3 Panels is a monthly column examining graphic novels and their influences on everyday life.
In years past, I couldn’t bear to listen to close relatives discuss the inevitably of their deaths. As they spoke, I would clench my teeth and close my eyes to keep from shouting at them in anger. I didn’t even want to think about their hypothetical deaths. Yet, all last year I found myself holding my breath for the inevitable news that a loved one had died from coronavirus.
2020 has pulled Death into sharper focus for many of us. I’m speaking about big “D” Death — death as a presence, an entity neither imposing nor rueful but consistent. It’s like Life or Love — forces that upend us in our totality. The pandemic created ample space for Death to sit with us, where we once fled from it. Many of us became numb to it, and others tried to escape it, but Death’s presence never wavered.
The day after one of my grandmothers passed away from covid-related complications, almost a year after quarantine began in the US and on the eve of vaccine rollouts, I could feel Death’s proximity disturbing me. I didn’t know what else to do except to settle down with a book. I don’t know why I chose a book I had been avoiding since the moment I got it. The book’s premise, which I judged on the title alone, seemed too grim in the face of the pandemic. But, hours removed from hearing emotion in my father’s voice that I’d never heard before, I was reading YOU DIED: An Anthology Of The Afterlife (edited by Kel McDonald and Andrea Purcell; Iron Circus Comics, March 2021).
In this anthology, Death is a shrouded figure. It is the natural decay of organic materials. It is legends and dreams and the final acceptance of one’s fate. But the book is also about how we arrive at our deaths and what to expect in the great beyond. The Afterlife is not just a dark tunnel with a light at the end. It is myth and lived realities. It is everything we could ever hope and what we have yet to know. YOU DIED brings these collective truths forward and calls us to reckon with them.
Where we are cautioned to abandon our hopes at the gates of a fiery afterlife or in moments of great trials, mortician and activist Caitlin Doughty welcomes us. In the foreword, Doughty writes, “The artists and creators in this anthology choose not to deny death, but let it feed and instruct them. And, in turn, feed and instruct us.” And, it does.
The first three stories in YOU DIED are indicative of the storytelling and illustrative range prevalent throughout the anthology. Letty Wilson’s “What Eats Us” is a cartoon-y rendering of the decomposition cycle. The dark, detailed, and crowded panels explore how carrion and microorganisms facilitate decay after death. Despite the scientific focus, Wilson handles the topic with a gentle care and lightheartedness that is touching.
Oliver Northwood’s “Ghost Friend” is a powerful story about the harm we do to ourselves when we cannot let go of our loved ones. The white and black color contrast translates powerfully. The former serves as a (spot)light that transfixes and livens the two main characters while also emphasizing the black, which is often a negative space creeping around them.
Mesopotamian mythology is the central focus in “Inanna’s Descent To The Underworld.” Written and illustrated by Ahueonao, this is the longest story in the anthology, but Ahueonao captivates us by offering a fully realized tale. Tension and frustration build as the goddess Inanna forces her way into the underworld to mourn with her grieving sister. Although largely set in the underworld, the story is a bounty of lessons. It is an explainer for the seasons, a parable on arrogance, and a story on love and grief.
There are two dozen stories in YOU DIED. In some of them, dead and dying characters dawdle in the space been life and death until they can be assured of what comes next. In “The Spark Divine” (Sally Cantirino and Jordan Alsaqa), Captain Bel’eth clings to the last moments of his life, afraid to let go. He begs Soph, a being who guides humans through their final moments, to tell him what will happen once he dies. Soph responds, “What comes next is not something that can be put into simple words, Bel’eth… it is the recollection of memories you could never have imagined. The reclamation of and return to something greater than yourself. The realization of how much more there is to know and be.” It’s not a perfect answer, but it is a tangible comfort, a spiritual parachute, that can guide us as we drift slowly into the unknown.
None of us have any real control over our deaths. It’s a hard truth to accept, one that sends an icy current through my body when I think about it. But, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m also uncomfortable with what happens in the after. What happens after Death takes you by the hand and leads you away is one of the greatest uncertainties.
My faith teaches us about the promise of eternal life in Heaven. But lately, I have struggled with what that looks like. I wonder about the monotony of it all. Most depictions of Heaven in television, movies, and even in illustrations in the Bible, make it seem incredibly sterile. To me, that sterility reads as joylessness, a sort of torment that should be reserved for… elsewhere. What I want to know is, will there be grass that my toes can run through? Perhaps a sun to warm my face? Will there be more than vast whiteness enclosed in a gleaming ethereal space?
A. “Miru” Lee presents another alternative to consider in “Third Option.” In this manhwa-style story, Choi debates between an afterlife as presented by their dueling beliefs — represented by a Christian angel and a Korean grim reaper. Neither interested in a place that “gets pretty boring after a while” nor one that sentences you to a life of more work, Choi ponders an option that complements their acceptance of the finality of death.
YOU DIED doesn’t set out to change your beliefs. To an extent, it demystifies death, dying, and the beyond. It puts into words what so many of us think or are afraid to say aloud. It’s like our real-life Handbook For The Recently Deceased. And it doesn’t read like stereo instructions. In doing so, the anthology provides something for nearly everyone. “Peat, Bone, Oak” by Laura Ketcham is a thorough yet delicate take on bodies preserved in natural environments, specifically bogs. “Remember” by SE Case focuses on the moment in between life and death where we linger between trying to fight to live and move on. “Good Mourning” by Karoline Grønvik showcases Victorian mourning etiquette. “Danielle Chuatico’s “All Souls’ Day” honors Filipino traditions and “Okaeri” by Jackie Crofts and James F. Wright interweaves Japanese expressions and folklore.
Alongside gut-wrenching stories like “Still Life” (Ale Green and Fanny Rodriguez) and “You Called To Me” (Nadia Shammas and Lisa Sterle), there is also the humor of “Beyond The Cosmos” (James Maddox and Jeremy Lawson) and “Funeral In Foam” (by Casey Gilly and Raina Telgemeier), or the futuristic, sci-fi lens of grieving in Holly Adkins’ “Agnes and Patsy.”
Plunging headlong into the nonfiction and fiction of YOU DIED, I forgot why I picked up the book in the first place. Instead, I saw myself on a journey to becoming more comfortable with the concept of death and the afterlife and my place within them.
Order a copy of You Died here.