As pop culture institutions go, the superhero has proved remarkably durable. Ever since Superman first pulled on his red-and-blue woollens 73 years ago, superheroes have captured the imagination of millions, raked in billions and have been subject to countless reinterpretations, onstage, on screen and, more recently, in serious fiction.
Now there’s The Death-Ray, Daniel Clowes’s foray into the costumed crime fighter canon. Part sincere homage, part social commentary, The Death-Ray is Clowes’s first and only superhero story – and probably the last one you’ll ever need to read.
Originally published in 2004 as a stand-alone (and now sold-out) issue of his celebrated comic book series Eightball, it is now available for mass consumption in a hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly. Besides a new cover and a handful of new illustrations (which includes one of the most engaging indicia pages I’ve ever seen), this new version of The Death-Ray is identical to the original. And why shouldn’t it be? The original was close to perfect in the first place.
Based on a superhero character Clowes concocted when he was 16, The Death-Ray centres on Andy, an ordinary teenage misfit in the mid-1970s faced with run-of-the-mill teenage troubles (girls, feelings of alienation, a surplus of spare time). But of course, Andy isn’t ordinary at all.
Andy is raised by his kind but doddering grandfather after his mother and father (a famous scientist) die. His life is changed forever in an fateful instant when he takes a few puffs of a cigarette. He later wakes up in a sweat to find himself gifted with extraordinary strength. In short order, Andy has fashioned himself a costume and begins using his new powers to enforce justice.
Sound familiar? It should. The costume is a dead giveaway: royal-blue and red with a full mask that boasts white slits for eyes, The Death-Ray is essentially a homage to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s classic 1960s Spider-Man. (Clowes even does a reverent job here of recreating Lee’s original snappy writing: “I could actually hear the electric crackle of overheated synapses popping in my skull.”) But once he’s roped you in to his superheroic tale, Clowes promptly delivers a hard, dark twist.
Soon Andy discovers a gun (willed to him by his father) that allows him to erase any living thing from existence. Egged on by his friend/sidekick Louie, Andy begins doling out an indiscriminate form of justice, targeting (and in some cases, destroying) high-school bullies and abusive dads, but also litterers, rude bartenders, adulterers or anybody else who’s unfortunate enough to cross him. In Clowes’s world, superpowers are not redeeming; they’re corrupting. Pretty soon, Andy transforms into a dark, bitter soul who uses his powers to end problems, rather than to solve them.
Call it Spider-Man vérité.
Of course, Clowes (who is known for Wilson, David Boring and Ghost World) is not the first cartoonist to offer his or her own incarnations of the superheroic archetype. The past 25 years have seen countless takes, from the stylish ultra-violence of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s postmodern Watchmen.
But unlike these works, Clowes avoids indulging in escapism, the original engine of genre. In fact, he recently explained that The Death-Ray’s dark narrative was inspired by the post-Sept. 11 invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S.-led forces. Viewed through this lens, the middle-aged Andy that we later experience in the book serves as a harsh critique of the United States’ present mood. Bitter and alone, he wields what power he has left to push others down, and then presents his actions as being in the interest of the greater good.
But no matter how you choose to interpret Clowes’s latest graphic novel, one thing is for sure: He has single-handedly brought the superhero to its logical and grim end. The Death-Ray is a brilliant and fitting headstone for the genre as a whole.
Brad Mackay is an Ottawa writer who co-edited The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist Volume 1. He is also the director of the Doug Wright Awards, a non-profit organization that recognizes the best in Canadian comics and graphic novels.