Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Books: The Death Ray


The Death Ray
By Daniel Clowes

Available now from Islington Libraries
You can reserve this item for free here:

Daniel Clowes is a guy who's best known for serving up slice-of-life stuff with an extra helping of misery and grief (served cold). If you've heard of him - it's most likely for his breakthrough crossover hit Ghost World which - yeah - was a movie starring blah blah blah...

But - hey - what's this? Is that a superhero brandishing some kind of cosmic ray-gun on the cover there? Does this mean that Clowes has finally sold out? Is he making a late career dash for the mainstream? For someone who's always made a habit out of rolling his eyes at the idea that comics were only ever about costumes and capes this seems a little unexpected - like finding out that Jim Jarmusch's next film is going to be CGI robots fighting Batman or something [1]. I mean - there's a moment in his last book (I think it was his book anyway - but whatever) Wilson where the title character is sitting in the back of a taxi and when the driver asks: "So. Have you seen the Dark Knight?" Wilson responds: "Isn't it a kid's movie?" [2] and the feeling (from this reader anyone) is that Clowes (at that point) is on Wilson's side...

Death Ray starts with a scene that feels like Wilson all over again: there's a guy called Andy out walking his dog - picking up poop - and making bitter judgements on those who have wronged him (speaking of his ex-wives he says: "Neither of them was worth a damn. Just a couple of whores out to drain a man of his money and vigor."): hell for a second there it was all so familar that I thought that maybe I was reading a Wilson sequel. But - no. Like I've said: this is much more superhero-tastic.

I can't remember where I read it - but when I was fluttering around the internet reading the things people had written about The Bulletproof Coffin by David Hine and Shaky Kane someone said something to the effect that Death Ray and The Bulletproof Coffin were the only two superhero books that approaching the idea of superheroes in a properly adult way and something blah blah blah Watchmen sucks or something [3]. Actually - no wait - sorry that's not quite fair. Let me try again: I guess the point that they were tying to make it that most every superhero book out there treats superheroes purely as escapist entertainment (I mean - that's what they are - (and it's a bit like getting prissy that toys are just things that you can play with) but let's not get into all that now yeah?): and that Death Ray and Bulletproof Coffin were the only books that really got into the psychological realism of what superheroes are all about (I mean this could all be completely wrong but what the hey right?). Of course in terms of my expectations I thought that Death Ray was going to be all close-up sweaty realism - with uncomfortable close-ups of people being punched in the face (and the caption reading something like: "Hey readers - watch out: beacuse like violence is bad yeah?"). Thankfully tho (I mean - I guess not if you're a fan of sweaty violence - but hey you can always get that sort of thing elsewhere if you really want...) Death Ray isn't really into that sort of brutal physical bodily fluids type of violence - more the sort of violence that happens inside people's minds and the various way that sort of stuff can manifest itself - in a way that's not really that explosive: but is much more sickening for it's lack of effect and the way that sometimes even tho we do stuff that might be kinda big and tramatic - the world doesn't always reciprocate: and so sometimes - well - sometimes stuff just disappears (you know: like with the finality of death and things like that [4]).

Of course - because it's Daniel Clowes: throughout all of this - it never gives the reader a chance to get off the hook: and even tho it generally does a Reservoir-Dogs-style-swerve away from all the bloody stuff that doesn't mean that the language isn't doing it's best to try and make an impact (I think that my favourite line of the whole book is: "It was like my entire body got a giant boner.").

And - well - maybe it's because I only recently reread Kick Ass (which I guess is the primary text (or whatever) of "superheroes for real" nowadays) but I really liked the way that Death Ray upends the cliché of there always being a supervillain showing up to fight the main guy who gets all the superpowers. So that was cool. Plus - the way Daniel Clowes takes his whole schizophrenic artistic style that he used in Wilson (and maybe his other books as far as I know - Ice Haven maybe? [5]) and really makes it sing. So it doesn't seem like he has a short attention span or is just showing off (altho it's like his different moods of drawing are really that dissimilar from each other - so it's pretty rubbish showing off - but - hey - ok: whatevers): he actually makes everything feel integrated: so that a change in styles means a change in the way that he's telling the story: and - at points: it all gets pretty complex (the Comics Journal (see that Death-Ray Discussion Forum link below) only half-jokingly calls: "first-person past-tense textual narration (delivered from the future) with third-person past-tense visual narration."): even tho it doesn't really take any effort to read or understand.

So yeah: full of the all the sort of bile and vemon that you'd want from a Daniel Clowes feature (the heroe's catchphrase isn't quite "With great power comes great responsibility" in fact it's more like: "How the hell does one man stand against 4 billion assholes.") with a dressing of spandex and masks as well. So something for the whole family to enjoy then. Excellent.

[1] I mean - I know that this goes without saying: but - hell - that would be a film that I would pay money to go see: so - erm - Hollywood? Could you make it happen please please please?

[2] I'm simplifying it a little. But if you want to read it: it's here

[3] I really wish I could remember where I saw it: because obviously this would make a lot more sense if I could just link to it. But - for once - I'm going to restrain myself from going back to see if I can find it (if anyone knows what I'm talking about and where it is then please send me the link or tell me where it was!)

[4] Yeah - I know that maybe this all just sounds unreasonable woolly. But I'm hoping that those of you who've read it will know (maybe) what I'm talking about?

[5] That's not a Daniel Clowes book that we currently have in stock here at Islington: so I can't really say for sure what it's like... (Sorry). 

Links: Icon Sequential Review: With Great Power Comes Something or Other: Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray,  The Comics Journal: The Death-Ray Discussion Forum.

Further reading: Wilson, The Bulletproof Coffin, David Boring, Kick-Ass, Kinetic, Flex Mentallo, RaslWatchmen, I Never Liked You, Black Hole, #$@&!: The Official Lloyd Llewellyn Collection.  

Profiles: Daniel Clowes.

All comments welcome.

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