While many of his contemporaries from the late-80s/early-90s “alternative comix” scene have either mellowed with age or disappeared completely, Eightball creator Daniel Clowes — perhaps best known to regular readers of this blog as the screenwriter of Ghost World and Art School Confidential — seems to be gaining a deeper, if ultimately more pessimistic, handle on the human psyche over the years, and while new work from his strikingly able pen appears at what could generously be called a snail’s pace at best, the meticulous nature of both his artwork and his economic and incisive scripting demonstrates that he’s certainly not resting on his laurels.
Case in point — The Death-Ray, originally published by Fantagraphics Books in 2004 as (to date) the final issue of his previously-mentioned Eightball series and recently reissued in a handsome, oversized hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly, is nothing less than a disarmingly bleak masterwork that’s stunning to look at and oftentimes painfully, albeit gorgeously, misanthropic in tone. The title of one of Clowes’ earlier lengthy serials was Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, and this book definitely packs a wallop underneath its lush, even soothing at times, visuals.
The story presented here of orphan-turned-teen-outcast Andy, a casually misanthropic (mostly) loner who acquires remarkable super powers through remarkably outrageous means (see the panel reproduced above for a clue) and also happens upon the titular “death-ray” gun that can instantly wipe anyone or anything completely out of existence, is, on one level, a pretty simple meditation upon the old “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” slice of conventional wisdom, but it’s also much more — a stark portrayal of deepening alienation that sets in slowly over the years and it’s resultant heart-hardening and conscience-numbing; a requiem for lost loved ones we never really knew; and a simple yet profound study of two friends who drift apart over time, all related through a series of what by all rights should be hopelessly disjointed short comic-strip vignettes that vary nearly schizophrenically in tone and style, yet flow from one to the next with grace, ease, and confidence in service of producing what ultimately reveals itself to be a jaw-droppingly seamless whole.It’s also a perfect example of how to subvert reader expectations — the more we see of Andy as the years progress, the more distant he becomes; the more we find ourselves able to predict his actions (and his targets), the less we can relate to him; the more casual and nonchalant his violence, the more it shocks us. As we watch a tragic figure devolve into a monstrous one, we can’t seem to fight it when our pity turns to despair turns to disgust. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride delivered with a dead-pan, entirely matter-of-fact sense of almost clinical detachment. Camus in the American suburbs.
Andy’s story doesn’t end so much as it simply stops, with Clowes presenting the reader with a number of potential conclusions to the story in “choose your own adventure” style, but in all honesty, while this sounds like a bit of a cheat, if you’ve gone with his flow to this point it actually feels not only fitting but necessary, since a hard-and-fast resolution would, in fact, betray the tone of everything that has gone before by interjecting hard-and-fast authorial manipulation into a work that’s been meticulously constructed to avoid any semblance of it from the outset. Clowes’ style here has the distinct flavor of a true documentarian, even if the people and events he’s portraying are entirely fictitious.If there’s one minor quibble I have with The Death-Ray, it’s that $19.95 (assuming you pay full price) is an awful lot to shell out for a book that’s only 48 pages in length, even if those 48 pages are dimensionally more than generous and reproduce the varied-in-style-but-uniformly-stark-and-exquistite artwork in luscious, vibrant detail. It’s a just a damn hefty price tag, plain and simple. Still, this is a work that rewards rereading and careful analysis and can be viewed and interpreted in so many different ways that it’s downright impossible not to ultimately get your money’s worth from it. As rich, complex, and challenging a piece of graphic fiction as you’re ever likely to find, that presents no easy answers — or any answers at all, for that matter — yet resonates with an internal truth all its own, The Death-Ray numbers among a small handful of books that well and truly show comics to be a medium as limitless in terms of their possibilities as film or literature.