Daniel Clowes and Hollywood Stuff or On The Death-Ray

The Death-Ray with his death-ray gun

I’m not a fan of Ghost World, both the film (2011) and the original in comic form (Fantagraphics 1998). It made me avoid Daniel Clowes’ works for a long, long time. Anyway, after a long time of avoidance I finally read Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron (Fantagraphics 1993) but, despite the fact that I liked it (probably because I could only relate it to Charles Burns’ work), it wasn’t enough to dispel that first impression I had of Clowes’ work.

To me, Ghost World resembled one of these now quite recurring stories of highly intelligent, yet eccentric, teenagers, for whom it doesn’t matter to be like a lot of people around them in the attempt to be different. I can’t take it anymore, maybe because I am getting as old as grumpy. Moreover, these narratives are a Hollywood trend at least since Juno (2007) went Oscars! One is enough (yes, I watched Juno before Ghost World, my bad). Take a look at Gus Van Sant’s Restless (2011), and you will know what I mean. (Alternatively, look at Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, 2010, to see how this coming-to-age-as-a-hipster type of story can be good, if done in the right way — and with less reverence for the characters and subject.)

Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch in the 2011 Ghost World

But finally, I came across The Death-Ray (Drawn and Quarterly, 2011). Initially, what attracted me to it was its cover and the overall looks of it. I have always appreciated Clowes art, even though I was not yet entirely convinced of his genius in other matters. I went for it anyway, and as I read the book I was truly glad to realize that I had been wrong about his work.

The Death-Ray is about an improbable super hero that got his superpowers when smoking for the first time, and that also holds a pistol that can make people disappear. But that is not all. This seemingly absurd story is told from the point of view of this same “hero” but now older and retired, in a non-chronological and multilayered narrative. Of course, the Death-Ray’s story has no resemblance to traditional hero comics since he decides early on not to do much out of his powers and of his gun.

The character’s compliance resembles that of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, the best model of the antipode for the grandiose American self (“I contain multitudes”): an American zero. Thus, Death-Ray would be an alternative to the all-American-hero, of the likes of Superman, Batman, and other men. He holds great powers but chooses not to use them. But he does it not in a definitive way. His negative is not confrontational; quite the contrary, it is almost passive. Death-Ray’s negative is much like that of Bartleby: “I would prefer not to.” And his story is told from the perspective of a man who lived his life preferring not to. In sum, it is one of the best comics I have read recently.

Wilson, also soon to be adapted to the silver screen

More than that, The Death-Ray made me dive into Clowes’ back catalog. It led me to other beautiful works, such as Wilson (Drawn and Quarterly, 2010) and Ice Haven (Pantheon 2005). I had really appreciated Clowes peculiar sense of humor in The Death-Ray, especially in its subtleties, and the best part of his earlier works that I looked at so far seem to carry the same irony and apparent pessimism that made the book so interesting to me.

David Boring gets interesting

I have also read David Boring (Pantheon 2000), and have found in it a perfect transition between the teenage platitudes of Ghost World and the more mature and ironic narrative of The Death-Ray. In David Boring, Clowes plays with the film convention of three acts, maybe reflecting his own Hollywood experience. The first act seemed to me a repetition of Ghost World. In it, we have these hipster types, a post-teenager geek guy, and his best lesbian friend. They live in a boring world and discuss relationships and other stuff. There is even a painful scene in which they discuss their own take on the ideal woman. I was afraid Clowes would disappoint me again, but here came the twist: it is the end of the world as these characters know it, and we are thrown into an exceptional narrative, clearly created by a mature author — and maybe for a mature audience.

If you, like me, didn’t know (or didn’t care about) how good Clowes was, or still have any kind of prejudice towards his work because of Scarlett Johansson, please give him another shot. It is definitely worth it. The Death-Ray alone is an outstanding book, even considering the work of an outstanding author. Ice Haven and Wilson too, are outstanding. Check them out.

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