Daniel Clowes is an American cartoonist most well known for his book Ghostworld, which was made into a movie starring Steve Buscemi and Thora Birch, and Art School Confidential, a movie based on some of his comic strips. Clowes co-wrote the screenplays for both movies. He’s also created advertising campaigns, movie posters, and several covers for the New York Times.
Fans of his cartooning know him as the creator of Wilson, Mister Wonderful, and the long-running series Eightball, where half of his comics first appeared (including Ice Haven, Art School Confidential and The Death Ray). His work is solidly in the camp of the independent – small press, off-kilter, strange, and decidedly not mainstream. He got his start drawing for Cracked and then scored space in an issue of Love & Rockets, before finding a home for his first series Lloyd Llewellyn with Fantagraphics. They also published the original Eightball issues, though other companies later reprinted portions of them.
While all of Clowes’s stories feature similarly disillusioned characters, and he often uses the same disjointed single or double-page story style, The Death Ray is Clowes’s singular exploration of the superhero genre. He brings his usual bright colors, solid panel framing, and comic strip layout to the story. His main character, Andy, is a messed up kid in a unpleasant and sometimes disgusting world, much like many of Clowes’s other characters. What makes him different is that he’s a super hero with a disintegration gun.
The book, an oversize hardcover released by Drawn and Quarterly in 2011, opens onto a two page spread that tells us quite a bit about the story while only having one word of dialogue:
Two adolescent boys play in a bedroom, shooting hoops with a Nerf ball. Junk food sits on the table. The boy in the foreground is hunched over awkwardly. Thin, with a nervous expression in his face … we’ll find out soon that’s our hero, Andy. The other boy is chubbier, with a hint of a teenage mustache, and is trying to block the hoop with both his hands and a sudden, short utterance: “PENIS!”
Well, they are teenage boys, aren’t they?
The bigger kid is Louie, and he’s got his life slightly more put together than Andy does, so he’s the default Alpha of the pair. Louie’s mom is still alive, he doesn’t live with his demented grandfather, and he can do a lot more pull-ups than Andy can. He’s a bit of a bully, but Clowes does a great job at showing us Louie got there the traditional way – he’s bullied too.
One day he pushes Andy into trying a cigarette, even though our hero has made it clear that several people in his family died of cancer. The experience leaves him naseous and shaking, but the after-effects are superhuman strength. It seems dear old dad (deceased) tinkered with Andy’s genetics, giving him this “gift” so he wouldn’t be the target of bigger kids. Once Andy figures out he’s the strongest, he quickly asserts himself as the new boss.
But a kid with no social skills who just happens to be a super hero doesn’t seem like someone who should end up with a happy ending, and Clowes ignores genre conventions to make sure Andy’s rise and fall is suitably depressing. Even after acquiring a costume and the titular death ray, Andy can’t make the right decisions because he has no idea how to.
Clowes tells the story in bits and pieces, mostly along a single chronological thread, but from multiple perspectives. He gives us Andy’s narration, shows us his school, his friends, his dreams, and even “interviews” his classmates:
This book is important because it shows that a superhero story can be gritty, uncomfortable, and dark while still being realistic. There are no bat caves or secret leagues of people willing to explain just how the universe works. There’s just a high school outcast who doesn’t have anyone who really loves him and who suddenly gets the power to make people at least fear him. It’s a serious look at what would happen if we’re granted the power to kill without repercussion at the time in our lives when we would most want to.
It’s also a fascinating exploration of the potential of this medium to tell a story. I love the different points of view, the way he puts one kid into a fishbowl and lets the world reflect all the pieces of who he is. It’s not a book to read because you want to identify with Andy. In fact, after reading it you kind of hope you don’t remind anyone of the poor kid. It’s not a fun book to read, but it’s smart and sharp and entertaining in exactly the way I’ve come to expect Clowes to be.
Next week: Strange Attractors, a new comic by Charles Soule & Greg Scott.
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