With Great Power Comes Something or Other: Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray

Reviewed by Joseph Frank

I want to be a fan of Daniel Clowes’s comics. In some ways, I am; in many others, I am not. I figured this out after approaching his work with acceptance and dispassion. Clowes has won multiple Harvey awards for writing and illustrating, a 2007 PEN award for Graphic Literature, and he’s been involved with more than one well-received film adaptation of his work. How could I not love such a celebrated artist? And indeed, there is much about his work I do admire, aspects which, on the aesthetic level, are beyond expert, are masterful. Mostly, my praise of Clowes’s art is for his uncannily simple but altogether unsettling illustration style. Narratively, however, I suspect Mr. Clowes and I would find much to disagree over.

Maybe the mistake is mine. I skipped his entire early bibliography. I have never read Ghost World, nor have I seen the 2001 film adaptation directed by Terry Zwigoff and starring Thora Birch with Scarlett Johansson. I’ve not read David Boring or Ice Haven or Wilson – one of Amazon.com’s nine Best Books of April 2010 – or Mister Wonderful: A Love Story. Rather, I jumped into the Daniel Clowes library at the point of its most recent addition: The Death-Ray. I was, after all, raised on Marvel comics and Spider-Man, and so how could I resist the aesthetic homage Clowes pays to Peter Parker’s iconic alter-ego?

The Death-Ray follows the life-story of a painfully banal teenager named Andy whose biography generally reflects that of Peter Parker: Andy’s parents are dead, he lives with an elderly relative (his Pappy), he is a high-schooler, an outcast, a pitiful romantic, the friend of a homely misfit, unpopular, morally adrift, and easily influenced.

When Andy experiments with smoking cigarettes his experience is much of what you would expect. He feels pretty cool next to his pal Louie, and then he vomits. That night, Andy wakes at 5 a.m., “groggy, but filled with superhuman energy” (9). He can hear the sounds inside his body, the blood in his arteries, and he is filled with absolute confidence that he’s able to do anything. Indeed, he effortlessly rips a copy of Homer’s Odyssey in two the way strongmen rip phone books in half – thick-wise. Outside, he lifts the rear of a car off the ground. The next day he proves his strength again, this time at school and to save Louie from a bully. He inherits a mysterious death ray left by his deceased father, who had been a scientist and is the person who genetically modified Andy to have such a reaction to nicotine – similarly, only Andy is able to activate the death ray; in the hands of others it may as well be a water pistol. And though Andy and Louie share visions of heroic grandeur, this is where Clowes departs from Stan Lee’s Spider-Man. This departure is, I argue, the narrative’s strong premise but also it weakness.

It’s relatively well-known that the iconic comic book impresario Stan Lee created Peter Parker/Spider-Man with one concern in mind: to imagine a superhero with whom real teenagers could identify. What would such a character be like? In 1962, Lee’s answer was Peter Parker, an intelligent but ostracized adolescent, insecure, awkward, and lacking physical prowess, opposite the Supermen and Batmen who dominate the super hero genre and comic book medium. The plot thereafter is familiar: Peter Parker develops superhuman abilities following a bite from a radio-activated spider. He dons a mask and flashy tights, and following the murder of his Uncle Ben – a murder Peter could have stopped before it occurred – he vows to follow his uncle’s insight that with great power comes great responsibility. Spider-Man becomes an ostracized hero but a hero nonetheless, saving New Yorkers time and again from threats common and outstanding.

The problem with Lee’s vision is this: as decades passed and his adventures advanced, Peter Parker’s life eventually became more and more epic and thus more and more difficult to identify with. Perhaps, even, Lee’s vision to relate to the true teenage experience failed as soon as Parker adopted his uncle’s advice as his mission and became noble. True teenagers, the antithesis goes, are rarely so devotedly noble. How often do we think of teenagers and responsibility as co-existent? And more departures from the reality of banal adolescence developed gradually. Over time, Peter became better looking. He developed bigger muscles. He became more hip. He moved out of his elderly aunt’s house and into a Manhattan apartment (a setting at least marginally admirable no matter how drab). Following the death of his first true love, Gwen Stacey, Parker’s regular girlfriend and eventual wife became the busty red-headed vixen Mary-Jane Watson who, as she and Peter grew into adulthood, herself became a world-famous lingerie and swimsuit model. (Particular storylines differ per exact title – “Amazing…,” “Spectacular…,” et cetera – but the above is how I, a fervent Spider-Man fan through the ‘80s and 90s, recall the general and most popular plots.)

Well, The Death-Ray cries foul. Sagacity holds no place in the real world of most middle-brow North American teenagers (except, maybe, in their imaginations and sexual fantasies). Where Peter Parker’s sagacious rise to responsibility over power defines the Spider-Man books, Clowes’s main character Andy’s naïve ineptitude to rise to the occasion of his own great power, stumbling instead amid the countless pitfalls of teenage hubris, distinguishes The Death-Ray. ‘This,’ Clowes seems to announce, ‘is how it would really play out.’ And so Andy is pathetic, dim-witted, lazy, neurotic, selfish, and aimless, and then he becomes superpowered and with those powers he is pathetic, dim-witted, lazy, neurotic, selfish, and aimless.

Imagine if Stan Lee had handed the writing responsibilities of Spider-Man and a bottle of Johnny Walker to Raymond Carver and told him to get angry, then finish what Lee had started. The result would have been something like The Death-Ray. But only sort of. Because Clowes keeps going, writing as though Carver then mashed the manuscript into the hands of David Eggers, and this is where he loses me.

It may be a question of what narrative technique an author may use in an effort to control and even return the reaches of magic realism’s potential to realism. Or it may be that Clowes’s style is simply a product of its time and literary atmosphere. Either way, The Death-Ray becomes clunky and pedestrian and, after about the halfway mark, it becomes laborious to complete if only because this reader is impressed by fantastic illustrations for so long before quickly losing patience for whiny narrators who refuse shut up about how shitty everything has turned out. How does this come about? I blame it on what the literary critic James Wood calls magic realism’s next stop: “hysterical realism…characterised by a fear of silence. This kind of realism is a perpetual motion machine that appears to have been embarrassed into velocity…[bouncing] around in [a] false zaniness.” (“Tell Me How Does it Feel” http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/oct/06/fiction).

Like many writers of his generation, Clowes mistakes dry wit as well as cynical and silly zigzagging between disparate scenes for character study. The book unfolds in thirty-three chapters, including monochromatic depictions of Andy as a grown man and divorcee living in a basement apartment (as if Clowes devised an algebraic equation for the concise depiction of a grown man in the pits of the pitiable), a section titled “What Do You Think of Andy?” in which a series of one-off characters offer their opinions of the protagonist, and letters written by Andy to his estranged sweetheart through which his naiveté is made painfully obvious (Dusty, the girlfriend in California, clearly does not long for Andy as deeply as he longs for her). The book’s paper-thin conclusion is a “Choose Your Own Adventure.” Why? I just don’t understand and I’m saddened by what I perceive not to be a moment of narratological deconstruction but, in fact, an utter copout. This strange velocity, to use Wood’s word, is off-putting. Nowhere does one moment of story linger long enough, or shut up long enough, to allow the reader a clear view of Andy. Rather, the hysteria of The Death-Ray distracts. While it may be intended that each little vignette brings us closer to the study of Andy’s character, what results is an alienating collage of relentlessly mediocre and tediusly neurotic soliloquys about misanthropic self-absorption and moral malaise. I expect someone, somewhere, has called The Death-Ray introspective. But it’s the opposite. The Death-Ray is whiny. And narratologically, the reader is handed a lot of vapid noise.

On the level of the illustrations, the paneling is equally frenetic, often devoid of sequential lucidity – another instance of hysteria. But I can find no wrong, on the most basic level, with Clowes’ ability to draw, if that offers some redemption. He’s clearly a master illustrator and the purveyor of a unique aesthetic. But as with Clowes’ much-celebrated colleague Chris Ware, as well as novelists like the late David Foster Wallace and the aforementioned David Eggers, even ample evidence of outstanding talent is, to my mind, powerless against ceaseless tedium and false zaniness. I just can’t do it. Shouldn’t a story’s story trump post-postmodern gimmickry?

I suppose I should recoup and then, with renewed dispassion, revisit the work of Daniel Clowes. The Comic’s Journal discussion forum on The Death-Ray suggests this book bears more worth appreciating than I’m able to see, as yet, and so I suppose there are depths within this story to investigate further and to appreciate. Indeed, I do like his illustrations so much that I want to like more than just his illustrations. And can so many awards be wrong? What I need is some time. I put the book down feeling like I just smoked my first cigarette: nauseas, dizzy, as though it wasn’t worth it. But I can’t rip a book in half yet (I tried, and adding to the difficulty is the fact that The Death-Ray is hardcover). Until I feel well again I’m going to read some Spider-Man. Maybe this stuff works for some people, but with The Death-Ray in my hands, I may as well be Andy’s pal Louie, gripping the ray gun, aiming it, and pulling the trigger to find that though it looks cool nothing happens.

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