Here’s the thing about The Death-Ray–well, more specifically, here’s the thing about Daniel Clowes. He knows what he’s got. At some point during the comic, it becomes clear his ambition and his confidence are almost equal. The comic just gets better and better and it covers a lot of years and a lot of panels. Not so much pages, but panels. Clowes packs Death-Ray with panels. Never too big, but sometimes even tiny. There’s so much content. Clowes homages the experience of reading a sixties Marvel comic, but integrates everything. There’s no letters page because he knows how to get the reading experience of a letters page–at least any memorable parts–into his narrative. Sometimes through tiny panels. He’s excited and it feels extremely communal. Clowes is showing off something he’s figured out you can do with the comic book medium. He’s exuberant.
What’s so striking about the comic is how much Clowes is able to get in. He casts two comic nerds as the leads. There’s no real mention of comic books in the comic itself, but they come up with the idea for a superhero. Maybe there is some reference, the point is they’re standard characters. Only they aren’t. The protagonist, Andy, has a really messed up life. His sidekick, Louie, has a similarly messed up life, but far less tragic in the details. Even though the comic opens with Andy narrating as a mid-aged guy–and Clowes continues using him in the flashback–somehow it’s Louie who gets to have the story for a good while. Clowes wants the reader to examine Andy not from the perspective of first person narrator, but from Louie’s perspective. It’s how Clowes is able to encourage a lot of questioning. There’s a lot of text in The Death-Ray, a lot of first person, a lot of exposition–and shockingly little dialogue, Clowes just wants to hint at it, the interior mind is what’s important here–Clowes needs the reader to pay attention. Otherwise they won’t get it and he wants to see if he can pull it off.
Clowes’s style is gorgeous. He’s got a simple comic strip–detailed, but relatively simple as far as his panel compositions–for the majority of the story. It’s far from hostile. When he goes off on a comic book medium tangent, he’s got a little bit different of a style. The flashback is already in color–the present day varies between color for “reality” and monochrome for Old Man Andy’s interior monologue–but these formal tangents are somehow more vivid. Clowes wants to do an ad, he wants to do a recap, he doesn’t want to hide the entertainment from the reader. He wants you to enjoy The Death-Ray.
Because an entertained reader is one who pays attention and Clowes does look at a number of serious things. Louie’s misogyny, for example, and misogyny in general. A little with race. A lot with class. The Death-Ray is unpredictable. Clowes initially promises a riff on the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Amazing Spider-Man with annoying indie comic sidekick. He excels on his fulfillment of that promise and then he moves on. He takes the reader through various stages of expectation–whether it’s Andy imagining everything, Andy being some kind of superhero, Andy being some kind of monster. Old Man Andy is narrating and The Death-Ray is all about readers having no idea who is in their head. And Clowes navigates it beautifully. He guides the reader, occasionally a little hard but always with respect. He never gets impatient. There are no false starts in The Death-Ray’s plotting. Clowes paces it deliberately, sublimely.
When the comic ends, Clowes gives the reader a multiple choice question. He directly asks readers to reflect back on the comic they have just read. There is a test. You had to be paying attention to the details in those really tiny panels.
The Death-Ray is a great comic. It’s also a singular use of first person, with the consequences of the narrative distance being something the narrator himself gets to exploit. It’s really good.
Writer and artist, Daniel Clowes; publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.