From the paneled pictures of your darkest dreams, this is Graphic. Every month, I’ll be telling you about the best horror in comic books, from the early days of EC Comics to the resurgence of the genre in today’s mainstream and indie publishers. So pull up your blanket, dear reader, switch on your flashlight, and turn the page…
Though the term ‘grim reaper’ doesn’t show up until the mid-1800s, the image of Death personified as an animated skeleton goes back until at least the Middle Ages. Ever since, Death has showed its skeletal mug in pretty much every art form, from paintings to sculpture to film. Comics are certainly no exception, in fact, some of the best versions of the Boniest Boy come out of that medium; from DC Comics’ Blackest Night to Marvel Comics’ The Death of Captain Marvel. But the most interesting comic book version of the Grim Reaper might come before those storylines. Actually, it might show up before either of those publishers even existed… by 400 years. Hop in your time machines, readers, tonight we’re talking about Hans Holbein’s 1538 (!!) publication, The Dance of Death.
Yes, It’s A Comic
But before we get into it, we’ve got to ask a question that we’ve somehow avoided over this column’s seventeen-month history: what is a comic? Well, according to comics historian and teacher Scott McCloud, comics are defined as “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” With this definition in mind, McCloud points out that the comic medium stretches far back before the printing/coining of the first ‘comic books.’
In his book Understanding Comics, McCloud points to examples of art that fit this definition throughout human history. From Victorian Era paintings to Mayan Temple carvings to (as we’re talking about tonight) German woodcuts, humans have been doing comics for a lot longer than you may believe, so long as their art was in sequential parts. Though they may not have known it, comics have been created by some of histories greatest, most influential artistic minds. Minds like Hans Holbein the Younger.
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The Artist And His Art
Today, Hans Holbein the Younger is known for his Northern Renaissance style portraits of the most important political figures of his day. Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More, plus a host of others, all sat behind Holbein’s easel. Less remembered but no less impressive are Holbein’s woodcuts, wooden blocks with scenes etched into them by a knife. These pieces, just a few inches in size, were meant for the earliest forms of printing presses – once dipped in ink and pressed onto paper, they would leave behind an image in the same way a hand-held stamp does. It’s an impressive art form already, but it the hands of Holbein, it was a revelation. And there’s no better proof of that than in The Dance of Death.
The Dance of Death depicts 42 scenes of the Grim Reaper’s relationship with his mortal charges. The scenes range from Judeo-Christian mythology to everyday life to affairs of the modern (well, 1538 modern) world. In each of them, Holbein packs his images with an unbelievable level of detail, not just in the subjects depicted, but in their settings. Using simple linework, Holbein portrays shadow, weather, even light itself with a haunting beauty. Combine this with the antique feel inherent in all woodcuts of that era, and you’ve got a book that feels even more ancient and mystic than it already is.
But just like any great comic, no matter the era, Holbein’s art in this book is in service of telling a great story. In this case, that story is kind of a day-in-the-life of Death, showcasing random snippets of Death doing his job with humans from every walk of life. Beginning with a brief introduction to the character through his meeting of Adam and Eve when they are expelled from the Garden of Eden, The Dance of Death goes on to depict Death as human a character with emotion and motivations. He’s a compelling, confusing, and complex character, not quite good and not quite bad, and definitely not somewhere in between.
You’ll find yourself rooting for Death in several of his interactions with people in power – he makes fools of judges, brings kings and popes low, comically foils the efforts of greedy lawyers. Pages later, Death is nothing less than a horror villain, impaling a knight on his lance and cruelly ripping a child from its parents. Then there are bittersweet moments; Death relieves the burden of a hard-working peasant and brings a song of comfort to an old woman. Death isn’t portrayed as an amoral character, but one whose morality is constantly changing, shifting to fit the act of carrying off each individual soul. It’s in this inconsistent morality that Holbein hits on something genuinely unique about his portrayal of the Grim Reaper.
“Holbein packs his images with an unbelievable level of detail, […] Combine this with the antique feel inherent in all woodcuts […] and you’ve got a book that feels even more ancient and mystic than it already is.”
Portrayals of Death as a character usually fall under two categories. First, Death is occasionally a cold, unfeeling entity, an ancient robot that does his task and nothing else. Holbein’s Death obviously isn’t this version, as he’s seen dancing and whooping in many panels, like a 16th century raver. Secondly and more often, Death is portrayed as a being nearing humanity, who has feelings and sympathizes with his charges. Holbein’s Death isn’t this either, as he’s clearly fine with the darkest parts of his job. No, Holbein’s Death doesn’t have either of these personalities. In fact, he has no personality at all.
Hobein’s Death is just a reflection, a mirror image of the dying person in each respective panel. It can be a darkly humorous reflection, like in the case of the rich man whose coins Death is stealing. Or it can be a horrible reflection of sick reality, like in the case of the drunkard who Death is drowning in his own ale. It can even be tragically beautiful, like in the case of the nun whose candle Death is gently dousing. In the Dance of Death, Holbein doesn’t give Death its own character. He lets the person dying do that.
The Dance of Death is in the Public Domain, and you can read all about it right here. Once you do that, let us know what you think of the book by following us on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Instagram, and Discord. If you liked this column, go ahead and drop me a line to let me know which other horror comics you’d like to see spotlighted here. For more Reaper Madness all April-long, keep lurking at Nightmare on Film Street.