Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Death-Ray by Dan Clowes

There is no better example than The Death-Rayof the process by which "comics" have become "graphic novels" -- this same story, in a slightly different form, was a single issue of Clowes's comic book Eightball less than a decade ago, but now it's an oversized hardcover book, priced four times higher. Luckily for us, it's one of Clowes's best stories, harnessing his usual bleak, anatomizing stare at humanity into a story that twists SF and comics conventions into Clowes's usual territory of dumpy streets and their dumpier, conflicted, unhappy inhabitants.

Clowes tells this story using the full palette of comics, moving backwards and forwards in time, laying out each page in a distinctive style, changing sub-stories every page or two, turning each segment into a chapter that circles his ever-central concern: are people any good at all?

Death-Ray is the closest Clowes has come to telling a superhero story, though, typically for him, the superpower is an outside item -- childish, enigmatic, unexplained and inexplicable, with a single function and a single possible user. The title "death-ray" is a toy for nearly everyone in the world, but when Andy points it at something and pulls the trigger, that something disappears forever. So the gun has, as guns always do, only a single purpose: it can eliminate things, or people, from the world. And Andy's choice is to decide, first, if he's going to eliminate people forever, and then, who.

Andy discovers the death-ray's power as a teenager: young enough to still be concerned with toys, old enough to know that the world is full of phonies and horrors, just the right age to think that he could make everything better if only he had the right tool. In best comics fashion, he has a sidekick and an ailing relative, school bullies and love interests -- but Andy isn't a Big Two character, so he's not going to save the world, or become a world-famous scientist, or team-up with anyone else like him. There's no one like him; he's a Clowes character, atomized and alone, and his decisions must be his own.

Andy's nihilistic power slots right into the heart of Clowes's work: his stories are full of people who detest things, who wish they could get rid of this person, or that style, or a building or bus or book or car, to make the world better. Andy, alone among Clowes's characters, has that power: he can get rid of things, and see if that does make the world better. But if anything could make a Clowes fictional world better, it wouldn't be a Clowes world -- and that is what Andy must learn, like all of Clowes's characters: nothing ever gets better, and the world is a passage of misery and pain, full of jerks, losers, criminals, and creeps. All Andy can do is get rid of the things he finds completely intolerable -- and the reader gets to decide if we agree with Andy or not.

The presentation of The Death-Ray is more impressive than that old issue of Eightball: larger, more substantial pages to showcase Clowes's art, and to give the complicated storytelling more room to breathe. But it does say something, about both commerce and art, that a single issue of a comics periodical could turn into a "new" graphic novel with so little changed.

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