(Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)
The last thing anyone expected from cartoonist Daniel Clowes is The Death-Ray, a dense, elliptical comics novella about a teenage superhero. Neither a send-up, nor a satire, The Death-Ray engages the concepts and tropes of superpowered comic book heroes as a lens through which to examine the American superpower. A striking achievement of the comic book form and format, The Death-Ray undermines the conceits of its own genre so thoroughly that the book, like its titular protagonist, may wield the power to make superhero comics disappear—without a trace.
For more than 20 years Clowes has produced nuanced, socially critical, humane, and narratively complex comics. A standard-bearer for comics as an expressive art form, Clowes’s career trajectory tracks the shifting place of comics and graphic novels in recent American culture. In 1989 he began publishing his seminal comic book series Eightball, which began as something of a post-pubescent response to MAD Magazine. Bitingly sarcastic and arrestingly perceptive, Eightball was initially characterized by incisive comics screeds (“I Hate You Deeply”), adults-only gags and satires (“Needledick the Bugfucker”), maladapted observational pieces (“The Party”), and longer, surrealistic narratives (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron). The series initially gained traction within a milieu of avant-garde, so-called “alternative comics” that followed the countercultural underground comix of the 1960s and ’70s and blossomed in the 1990s.
In a pre-Internet era, comics like Clowes’s Eightball, Peter Bagge’s Hate, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, and a growing body of others were diamonds in the comic book rough: artistic, nonconformist works, indifferently and sporadically stocked in specialty comic book shops that mainly catered to an aging audience of superhero comic book fans and collectors. Perceived as a kind of “misfit lit” (as a 1991 exhibition called them), these alternative comics became a touchstone and totem for comics aficionados and for readers with subcultural tastes in music, cult cinema, zines, and D.I.Y. culture. But in the broader cultural landscape, these artists, their publishers, evangelical readers—and the occasional feature writer—were forced to define this work against the generic, heavily merchandised superhero comic books that have commercially and culturally dominated the form since the early 1960s. Art Spiegelman’s Maus was among the few available reference points for work like this. But Spiegelman’s book, with its synthesis of daring form and difficult historical subject matter—and its place in Pantheon Books’s catalogue—seemed to many a sui generis outlier rather than the distinguished representative of a coming wave of ambitious comics.
Clowes, like many of his peers, turned toward longer stories, and over the course of a decade his Eightball evolved from a one-man anthology to a site for first serialization of book-length narratives, including Ghost World, a crisply observed tale of cultural and interpersonal alienation; David Boring, a lusting, pre-apocalyptic metafictional-noir; and Ice Haven, a comic strip collage, ostensibly about a child’s kidnapping, that playfully unmasks local communities as sites of disconnected, agglomerated self-regard. His characters developed from the first-person mouthpieces of early Eightball stories into still-opinionated but flawed and multidimensional personalities. Clowes’s narrative interests increasingly turned toward the dynamic between self-conceit and behavior, and the ways in which this resonates with the relationship between a tale told and its teller.
Clowes engaged themes consistent with those of literary fiction in visual terms and in bookstore-friendly formats, and he was not alone. By the turn of the millennium there emerged a critical mass of graphic novels ready to join Maus on the shelves of bookstores and libraries, and some far-sighted publishing insiders took notice. Chief among them was Chip Kidd, the acclaimed book designer for Knopf who also consulted on a handful of comics projects at Pantheon (Spiegelman’s publisher). Kidd perceptively encouraged Pantheon to make a stronger commitment to the comics form, and in late 2000 the publisher debuted two books: Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Clowes’s David Boring.
Ware’s critically lauded book, originally serialized in his Acme Novelty Library series, somewhat overshadowed Clowes’s deadpan investigation into lust and obsession. But the simultaneous publication of these two works by a major publisher made an unmistakable statement: a generation of cartoonists laboring in obscurity had come of age, and a welcome mat had been lain before the mansions of traditional book publishing. This perception was ratified by a flurry of activity: press attention (most prominently the New York Times Magazine cover feature “Not Funnies”); a sunshower of book advances for established and still-developing cartoonists; dedicated graphic novel sections in bookstores and libraries; and some museum attention. And, surely, independent film adaptations of Clowes’s Ghost World and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor did not hurt.
While champions of art-comics felt, at long last, vindicated by the embrace of mainstream literary culture, publishing remains marginal relative to the true mainstream of mass culture: film, television, pop music, video games, and interactive media. This distinction was not lost on the corporations producing superhero comic books for an aging and diminishing fan base, which repositioned themselves more directly as intellectual property firms. The 1999 success of The Matrix signaled that a popular audience would accept CGI-enhanced superhero-style entertainment if presented stylishly and with some star power. Thus 2000’s X-Men film, a latex-clad box office success, followed by the financial grand slam of 2002’s Spider-Man (which even warmed some critical hearts).
In an irony that Clowes could surely appreciate, publicists from the two major superhero-based intellectual property managers were able to capitalize on the new public appetite for superhero-themed movies to redirect attention to their comic book lines. After all, if comic books like Clowes’s could merit serious critical attention, should not some be paid to the comic book characters lighting up cineplexes? A series of narrative stunts with easy media hooks followed, such as Marvel’s “Civil War,” a thin political allegory pitting Captain America against Iron Man. The specious implications that superhero comic books were popular because their filmed counterparts were successful, and that superhero comic books deserved to benefit from the cultural reevaluation initiated by art-comics, reinforced each other strongly enough that many mainstream media organs, which once trumpeted the distinction between Clowes’s work and comics’ pop cultural legacy, now regularly spill breathless ink on the doings of Marvel and DC Comics.
Enter, then, The Death-Ray, Clowes’s superhero graphic novel about self-rationalization and unintended consequences. The protagonist and sometimes-narrator of the book is Andy, an orphaned, withdrawn teenager who lives with his grandfather. Following the tropes of the genre, the table has been set for a traditional origin story. But rather than some gamma bomb explosion, Andy’s superpowers are activated, in a Clowesian twist, by the first puff of a cigarette: an icon of teen alienation, but in Andy’s case an initiation into a world of adult experience from which he seeks to shield himself. Andy now finds himself capable of tearing The Odyssey (his homework reading) in half and beating a schoolyard bully to a bloody pulp. The stakes escalate dramatically when he receives his unique legacy: a ray gun that can erase its targets from this mortal sphere, in the blink of an eye and with nary a trace.
This is a chilling power to place into any hands, let alone those of an emotionally developing teenager. The superhero genre is premised upon such gifts, grounded in the presumption that power will be employed to virtuous ends against an array of conveniently identifiable villains. This may be a reasonable fantasy for children (although an influential critic of comics in the 1950s eyed with suspicion stories that encouraged children to admire a “Superman,” given the still-fresh memory of Hitler’s Germany). But the mythology of virtuous super-power, now presented as mainstream adult entertainment in the cinema, is connected here to the animating ideology of modern American power. Andy wears a Bicentennial T-shirt on the book’s back cover, and throughout mouths traditional platitudes: “Really I’m kind of an All-American type—a modest guy with common sense who knows the difference between right and wrong.” If the superhero genre is to be taken seriously, Clowes suggests, the intriguing issue is not the use to which power is put, but rather its justification. In crafting a serious superhero story, Clowes exposes the self-rationalizing culture of the powerful state.
Andy finds rationale for the use of his deadly gift in the implicit ideology that he helplessly reproduces by uncritically serving his turbulent emotional impulses. “I’ve never done anything to anyone they didn’t deserve,” he tells the reader. “My justice is nothing if not merciful.” Andy’s perceived enemies are both social and personal: a litterer, a sexual rival, an irresponsible neighbor, the sidekick who turns on him. Andy believes that his motives are pure, but they are confused; they are only consistent as extensions of his emotions, amplified by access to power. He is bolstered by the fantasies of American superhero comics that inform his self-image, rendered by Clowes in dynamic, oversized panels, until he graduates, by middle age, to pure, unsupported self-validation.
The book’s images of the Death-Ray in action are pure pop, filtered through Clowes’s queasy aesthetic and part of a shifting register of styles that manipulates the book’s visual dynamics. While The Death-Ray offers an unnerving critique of the superhero conceit, Clowes recovers and re-enlivens the formal conventions developed within commercial comic books. Primary colors, thought bubbles, hand-drawn sound effects (“Pop!”), five-pointed stars of pain, and other iconic comics motifs—which have nearly vanished from contemporary superhero comic books, as artists and editors have sought to more closely mimic the moody, widescreen aesthetics of films and video games—are present throughout The Death-Ray. Employing comics-specific aesthetics as both visual effects and as cultural reference points, Clowes’s anti-superhero comic book looks, at times, more like a traditional superhero comic book than its commercial counterparts do.
This past decade’s public enthusiasm for the graphic novel may have already peaked. The comics form continues to blossom as an exquisitely expressive medium, but its fortunes have now been partially tied to a book industry facing major contractions as eyes turn warily toward e-books and tablet devices (the latest focus of P.R. by Marvel and DC). If comics continue to merit serious attention—and they will—they are not likely to be the superhero comics whose fortunes are more closely tied to film. And if superhero comics can be adult literature, they are more likely to look and read like Daniel Clowes’s book than the slickly produced pamphlets featuring more well-known characters. Based on the effective critique articulated by The Death-Ray, there may not be a need for any more.
Bill Kartalopoulos is a comics critic, educator, and curator. He is the Series Editor for the Best American Comics series and teaches classes about comics at Parsons and SVA.