-shaping work.

Death, Desire, and the Sandman (aka Morpheus) are all siblings and members of the immortal god-like group of beings known as The Endless.

And it should be noted that the characters have often appeared as different races, genders, and even species (especially on alien worlds) throughout the course of the interweaving stories.

The Endless manifest in various ways throughout the Sandman comics, because they represent timeless concepts that appear differently to different people as opposed to living beings locked within one body. As one fan pointed out in a post that Gaiman retweeted, Death manifests as a young Chinese girl in one story, while in an early issue of The Sandman set in ancient Africa, Dream appears as a Black man.

In fact Death taking the form of a Black woman is very much in keeping with the original text, with several already drawing art imagining Howell-Baptiste’s portrayal of the character, approvingly retweeted by Gaiman.

Entertainment WeeklyHowell-Baptiste (Cruella, The Good Place) will play Death, one of the most iconic Sandman personages and a nerd-crush character for the ages.

Even if you haven’t read The Sandman, you may still recognize Death’s classic outfit of black tank top, Egyptian eye tattoo, and ankh necklace; it heavily influenced Goth fashion as the ’90s became the 2000s, and remains a popular cosplay to this day.

Gaiman explained why the choice Howell-Baptiste was really the only one for him: “Hundreds of talented women from all around the planet auditioned, and they were brilliant, and none of them were right,” Gaiman said in a statement. “Someone who could speak the truth to Dream, on the one hand, but also be the person you’d want to meet when your life was done on the other. And then we saw Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s audition and we knew we had our Death.”

Any adaptation of The Sandman is going to have a lot riding on its depiction of Death (Kat Dennings recently played her in the Audible adaptation).

Art above: Death of the Endless, by Mela Pagayonan

The contention that Death was ever white going unquestioned is something that I take issue with.
Art above: Dream and Death of the Endless by Colleen Doran.

While she had alabaster skin and was porcelain white in color, she was certainly no color found in humanity. In fact a whole thread on Twitter diverged into a segue on the fetishization of Goth girls in fandom. Or as Amy Kate wrote on Twitter: : “I am freaking delighted that Netflix’s Sandman will have a beautiful, great Black actress as Death. Not just because I like this lady, but also, amused they ejected that ultrawhite goth girlfriend fetish.”

The fact that the casting news was released a year after the death of George Floyd and a month of nationwide uprisings and demonstrations that brought the Black Lives Matter out of a media discourse and into everyones’s homes does not go un-noticed.

Above: Death, from The Dreaming: Waking Hours #6 – DC Black Label – published March 2021.”

“You lived what anybody gets. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.”

If a Black actress portraying Death matters in 2021, then individual Black lives certainly do.

Sandman on Netflix has not been given a release date as of yet.