A medium simultaneously obscure and ubiquitous, the comic book is often dismissed as reading material for nerds, children and nerdy children. After all, famous characters like the X-Men and Batman constantly find their way on screen in the latest special effects-ridden blockbuster du jour, searing themselves onto the mainstream public’s consciousness like the sparks of an overwrought explosion. But despite these films’ appeal, most casual fans don’t end up scanning the panels of these mythical characters’ origin stories.
For Oakland-based author Daniel Clowes, the comic book represents an intermediary between the visual and the literary, a possibility to transcend the limitations of both prose and film. An observer of the strange fixations of the human mind, Clowes centers his stories around his characters — complete with off-putting idiosyncrasies and rich internal worlds — as they move through bleak suburban landscapes. His new book, “The Death-Ray,” transplants Clowes’s misanthropic philosophical musings into a genre known for anything but its nuanced view of morality: the super hero comic.
Originally written in 2004 as part of his serialized comic books “Eightball,” “The Death-Ray” is the story of Andy, a downtrodden high school loner who discovers he has super strength after he takes his first inhale of a cigarette and accidentally activates the secret powers his deceased father bestowed upon him. And Dad left Andy with another surprise, too: the Death-Ray, a yellow gun that looks like an unassuming toy but can actually annihilate any squirrel, bully or other target of Andy’s choosing. Armed with more firepower than he knows what to do with, faced with peer pressure and plagued by disturbing sexual fantasies, Andy blunders through a bumpy ethical terrain as he comes to grips with the Death-Ray’s violent potential. ”The Death-Ray” puts the superhero’s pursuit of truth, justice and the American way under a big question mark, facing the reader with the devastating consequences of Andy’s assurance in his ability to do right.
“I was working on that story from the time after 9/11 to the build-up of the Iraq war and was immersed in that news cycle,” said Clowes in a phone interview. “So when I reread (“The Death-Ray”) now (I see) it was clearly informed by that notion that we are a superpower and that what we do is inherently the right decision and what a catastrophe that can be. Though I can’t say that was necessarily something running through my mind while I was drawing it. It was more about the specific characters at the time.”
Like realist authors such as Balzac and Flaubert, Clowes upholsters his narratives around the interaction of a character’s consciousness with his specific surroundings. Narrated by the adult Andy as he recalls his teenage escapades of superherohood, “The Death-Ray” takes a focus on the protagonist’s interiority in the vein of the 19th century realist novel. Like the protagonists of his other critically lauded works “Wilson” and “Ice Haven,” Andy bares the inner workings of his mind before the reader, from his obsession with his middle-aged housekeeper to his yearning for a sense of closeness with the people around him.
“You’re always looking for that character that will get you out of bed every morning because you can’t wait to see what he’s going to do next, and that tends to be characters that might not be aware of their own baser motives… Every person you meet has some crazy, twisted thing they are thinking about at all times, I’m convinced.” explained Clowes when asked about his protagonists’ evolution.
Though much of the plot of “The Death-Ray” occupies a realm of fantasy, its focus on the weird details of the subconscious twists the familiar rise-of-the-underdog story it initially appears to be. Andy’s internal monologues linger on philosophical issues; as he walks his dog or shops for groceries, he ponders the dynamics of human interactions and the difficulty of righting injustice. Though Clowes does not use any one character as a mouthpiece for his own ideas, he admits that the prose component of his comics delves into the different viewpoints of issues that he finds himself thinking about as he goes about the routine of his day.
In addition to its ambiguous stance on philosophical issues, “The Death-Ray” uses an ambiguous visual language. Like an out-of-focus lens, some of the panels leave cut off parts of speech bubbles or unexpectedly switch to a dream sequence, blurring the lines between the story’s reality and the characters’ perception.
Many of Clowes’s drawing compositions rely on the devices of film, which is no surprise considering he has also written the screenplays of the film adaptations of two earlier comic books, “Ghost World” and “Art School Confidential.” Different drawing styles and color schemes accompany the various facets of Andy’s story as it unfolds, visually distinguishing the different chapters of his life.
An untraditional superhero comic by all means, “The Death-Ray” might not have the broad impact of stories about the famous crime-fighting mutants of pop culture. But as Clowes continues to push the boundaries of the comic book as a medium, his work inspires a new appreciation of its storytelling potential with every panel.