Thursday 13 October 2011

'He deserves it.'

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.


Max Cairnduff 15 October 2011 at 15:06  

After Watchmen I struggle to get excited by a title subverting super-hero mythology. It's been subverted. Post-Watchmen comics have taken that on board.

Otherwise, I'm wondering what it does that benefits from a super-heroic context. This feels like its tilting at a target long since hit by others.

William Rycroft 16 October 2011 at 00:06  

I think you're absolutely right Max, even the fact that this was originally published in 2004 doesn't excuse it, it was missing its target even then. I'm afraid it felt like a bit of a wasted exercise when reading it. I think Clowes has plenty to offer but I'm not sure this is close to it at all.

Max Cairnduff 16 October 2011 at 11:05  

I have plenty of unread Clowes I've yet to get to. I'll focus on that I think for now.

A lot of superhero comics are still aimed at children or adolescents. Not all, some are aimed at adults and some are designed to be enjoyed at a range of ages, but the teenage market remains key.

That's relevant because the whole subversion thing is only really interesting to those of us who grow up with comics and stay with them. If you're a 14 year old reading X-Men today then it isn't old to you. It doesn't need subversion. It's cool in its own right.

Subversion becomes relevant when you're tired of that but find the form still interesting. Then you think, well, what else can we do with these concepts? How can we play with them?

I don't tend to read supers comics any more. I've nothing against them and I don't think I've outgrown them, but my tastes shifted. If I did though, it would be in full awareness of the inherent absurdities of the form. In that sense superhero comics are like action movies. They don't really make much sense if you think through the internal logic, but if you're willing to let that slide (which doesn't mean being unaware of it) then there's a lot of fun to be had and interesting work to encounter.

I think to do good superhero comics you have to love them. Perhaps Clowes does, but it doesn't sound like that love shows on the page if he does. Without the love though it's just people in spandex. Superhero comics aren't just for adolescents, but to do them well I think there does still need to be a sense of adolescent enthusiasm informing them. That sounds lacking here.

William Rycroft 17 October 2011 at 10:08  

I'm not sure I've ever read a super hero comic in my life, all my knowledge of them is received from other sources and weirdly through the very comics that subvert them. I didn't find this made me enjoy Watchmen any less, in fact I thought it was superb. Anyway, I feel like I'm way too old to go back to them now, and a bit of a ponce too which means I'm looking more for graphic novels that do something with the form that traditional novels can't.

Max Cairnduff 18 October 2011 at 13:52  

Makes sense. There wouldn't be much point starting with supers now. If you don't grow up with them I doubt they'll ever appeal later.

Have you read any Joe Sacco? Well worth checking out. Also you remind me that I really should blog Bluesman, which I think you'd like.

William Rycroft 20 October 2011 at 09:33  

I have read loads of Sacco and love his work, there's a few reviews on here somewhere. In fact I'm a big fan of graphic non-fiction from writers like Sacco, Guy Delisle and David B.

And Bluesman I keep meaning to read. Maybe your post will convince me...

Max Cairnduff 20 October 2011 at 14:05  

You put me on to Delisle actually. Thanks for that.

You'd like Bluesman I think. Jason Lute's City of Smoke looks good too.

Perhaps slightly more commercial but have you read any Scott Pilgrim?

William Rycroft 20 October 2011 at 23:41  

Lutes is on my list too. Scott Pilgrim isn't, probably because it again seems a bit teenage and I didn't really like the bits of artwork I saw. Is that a mistake do you think?

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