THE DEATH-RAY reviewed by the Edmonton Journal

The Death-Ray Review

The Edmonton Journal    |    José Teodoro    |    November 5, 2011

“That which does not kill us,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “makes us stronger.” But what of those things that kill us only very gradually? And what is great strength with no suitable arena in which to exercise it?

The Death-Ray by writer/illustrator Daniel Clowes, which originally appeared as a story in Clowes’ comic book, Eightball No. 23 back in 2004, addresses these questions playfully, poignantly, and a little perversely. It relays the story of Andy, a teenaged orphan who discovers hidden reserves of fierceness and super fortitude after casually trying cigarettes for the first time. He also inherits a trumpet-like pistol which apparently zaps its targets out of existence. Andy is the only one who can use “the Death-Ray,” and while that thing Spiderman said about power and responsibility sounds nice, what exactly is a high school outcast supposed to do once he realizes that he wields the power to, as he puts it, erase someone from the landscape?

Clowes, author of Ghost World and David Boring, has chronicled youthful alienation before; he’s also proved deft with tales that fuse banal, white, American experience with the fantastic and the surreal. The Death-Ray distinguishes itself from Clowes’ other work most obviously through its interrogation of super hero myths, appropriating numerous origin story tropes, only to follow them through to their more plausible conclusions. Andy narrates his adolescence from the perspective of his frustrated middle-age, by which point he’s been through two wives and several dogs — the very first panels find him doing nothing so super-heroic as picking up Diane’s poo — and finds the temptation to light up and revive his super powers an ongoing struggle he can’t entirely master.

Young Andy describes himself as “a straight-shooter and a stand-up guy.” He’s mortified when he causes a squirrel to disintegrate and is reluctant to use the Death-Ray ever again. But his pal Louie, far more enthusiastic about seeking opportunities to exact revenge, introduces Andy to someone he might genuinely help. Louie’s endearing but pathetic friend Sonny used to date Louie’s sister, who is now going steady with an unsavoury gentleman who may or may not be abusing her. The possibility of eliminating the new boyfriend promises to put Andy’s abilities to good use, though the results could haunt him for the rest of his life.

Clowes uses some terrific devices to create a larger panorama of Andy’s world, such as opinion polls involving supporting characters that resemble talking heads in documentary films. By the time this graphic novella reaches its surprisingly satisfying end, we’ve come to know both the younger, idealistic Andy and the older, angrier one, and we sense how, as with anyone else, events both positive and negative transpire in Andy’s life, the extraordinary is dwarfed by the mundane, and life just sort of goes on. What consolation remains comes not from the accretion of power or glory, but from fleeting moments shared with a rare true friend, or a fireworks display observed from some desolate park bench, with a frightened dog taking comfort from your caress.

José Teodoro is a former Edmonton playwright now based in Toronto.

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