Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Death Ray

Watchmen started a trend with imagining what realistic superheroes would be like. More recently, books and movies like Kick Ass and Super took the idea a little farther in terms of the violence and insanity. The Death Ray is a different take on this superhero trope. As stories go, it is a slow burn, as many of Dan Clowes's tales are. More an exploration of the moral and social outcomes that would come with great power, it is a bleak portrait of a lonely, unsatisfied man and his unfulfilled existence.

The Death Ray follows the life of Andy, a pretty ordinary and unremarkable teenager who has had his share of disappointment. He is an orphan who lives with his increasingly deteriorating grandfather. His sole bright spots are writing occasionally to a girl he once dated whom he insists he still loves and hanging out with Louie, his one friend from school. The boys get picked on and called names, but things change once Andy stumbles upon the fact that he has amazing strength and powers. Instead of becoming some ostentatious figure, Andy instead leads a quieter life gaining revenge and dispatching those he and Louie consider evil. As time goes on, his deeds begins to weigh more and more on him.

This story was originally published as a stand-alone issue of Dan Clowes's Eightball. The series was a highwater mark of 1990s alternative comics, and it established Clowes as a major talent in comics. He has gone on to do much prominent work that has appeared in magazines like Esquire, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine. He has produced a number of well renowned works such as Ghost World, Wilson, and Ice Haven. He has also written screenplays for his works that have been turned into movies, Ghost World and Art School Confidential.

Like many of Clowes's works, this book has been well received and reviewed. The Washington Post's Aaron Leitko called it "a clever tweak on a well-worn series of cliches." Paul Di Filippo wrote that "Clowes masterfully depicts the lives of characters who are both average and yet as majestically tragic as any Greek or Shakespearean stumblebum." NPR's Dan Kois praised the book for its unsettling take on superheroes, adding "Clowes takes his conceit seriously, and so do his characters, exploring the knotty and discomfiting intersection of teen angst and unexpected power." The Death Ray was also nominated for a 2012 Eisner Award.

For those more interested in the book, there is a great discussion about various aspects and interpretations at The Comics Journal. A preview is provided here from the book's publisher Drawn & Quarterly.

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