Tag Archives: realism

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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The Deckhand Tragedy: Sammy Harkham’s Poor Sailor

review by Joseph Frank

The ocean has been on my mind. Melville’s Moby-Dick, of course; also Billy Budd. But I’ve been reading short fiction by Guy De Maupassant, as well. So it was a pleasure to discover his story, “At Sea,” which shares moral and thematic elements with Melville: an intense interest in the ill-fated curiosity of humans to find profit in the ocean; the ocean’s intolerance of humankind’s lice-like presence; among humans, a compassionless leader more concerned with his mission than his crew; a lonely conclusion, emphatically silent, focused on the protagonist’s orphanlike existence, which, upon reflection, is logical, unavoidable, but no less tragic.

Maupassant’s “At Sea” is about a young man called Javel Jr. onboard a trawling smack captained by his older brother, Javel Sr.. When Javel Jr.’s arm becomes tangled in the rope pulling a net filled with fish, Javel Sr. refuses to cut the rope, which would cost him the net and catch. When they finally drop anchor and slacken the net, Javel Jr.’s arm is gristle. For days he ladles sea water over the wound, but gangrene sets in and he finally amputates his own arm. The fishermen examine it. They preserve it in salt. Once home, Javel Jr.’s family examine it. The carpenter builds a small coffin and a funeral is held. Javel Jr. gives up the sea and recalls the incident as the day his brother chose profit over blood.

Of the many stories Maupassant penned, “At Sea” is, perhaps, not counted among his most well-known.

Along comes American comic creator Sammy Harkham, maker of the esteemed avant-garde comics anthology Kramer’s Ergot, who adapts “At Sea” to comic form. That Harkham’s Poor Sailor (the title of his adaptation) can be read in less than fifteen minutes speaks nothing to the time it requires. It is a taciturn but deeply multilayered story. It maintains the concision of Maupassant’s original, in its parts and as a whole. The motivating hopes of the characters leads to brutalities that recall Melville. And something of Harkham’s decision to expose the story in reticent and ostensibly uncomplicated illustrations summons the sentences of Chekhov and Hemingway. It would be apt to use Poor Sailor to coin the term “graphic short story,” as opposed to the ever popular “graphic novel,” but that’s not my concern. What strikes me is how Harkham’s visual style and panel pacing unite traditional slapstick cartoon aesthetics with a deeply realist moral universe laden with ambivalence and tragedy.

Poor Sailor opens on pastoral domesticity. The main character, Thomas, lives in Edenic seclusion with his wife, Rachel. They are completing or repairing the thatch roof of their small house. They work, flirt, stroll, and skinny-dip. One day, Thomas’s older brother, Jacob, arrives. He encourages Thomas to join the crew of his trawling smack. Rachel refuses: Thomas has domestic responsibilities and her wellbeing to care for. As days pass, Thomas and Rachel grow distant, preoccupied by differing opinions of Jacob’s offer. One night, Thomas rises and says Rachel’s name – to wake her or to make sure she’s asleep, it’s unclear – but she sleeps and he leaves to join Jacob. One day, in particularly rough water, Jacob insists they drop the nets. Here, Harkham remains close to Maupassant: Thomas’s arm is caught and then crushed when Jacob refuses to cut the nets. Where Maupassant details the process of pouring salt water on the wounds, Harkham skips to the moment when they decide the arm must go. Jacob advises the amputation. It is unclear who performs the deed. Less an arm, Thomas remains with the ship, unable to work, dreaming of Rachel. One night, they are ambushed by pirates who slaughter everyone. The ship sinks. Thomas clings to debris. A rowboat filled with missionaries saves him. By foot and train, through valleys and forests, as snow begins to fall, Thomas returns home. When he arrives, he discovers a burial mound marked with a cross. He falls on his face. Five empty panels progress like weeks of silence. Finally, one-armed Thomas continues repairing the roof alone.

Harkham’s illustrations are darkly juvenile, and yet they recall well-established, indeed even watershed events in comic history. The aesthetics of his characters and scenes recall the stark monochromatic worlds of early Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks cartoons like Oswald the rabbit (Trolley Troubles 1927) and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie (1928), as well as the Little Orphan Annie comics of Harold Gray (including unnervingly empty circles for eyes), and, more recently, Harkham’s Drawn & Quarterly colleague, Chester Brown, who cites Gray as an influence (Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, “Forward”). Brown also cites Hergé, creator of Tintin; Harkham’s style equally references the French method ligne claire: clear line. But Harkham’s illustrations succinctly elaborate the oddly grotesque morphology of styles like those listed. Such characters usually exist according to the nonsensical, slapstick physics of hokey cartoon universes, but Harkham’s style asks what if the universe of such weird looking figures was ruled by moral ambiguities like our own? What if their strange bodies stood for something more than cutesiness? What if their look was the product of personifying how fucked up life is? With crisp precision, the weak shoulders, crudely large hands, dullard expressions, and hollow eyes of his characters transform the substances of their psychological lives and the unsympathetic fates into correspondingly ill-proportioned bodies.

Unlike the early Disney/Iwerks characters, who easily recover from myriad physical brutalities, Harkham’s characters are not so invulnerable. The story hinges on the event of mutilation and amputation. When Thomas loses his arm, our presuppositions of the traditional conventions of this illustration style are attacked. As Leonard Michaels argues about the goring of Hernandorena in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon (1932), Thomas – and, by extension, the graphic narrative tradition after which his aesthetic follows –  is more essentially himself with a stump where his arm once was (“What’s a Story”): no character who is worth caring for, worth investing in, worth feeling pathos toward, is invincible.  Pathos requires ambivalence, inarticulateness (depicted both literally and illustratively in Poor Sailor), and a sense that good intentions of best laid plans are in direct conflict with cruel fates against which we are helpless. The loss of Thomas’ arm represents the magnitude of what’s at stake. The stoicism of the characters and the narrative, especially when it is decided that Thomas’ arm must be severed, represents the only logical response to such an existence: ambivalence, bewilderment. And they foreshadow an even greater loss awaiting Thomas, one which serves to further expand the tragedy of his choice to leave Rachel: her death.

Another feature of Harkham’s style that brings the cartoonish aesthetic into our moral universe is his penchant for eliding decisive scenes, for letting them occur between panels; the audience gets a picture of the instant before a major event and the fallout thereafter. The event itself – Thomas’s departure, the moment of his injury, the amputation, his escape from the pirates, Rachel’s death – are suggested as though glimpsed by way of events signal them, rather than illuminating them in full. Lacunae like this bear the mark of Old Testament realism and, on Harkham’s behalf, are an ingenious exploitation of the ‘gutters’ between panels, or perhaps an ingenious investment into the gutter’s potential to host moments of unsayable and unseeable importance. Events so important they oppose articulation.

Early in the book, we glimpse one such event, after which all comparable events are omitted. Concluding the pastoral introduction, Hakham illustrates Thomas and Rachel standing naked in water, holding hands in silence, looking at one another with uncertain expressions. It is a definitive moment in the text – the height of what six panels preceding it worked toward: laying bare the couple’s love, simple though it may seem. It haunts the remainder of the story. It infuses the maiming of Thomas with the sense that he is not the only one injured – to return home with only one arm means he must forever bear the wound of betraying Rachel as well as the myriad ways it would impose upon Rachel. But that scenario, no matter how humbling and inconvenient, is no match for how the story actually ends, with Thomas returning to find that Rachel has died in his absence.

As I try to conclude this review of Poor Sailor, I’m burdened by the feeling that I’ve barely articulated the story’s power to evoke unplumbed and unplumbable depths, which is achieved, in large part, by Harkham’s mastery of storytelling and illustration. Indeed, his revision of classically cartoonish iconography and his brilliant exploitation of gutter silences make for a taciturn tragedy that increases the scope of his imaginary, expanding it through the abovementioned cartoon traditions, while also gesturing toward Melville, Chekhov, Hemingway, and the Old Testament. (Thomas’s lone survival following the massacre by pirates echoes Ishmael floating on Queequeg’s coffin after Moby-Dick sinks the Pequod; his single-panel train journey home recalls Hemingway.)

Poor Sailor is a beautiful book. A heartbreaking story. An expert instance of narration by sequential pictures. An impressive example of the potential of the comic form for artful adaptation and, in this case, improvement of already impressive source material – though this last point has much to do with Harkham’s genius. It exhibits the power of pictures to tell a story with heavy emotional impact, without resorting to graphic gratuitousness or melodrama. Harkham disarms us with cartoonishness, draws us in with darkness, involves us by requiring interpretation between panels, and creates characters whose outer appearances reflect how feeble humans are, how grotesque our betrayals, failures, and fates.