by Daniel Clowes
"I don't feel sorry for myself, but sometimes I think all these tragedies couldn't just be a coincidence. Maybe it means something. Maybe I'm destined for something big."
Daniel Clowes submerges us in profound alienation and the development of one's own moral code in his newest graphic novel, The Death-Ray. It's a sad, thoughtful story that also explores desire and the fronts one puts on when out in the world. It's also a story of consequence.
Andy is a quiet (and therefore, mostly invisible) teenager in the late 70s who lives with his grandfather and spends most of his time with his friend Louie. Both of Andy's parents are dead — his mother from a blood clot, his scientist father from cancer — and besides ailing "Pappy," their housekeeper, Dinah, is the only other parental figure in his life. He likes old music, keeps his room clean, and he writes letters to his "girlfriend" back in California. He lets Louie run the show most of the time.
Louie, meanwhile, hates his drunk father for running off, hates having to live with his mom, and he hates his sister's abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend. He has an awkward Prince Valiant haircut and a scraggly 'stache, and he's equally as likely to call you a pussy as he is to shake your hand. Most of the time though, he pretends he doesn't care what people think of him. He and Andy spend a lot of time just hanging out and talking.
One day, Andy gives in and smokes one of Louie's cigarettes. He throws up, but then:
I woke up at 5am, groggy, but filled with superhuman energy. It's like I could hear the blood coursing through my arteries and everything. I actually thought for a minute that I might explode! It's like my atoms were unstable. I don't know how to explain it exactly, but I was overcome with the absolute confidence that I could do anything, that I was in every way superior.
Going through his dad's old stuff, he discovers that he was treated with an experimental hormone where super strength is activated by nicotine. Super powers, he has them.
Yes. Now what should he do with them? And what else does he need to know?
The ways Andy uses his new abilities are at first petty, then have him grappling with ethics and personal responsibility, before swinging back into jealousy and attempts at loyalty. In short, he does what many people would do — struggle.
The Death-Ray does not have a lot of pages, but the drawings have amazing complexity to them, despite their somewhat simple, nostalgic style. Going back through the book, I noticed new details that I never noticed on the first read, and the storytelling structure is excellent. We see Andy as a 2004 adult, alone and telling us of his life, and we also hear from minor characters, briefly, but directly. The way Clowes weaves together these vignettes of Andy's life is impressive and had I the convenience and the energy, I would scan some of the artwork to accompany my thoughts. The absence of images in a graphic novel review should make you all the more curious and likely to seek it out, I hope.
EDITED TO ADD: Wait, sorry. You'd think I could just CHECK THE PUBLISHER WEBSITE for preview pages or something. Here is an excerpt from the book up on Drawn and Quarterly.
I would hope that the debate over graphic novels being considered literature has largely passed — I honestly don't know, as I tend to keep out of such tiresome discussions — but if anyone truly was searching for a recent example, The Death-Ray is as literary as a text-only short story. However, Andy's story is one that is best told in illustrated form. Underneath the excellent character sketch of someone who so yearning and lonely is a lovely hat-tip to superhero comics. Clowes frames everything around the childhood escape of holing up in your room and reading about fantastic adventures, masked crusaders who make the world a bit more bearable to live in. Andy's sense of justice isn't so far-reaching, but he holds onto the idea that he will one day get his due.
Full disclosure: I won this book, along with Seth's The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, as part of a giveaway on BOOOOOOOM!. Cheers to them.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read III, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. In order to make up for last year’s 51 books, I’m aiming for 53. The challenge ends December 31, 2011.