Friday, December 02, 2011

Book 38 – The Death-Ray

By Daniel Clowes

Originally published in 2004 as a stand-alone issue of the Eightball series, The Death-Ray was recently reprinted as a nicely bound hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly. Shortly after reading a review of this release, a copy was  loaned to Olman via my coworker (thanks Dan!).

I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything by Clowes, though I very much liked the charmingly sarcastic movies version of Ghost World. All I know is that The Death-Ray is Clowes’ first and only stab at the superhero genre. Perhaps it would be better described as a “stab and twist” since there is a definite subversion of form. However, despite the pastel palette of the colour illustrations, there is hardly any humour to be found, only existential emptiness.

The story is basically about an ordinary and awkward teenaged boy in the 1970’s who grows up to be a lonely bitter man. Andy has the ability to be bestowed with superhuman strength when his body absorbs nicotine by simply smoking a cigarette. The death-ray is the gun he inherits from his odd, scientist father long after he had passed away. Just a single pull of the trigger will zap any living organism into non-existence.

Unlike Spider Man, great power does not come with great responsibility for our young Andy. He doesn’t blossom into a ripped example of sparkling masculinity but keeps his 90-pound weakling physique. Nor does he rise up to save the world from evil. Like any naive teenaged loser, Andy doesn’t quite abuse his power, but he definitely misuses it. Let’s just say this sad sack falls short of living up to any superhero potential, using his rather extraordinary gifts to solve his sadly ordinary problems. It’s a great premise to explore, and I’m sure the upcoming movie, Chronicle, was probably influenced to some extent by this comic.

Though I found the concept of The Death-Ray very interesting, I’m not sure if I liked it as much as, say, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, a comic which also explores the teenage psyche in 1970’s American suburbia in a supernatural manner. But it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges since The Death-Ray was a one-off, while Black Hole was the result of a ten-year effort. But I had felt so immersed in the dark, surreal universe of Black Hole, while The Death-Ray was like dipping into a wading pool by comparison. The brevity of The Death-Ray does not seem allow enough time for Clowes’ to explore his themes with any real depth.

The way Clowes’ jumps in time from panel to panel was probably intentional, but it felt quite disjointed to me. For example, after Andy discovers his new found powers, he decides to confront a school bully when he’s picking on his best friend Louie. All of a sudden, the next panel just shows Andy's bloodied hand, but never follows up on the bully. This happens fairly often throughout the comic. You never see the consequences when Andy decides to use violence against violence. I don’t mind jump cuts in movies, if they work for the story, and it can work visually in comics. Perhaps I am missing some kind of important symbolism that Clowes is trying to get at, but I found the panel jump a little annoying in The Death-Ray.

On the other hand, D&Q did a very professional job with the quality of the hardcover edition. The paper feels nice and thick, and shows off Clowes’ coloured illustrations well. And twenty bucks is a pretty reasonable price if you’re a fan of Clowes' work.

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