The Death Ray
by Daniel Clowes
The Clowes titles are coming thick and fast from Jonathan Cape recently. After the mental brilliance of Wilson I was satisfied if not blown away by Mister Wonderful. The latter's letter-box format perfectly suited its strip-form genesis but this latest publication (originally published in Clowes' Eightball comic book series - #23) is a gigantic, souped-up hardcover. Does this, and the striking cover, mean that Clowes has written some kind of super-hero comic? Don't you believe it. It may well be some kind of super-hero story but it's a very Clowesian one and anyone who's read any of his work will have an inkling of what that means.
We first meet Andy in 2004 and in the opening two pages he seems like another anti-hero to add to Clowes' stock. Married twice, divorced twice, devoted friend to an eighteen year-old dog called Dianne, Andy's altercation with a litter-dropping pedestrian is much like the first panels of Wilson; personal responsibility is raised immediately as a theme and Andy admits that his attempts to do what's right have become harder than ever of late - 'How the hell does one man stand a chance against four billion assholes?'
We then zoom back to Andy's adolescence in the 1970's for what all super-hero stories require in a spread entitled 'The Origin Of Andy.' Both parents having died he now lives with his 'Pappy' and apart from best-friend Louie is a bit of a nobody in most people's eyes, getting most attention from school bully Stoob. His girlfriend is miles away, he fantasises about his grandfather's carer, Dinah and at 17 he's yet to even sample his first cigarette. And that proves to be the catalyst to his transformation. There are plenty of people who've thrown up after their first cigarette but I'm sure none went on to develop super strength. Pappy hands over a package from his father (a famous scientist) that explains about the experimental growth hormone that he was injected with, activated by nicotine, and also mentions the existence of the death ray.
Together Andy and Louie struggle to work out what to do with this new found power, activated whenever Andy smokes, but their concerns remain pretty small. Saving the world is further down the list than revenge on bullies and getting a girl but through their various bungled attempts we begin to see Andy wrestling with the responsibility that comes with holding the death ray, a gun that only Andy can operate that makes its target disappear in an instant. Louie is a kind of side-kick, there to keep him 'honest' but when only one of a duo has any powers there is bound to be conflict somewhere down the line.
Reading this review you may already have found yourself thinking about some of the classic comics of the past with their orphaned heroes, raised by elderly parents or relatives and even more so of the alternative vision of vigilanteism in Kick-Ass. Does this book aim to pay homage or mock, subvert or simply hijack the super-hero mythology in order to combine it with Clowes recurring themes of inadequacy, bitterness and failure in the face of stupid and cruel world? Whatever the answer to that question I'm afraid there is something deflating about it as a read, particularly when held up against the biting humour of Wilson. It's been diminishing returns with these releases I'm afraid so I can only hope that Clowes' next piece of new material is a return to form. The franchise could do with a re-boot.