Review by: zack

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Rare is the time that I feel intimidated before I open my big fat mouth; however, every now and then I question whether or not I am actually worthy to critique a book. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Dan Clowes’ Death Ray led me to one of those instances of anxiety. A lot of my anxiety came not just from Clowes’ standing in the comics/cartooning community, but rather a combination of that standing and my embarrassing lack of direct familiarity with his comics work. Fortunately, it didn’t take me long to get over that initial embarrassment, so I threw caution to the wind and decided to tackle Death Ray.

I have a general familiarity with the visual aspect of Clowes’ work and greatly enjoyed the film adaptation of Ghost World (I haven’t read the book yet…sorry), so I kind of had a good idea of how the book would feel visually and figured that I could guess the kind of complex, often odd, characters I would encounter. Additionally, I own several of Clowes’ earlier works, this just happens to be the first I have actually read. Having taken all of that into consideration, I had received the solace that I convinced myself that I needed before taking on such a giant of a cartoonist. The fact (that’s right, fact) that Death Ray is an incredible story, naturally, put my mind further at ease, and made it very easy for me to feel comfortable commenting on it.

Originally published in 2004 in issue #23 Dan Clowes’ Eightball, Death Ray is the tale of a teenage boy named Andy and is awful friend, Louie. Andy’s invisible. He’s not literally invisible though. Rather he’s invisible in that way only a teenager can be. With the exception of Louie, Pappy (Andy’s grandfather), and Pappy’s caretaker, not many people are more than vaguely aware of Andy’s existence. Most anyone else who would potentially care about Andy has passed on. His mother died very young when a blood clot lodged in her brain, and his father and grandmother were victims of cancer, leaving Andy with only Pappy and his aunt left to call family. In many ways, Andy is a more tragic version of Peter Parker. He lacks Peter’s genius, but, like Parker, Andy is an orphan with only a sickly, aging relative left to care for him. Andy’s tragedy exceeds Peter Parkers in that at least Peter’s losses were sudden and uncommon. Andy lost his family to the slow, heartbreaking cruelty of disease; while Peter Parker never got the chance to say “goodbye,” the reader must assume that Andy had to watch his father slowly succumb to death’s grasp. He must also have watched his grandmother do the same, and the reader is forced to witness, along with Andy, the agonizing deterioration of Andy’s grandfather. Where Peter Parker’s losses, most notably of Uncle Ben, were sudden and certainly tragic, Andy’s losses must have been soul-crushing, leaving him in the hollow state that we find him in in the opening pages of this story.

With such tragic beginnings, it’s only natural that Andy must have something else extraordinary happen to him—this is a comic book, after all. It must be something so extraordinary as to completely change his life and give him the opportunity for a better one. A better life, that is, if Andy can keep himself together emotionally. For the purposes of this story, Andy must become a superhero. Previously unbeknownst to Andy; as a child, his father injected him with a special hormone. That hormone could be activated with the use of nicotine, giving Andy super strength. However, the strength is only temporary and Andy must regain his abilities through smoking…yes, Andy must smoke in order to become a superhero. In addition to his nicotine-activated-super-strength, Andy’s father also left him an odd-shaped pistol, a death ray. The death ray pistol can only be operated by Andy and has the ability to completely disintegrate any target that it hits.

The trouble is, can Andy actually keep himself together long enough to learn to always make the right decisions without going mad with his moderate amount of power? Can Andy stave off the aggravating peer pressure that his best friend saddles him with? Can Andy be a hero? Can he be Peter Parker? Or will he ultimately retreat back to his overbearing sense of personal inadequacy and the all-too-human urge for exerting his power through passive-aggressive means? Clowes addresses all of these issues in a way that can only be done in comics and he addresses them in a way that is uncomfortably honest. Imagine visiting a friend and asking the banal question, “How are you?” Now imagine that they respond by saying, “I’m an emotional wreck. My grandmother died and I just don’t know what to do with myself.” The certain type of tension and uncomfortableness that comes from such a response is what Clowes captures in Death Ray and he makes it the tone for the whole of the narrative.

Andy’s journey is an interesting one. Andy’s life has not been particularly cheery, and he has just one friend, Louie (who is of morally questionable character); his lack of friends is a result of bad past experiences and his own cynical nature. Yet, even with his cynicism, Andy considers Louie to be a rare, true friend. The relationship between Andy and Louie is complex. It almost seems that they’re both using each other for emotional reasons and there is a clear struggle for dominance in the relationship. Early on, Louie (who has a troubled home life of his own) is the dominant partner of the two. He bosses Andy around while trying to exploit and manipulate Andy’s new found super power. What’s worse is that he doesn’t just try to exploit Andy for personal gain; he tries to convince Andy that it’s okay to use his abilities for morally questionable acts—and in some cases morally reprehensible ones. Part of Louie’s motivation for trying to get Andy to use his powers in such a way is clearly a result of his home life and disdain for his family members, but it’s also a clear result of his trouble with girls. It’s Louie’s douche baggery that creates significant strain on the relationship between the characters.

Andy initially struggles with what to do with his abilities and eventually makes a conscious, if not over-compensating effort, to be a good person after he gains a better understanding of his ability and the power of the death ray pistol that his father left him. He almost tries to be too good. It’s as though he’s trying to emulate the black and white morality of Golden Age superheroes. It’s not the captivating black and white morality of later, more complex characters like Steve Ditko’s Question or Mr. A. Rather, it’s much more child-like and it ultimately sets Andy up for failure with its impossible to maintain ideals. What’s even more fascinating about Andy’s choice to try to be a better person is its ultimate result, which is Andy developing an almost sociopathic sense of authority over who lives and who dies. In Andy’s warping sense of morality there are many people who are permitted to live only as a result of his generosity.

What’s most captivating about this shift in Andy’s moral outlook is that creates a significant change in the dynamic of Louie and Andy’s relationship. Andy becomes the clear, dominant force and it’s Louie that ultimately becomes sympathetic, submissive member of the friendship and it is he who is forced to retreat to a Jiminy Cricket-type role. Perhaps Louie was a Jiminy Cricket archetype all along, except he transitioned from a morally questionable one into the more relatable, sympathetic, version. In the end, it was this shift in dynamic and its necessary result that made this story memorable. It’s a wonderfully well-crafted tale, but it’s this moment that stopped the work from just being good and made it great.

Dan Clowes’ mastery of storytelling isn’t just limited to character moments, as savvy comic readers should well know. Clowes utilizes the visual aspect of the medium as well as any creator ever has. He takes great advantage of the methods of storytelling that are only possible in comics and uses them in remarkably subtle and impactful ways. While Clowes’ layouts appear simple and straightforward, they invest the reader with the characters by forcing them to consider them only within the limited existence that Clowes’ permits them. Reading Clowes’ panel layouts is similar to reading a Sunday comic strip. On a page where several dozen characters may appear, the reader is forced to limit those characters to the small squares in which they exist. The reader knows that Hi & Lois won’t be appearing in Garfield any time soon; they know that’s the case because of the layout of the Comics page and the way that each cartoonist lays out their panels. Whether it was intentional or not, Charles Schultz utilized this to a remarkable effect. When people read Peanuts, it doesn’t matter what else is on the page, nothing else exists outside of Charlie Brown’s world. No one is thinking about any other strip or character on the page, they are completely invested in Schultz’s characters. Clowes taps into that exact same sentiment and reader reaction with the page layouts in Death Ray. The design forces the reader to be only interested in the little moments that Clowes provides them. Nothing else exists outside of Andy and Louie’s small world, and even less exists in between the panels.

In addition to Clowes’ Schultzian mastery of layout and storytelling, he accents and bookends the story with brilliant, yet brief, interludes that allow the readers insight into what others think of Andy. These interludes allow for a satisfying reflection on who Andy was, who Andy became, and provide a needed sense of closure for the story. Clowes chooses an unconventional, but somewhat expected, ending for the story that builds on that sense of closure that was provided by the interludes and also gives the reader a sense of control over Andy’s ultimate fate. It’s that combination that makes the story not just memorable, but satisfying.

Dan Clowes is inarguably a comics master and in Death Ray he offers a superhero tale that only he could tell. He utilizes an astonishing range of sequential story telling styles that draw influence from the great superhero comics of the Silver Age, newspaper comic strips and the tools that Charles Schultz mastered, and mixes them together with his own distinguished visual sense and unique way of character building and development. If one were to look at this as an overall commentary of the evolution of the superhero, it’s easy to watch Andy transition from the Golden Age do-gooder to the more introspective Silver Age hero to the morally complex anti-hero of modern superhero comics, and Clowes makes the transitions subtle and emotionally satisfying. Between Clowes’ work and the topnotch production values that Drawn & Quarterly puts into this edition, Death Ray has more than earned a spot on every sincere comics fan’s shelf, and is one of the finest collections to have been released in 2011.

Story: 5 - Excellent
Art: 5 - Excellent

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