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The Death-Ray Discussion Forum

This edition of GRID features ten thoughts about Daniel Clowes’s just-released graphic novel The Death-Ray, covering areas such as genre, politics, form, Freud, narration, and color. These observations are followed by three excerpts from recent interviews with the cartoonist. I encourage readers to respond to any of these comments and/or post on a topic of their choice. Perhaps we could generate something that, on the web, isn’t always too easy to get started or keep going: a sustained conversation about a comic book.

1. Grim and Gritty v. Deadpan.

Some readers have argued that The Death-Ray is the only “purely [whatever that means] revisionist superhero comic.” Other comic books may claim to fully re-imagine the superhero, but they really don’t. Like Watchmen etc. they work implicitly within, and therefore endorse, the grandiosity and power-fantasy modes of “The Superhero Story as Modern Myth.” Or they simply go “extreme” in the opposite direction, by making superheroes into super creepy villains, which isn’t really much of a revision, given that most superheroes are law-breaking, self-serving vigilanties. Clowes’s deadpan comic is perhaps the lone “realistic” [whatever that means] superhero comic.

2. What The Death-Ray Is Not About.

The Death-Ray really has nothing to do with superhero comics—it’s a character study disguised as a superhero story:

It’s really the story of two boys and their complex friendship, which slowy turns into a deadly rivalry.  Like Clowes’s Wilson, it’s about the need for companionship.

To focus on genre is to miss the point. An interviewer once asked Clowes the following:

Q: Did you think of The Death-Ray as a kind of critique, in this case of problems you saw with superhero comics or their readers, who might respond to these stories primarily as violent revenge fantasies and not as ennobling tales of justice? Like Andy, the average teenager who gets a superpower would go around killing people who were mean to them or their friends or who spit on pigeons.

A:[Laughs.] I didn’t do it to make anyone feel bad for reading superhero comics or to make them reexamine their choices if that’s what they like to do. It wasn’tabout that, necessarily. . . . You know, it’s not about anything; it’s just about this particular character having super powers, a guy I understand completely inside and out, and about what that would mean, and really following that up and not thinking at all about other superhero comics as I did it. [source]

Note the reference to Livermore, Ca.  Andy’s father was a scientist, and gave his  son superpowers via an injection of a special hormone. Perhaps when in Livermore, he worked at The Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, which played a key role in WW II and post-war US military weapons development. Maybe Andy’s origin is tied to this place and US government experiments . . .  They also lived in Tennessee, where Andy’s father “worked at a lab”: an important atomic research facility for The Manhattan Project was located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Andy’s deep origin seems to be connected to origins of many ’60s superheroes, whose stories involve atomic power and experiments.

3. Occupy Comics.

Has Clowes finally gone all political on us? Forget Frank Miller’s crazed anti-Islam comic Holy Terror, The Death-Ray takes on the unholy War on Terror and an American Mind that’s in thrall to a foreign policy based on aggro forms of acting-out against flamboyant international super villains/dictators: The US government as global mass-murder who justifies its crime with the rhetoric of ‘god-sanctioned American exceptionalism.’ By the comic’s end, has Andy has morphed into a pudgy Rush Limbaugh-esque commentator on American values, a man who who wishes he could project his personal death-wish on the world?

Can we take this socially-invested comic as an invitation to reread Clowes’s earlier stories in political terms? Is Wilson, for example, an exploration of the plight of a marginalized 99%-er? Is his lack of ambition and complete rejection of conventional modes of success (i.e., $$$) an explicit indictment of cherished Tea Party principles as promulgated by Fox News? (hmm; perhaps that analysis goes too far).

4. Ditko in The Death-Ray.

This comic displays Steve Ditko’s crucial influence on the young Clowes, who was fascinated by Ditko-drawn and plotted Spider-Man issues. This influence has been at work throughout Clowes’s career, though often buried in his current ‘aesthetic unconscious’ in ways not always instantly recognizable. Both artists share an obsession with heroic and un-heroic action, frailty and ugliness, revenge and violence. According to Clowes, he has even turned into a Ditko character!: “Now I resemble The Vulture from the early Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics” (source: Ghost World: Special Edition).

Every time Clowes draws a water tower,

think Ditko:

In recent interviews and features, Clowes talks about the seminal cartoonist:

a. When I was about Andy’s age, about 16 years old, I was obsessed with the Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics, and I was so moved by them that I tried to create… Well, I didn’t think of it at the time as my own version of that, I thought of it as something totally unique, but it really involved the same emotions. It was about a kid who lived with his grandfather, and his grandfather was killed, and the kid was bent on vengeance. The kid had these superpowers, and I didn’t bother to figure out how he got them, but he also had this ray-gun. I think I’ve had the fantasy of a ray-gun that could erase the world from the time I was a very little kid. [source]

b. When [Clowes] was 18 years old . . . he tracked down the reclusive cartoonist Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, who happened to be living above a hardcore pornography theatre in New York. “This was before 42nd Street was like a Disney store,” said Clowes. “This was a really sleazy area; it was right out of Taxi Driver.” When he finally made it up to Ditko’s front door, though, all he got was a fleeting glimpse of the apartment and a door slammed in his face. “That was probably the greatest moment of my life.” [source]

5. Freud and Feces.

The Death-Ray takes up where the short story “Black Nylon” (1997) and graphic novel David Boring (2000) left off, furthering Clowes’s exploration of (parody of?) Freudian ideas within an action/adventure context.

The Death-Ray opens with a covert allusion to Freud’s concept of the “anal stage.”

During this stage of development, children are invested in controlling the release of their urine and fecal matter. If parents practice improper toilet training (punishing rather than praising or being overly strict), children develop an anal retentive personality, becoming inflexible and obsessed with order and cleanliness, just as our hero is:

The incident that bookends the narrative is a scene in which Andy gets very angry because he sees someone littering . . .

Is Clowes saying that the superhero’s origin story is traceable back to his toilet training!?  Ha! Is the superhero sometimes/always a “case study” in stunted psycho-sexual development?

6. Colors: The Pink Spine and The Yellow Streak.

In Clowes’s David Boring, the title character’s father created a superhero named The Yellow Streak, an name synonymous with cowardice. Clowes once said all “superhero comics are, on some level, autobiographical”— by choosing this name, is David’s father unintentionally revealing something about himself? (after all, he later abandoned his family, surely a coward’s move).

How are we to interpret the pink spine of The Death-Ray. To what aspect of the superhero story does it refer? Why such a prominent place on both spine and front cover? Color has narrative, symbolic, and emotional meanings in the comic, so why not here?

7. The Great Easily-Overlooked Moment.

The story is full of them. One of my favorites is Clowes’s use of the “non-character reaction shot.” After Andy reveals his tragic family history, Louie has no response, failing to sympathize with Andy’s plight. (This failure condemns Louie, the story’s true villain—a sidekick motivated by jealousy of the hero’s power.) The media image—George Jetson’s pained face on the TV—provides the appropriate “reaction shot” to Andy’s revelation. Why is it that we let the media and cartoons do our feeling for us?

8. Color, Lines, and Visual Narrative Unreliability.

The muted color scheme (even Andy’s words are “colored”) may suggest that the story’s visual narrative (which is often distinct from Andy’s narration) is unreliable.

When we begin reading, we leave the full color of our reality and enter “Andy’s World” (a chapter title). Clowes’s muted visual choices here become narrative choices; they signal that something’s not right with our narrator—things are missing, lines don’t come together. What at first looks like objective third-person visual narration is in fact subjective. Similarly, in the next chapter Clowes doesn’t complete the living room blinds next to Andy: they just stop. The visual POV here is also third-person, but its objectivity, too, is compromised. Maybe Andy’s unreliability has infected the visual narration.

9. New Graphic Forms of Narration.

The slightly pointed corners of the first two balloons indicate its unusual function, so calling them a “word balloon” doesn’t seem right. Let’s call these a “past-tense narration balloon” (many of Clowes’s narration balloons are present-tense). This sequence and those that follow feature a narration balloon fully situated in two panels: the first has no border (signaling its connection to Andy’s interiority) andthe second does (signaling its connection to exteriority). The white gutter between panels typically represents un-narrated time. But here this function is erased—the voice-over narration binds both panels into a single unit of “trans-chronological narration,” another Clowes innovation. Andy 2004 speaks from the future through Andy 1978 as he lights up for a fight. This cross-temporal split occurs at a psychologically and physically traumatic moment: Andy soon goes ballistic on the school’s macho jerk Stoob, who’s pummeling Andy’s friend Louie. Though it’s an odd and unwieldy name, I might call this mode something like first-person past-tense textual narration (delivered from the future) with third-person past-tense visual narration. Regardless of the term we use, Clowes’s narrative approach makes for a compelling and haunting scene. (Look at the strange intensity in Andy’s eyes.)

10. Fantasy and Form.

The Death-Rayis a fantasy in the sci-fi, superhero sense: impossible things happen. As the above scenes show, it’s also a fantasy in its approach to form, mixing realistic and artificial narrative elements—the possible and impossible—throughout the story, and even in the same panel. Who is the visual narrator in scenes where the teenagers’ dialogue is superimposed on superhero imagery?

If the entire comic portrays Andy’s memories, as many readers (wrongly, I think) claim, then the answer’s clear. But perhaps Louie makes occasional cameos as visual narrator. More so than Andy, he’s obsessed with superheroics. It infects his thinking; he talks about the Hulk and yells catchphrase-worthy dialogue like “It’s Justice” as they beat someone up (perhaps unjustly). Or is the visual narrator (a disembodied ‘character’) mocking both characters’ power fantasies, showing how silly they look when visualized: two scrawny boys in long underwear playing Spiderman and Batman?

Clowes Interview Excerpts.

An Artistic Creation/Destruction Allegory:
A: I’d say that someone who draws comics for a living is very likely a guy or gal who’s in search of some form of control over something. I draw comics, it often seems, to relieve my anxiety over living in a world that seems dangerously chaotic and random, so it would only make sense that the characters that seem the most interesting to me are those with the same sort of issues. Having the power to erase human beings from your comics (or perhaps to cover them with Wite-Out) is not so dissimilar to wiping them out with a ray gun. [source]

Cutting Off Dialogue in Comics and Film:
Q: . . . many word balloons and narration boxes overlap each other in varying ways. Is coming up with a new approach like that a challenge you set for yourself, or did it grow out of the story?

A: Yeah, it just grew out of necessity. I think I began doing that in The Death-Ray, and I think I learned it a little bit from writing screenplays. I’veoften found that dialogue works much better if you cut off a line before it’s finished: a guy starts to say something andanothercharacter cuts him off, so you don’t really get the whole picture of what he’s going to say. Sometimes it’s much more powerful that way, so I was trying to figure out a way to make that work, trying to capture that sensation of not quite being able to make out what people are saying beyond a few little snippets.

On Frank Miller and The Motivations Behind Criticism:
A: I said something mean about that guy Frank Miller one time because I don’t like his comics. I was just goofing around. But then of course I met him and he was like, “I love your comics,” and oh God, I felt like such an asshole. [laughs] It’s usually all just based on jealousy or some misconception about what they’re doing or something. It’s rarely that you really think their work is destructive. Though in Frank Miller’s case I would say that’s possibly true. [source]


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37 Responses to The Death-Ray Discussion Forum

  1. Eric Reynolds says:

    An excellent piece.

  2. William Green says:

    Comics analysis at its finest! This is a textbook example of how comics are bigger than just a combination of pictures and words.

  3. patrick ford says:

    What I’d like to know is there any difference between the new edition and the original in terms of content?

    Anything along the lines of what Clowes did with Ice Haven?

    • Ken Parille says:

      Patrick,

      The new version is basically the Eightball #23 version with new covers, endapers, and title pages.

      I recall Clowes saying that shortly after he published Ice Haven as a comic, he wanted to make additions to it. But that with The Death-Ray he wanted to leave it as it was.

  4. Nick Gazin says:

    Great stuff. Death Ray deserves lots of discussion.

    6. I originally thought the Yellow Streak was a scatological joke. Like a yellow streak of piss in clothing. It still seems to point to cowardice.

    7. I thought that moment with the television and the photos of his absent dad, absent mom, absent girlfriend were supposed to show how disconnected Andy was from the world. His closest relationships border on being imaginary friends.

    10. I think that the comic’s portrayal of Andy’s past is mostly objective except for Louie’s murder. There’s a jump in time from Louie picking up the big rock to suddenly having been zapped out of existence. It’s mentioned that Andy can’t handle abandonment and i could see him inventing an excuse for himself to shoot his friend who had clearly outgrown comics and childhood stuff and moved onto punk and girls.

    We see his grandfather from behind in the next room in that same spread, reading comics and not involved with Andy. I’m guessing the grandfather reading comics is maybe a sad reference to how newspaper comics are not a vital medium but I’m probably wrong.

    8. The modern Andy material’s coloring techniques reminded me visually of Ghost World.

    9. I think those word balloons are supposed to be the shape of TV screens. Old TVs used to have the same rounded rectangular shape.

    Also, I think we’re shown in a lot of places that Stoob’s actually not a jerk at all. Andy and his pal just need a villain so they make him into one. We see them provoking him a lot for no reason and giving Andy and Louie a lot of outs. He invited Andy to his party, offers Louie the chance to back out of a fight he knows he’ll win. I think it’s about how a lot of teenagers have persecution complexes.

    • Ken Parille says:

      Nick,

      Thanks for the detailed response.

      “6. I originally thought the Yellow Streak was a scatological joke. Like a yellow streak of piss in clothing. It still seems to point to cowardice. “

      This makes sense

      – I hadn’t thought of that.

      “7. I thought that moment with the television and the photos of his absent dad, absent mom, absent girlfriend were supposed to show how disconnected Andy was from the world. His closest relationships border on being imaginary friends.”

      I think this is right, too. This scene shows Andy’s blank-expression focus on the TV, showing his trouble connecting to other people, and offering reasons why this might be the case: his sad family history . . .

      “10. I think that the comic’s portrayal of Andy’s past is mostly objective except for Louie’s murder.”

      I see what you are saying, though I do think that Clowes creates a sense of unreliability with art choices and by focusing so much on Andy’s subjectivity. Titles like Andy’s World” and “The United States of Andy” also reflect that, I think.

      “8. The modern Andy material’s coloring techniques reminded me visually of Ghost World.”

      I agree – the muted tone reflects the sense of melancholy in both comics.

      Here’s a relevant interview quotation:

      Xavier Guilbert: What about the choice of the blueish color for the book [GW]? It gives the whole an impression of distance, maybe, or coldness.

      Daniel Clowes: My initial thought was—I remember when I was a teenager, Enid’s age, I remember walking around and being struck by—I was living in the city of Chicago, if you walked around at six in the evening, you notice everybody came home from work and turned on their television. And there’d be this kind of dark gloom with no color at all outside, and inside there was this blue light. Often people still had black and white televisions back then. It just had this very specific kind of blue tone that was very haunting to me. Somehow that’s a striking image of my teenage years . . . So I wanted to capture that, I wanted the whole thing to feel like it was bathed in that light.

      “9. I think those word balloons are supposed to be the shape of TV screens. Old TVs used to have the same rounded rectangular shape.”

      I hadn’t though of that either . . .

      “Also, I think we’re shown in a lot of places that Stoob’s actually not a jerk at all. Andy and his pal just need a villain so they make him into one.”

      I think this is true, but there are moments when Stoob refuses to shake Louie’s hand when it seems to be offered in good faith; and then the nasty stuff he says about Andy’s grandfather. But I certainly agree that much of the book is about their need to find villains; after all, a superhero and his sidekick need worthy opponents.

      • Nick Gazin says:

        Stoob isn’t a saint in the book but he’s definitely a bigger man than Louie and Andy give him credit for. Their conflict starts when he doesn’t shake Louie’s hand oner a totally unimportant ill up contest. Louie calls Stoob a fag while he’s playing guitar for a girl. Louie forces Stoob into fighting him although it seems like in each panel Stoob is giving Louie an out so that he can stop while Louie just spits vitriolic exclamations. Stoob invites Andy to a party and then they resound by wrecking his car. By the time he tells Andy that he hopes his dad dies he’s been antagonized by Andy and Louie for a quite a while.

  5. Isaac Cates says:

    I touch on some of these points in my review of the Eightball edition of this material … It’s a few years old now, but I feel like I can stand behind nearly all of that piece.

  6. Matthias Wivel says:

    Fine work as usual, Ken!

    As of this moment, I have one comment to your #4 (I may have more once I reread the book…):

    Not only is the Death Ray an homage to Ditko — it’s also a particularly subtle salute to Kirby. If I’m not mistaken, Clowes has based his look on Ditko’s reconstruction of Kirby’s initial idea for the Spiderman (no hyphen) character, who carried a raygun and a costume very much like that. Ditko’s illustration was reprinted in a issue of Alter-Ego about a decade ago and is, as far as I recall, reprinted in several other places. (Incidentally, I supplied this info to my pal Andreas Gregersen when he wrote his fine critique of the book back when it came out. A piece worth revisiting IMHO).

  7. I guess I should note that I haven’t reread the comic lately, so my memory might be faulty. And you’re my goto Clowes critic, Ken, but I’m just going to address possible disagreements, which will make this response sound somewhat negative (sorry for that).

    1. Watchmen vs. The Death-Ray:

    Regarding the superhero story as modern myth, Zizek (in “The Myth and Its Vicissitudes”) suggests this division between modernity and postmodernity: the former asserts “the metaphysical potential of the most common and vulgar its of our daily experience” while the latter inverts this “return[ing] to big metaphysical themes, but they are deprived of their cosmic resonance and treated like common fragments to be manipulated.” In other words, “[i]f modernism uses the myth as the interpretive frame of reference for its contemporary narrative, postmodernism directly rewrites the myth itself by filling in its gaps.” One of his examples for the former is Elliot’s The Waste Land and for the latter, Coover’s “You Must Remember This” (in which he tells what happened in between the cuts of Casablanca’s bedroom scene). Maybe I read too much Zizek, but it seems to me that his breakdown maps nicely onto the difference between Moore and Clowes’ treatment of superheroes, Watchmen being modernist, with its mythologizing/superheroizing realworld politics, and Death-Ray postmodernist, with its “filling in” all the quotidian bits that go on in-between the world shattering action. This leads to a disagreement with:

    2. What The Death-Ray is about:

    A pet peeve of mine is the way that a lot of sci-fi gets called something else when its really good, allowing people who don’t read that sort of thing to read that sort of thing without guilt (e.g., Ballard, Dick, etc.). Aren’t you doing the same thing here (not that you yourself don’t obviously enjoy some superhero books)? Watchmen is a modernist revision of the superhero narrative and The Death-Ray is a postmodernist one, but they’re both still superhero books, expanding what the genre can do (even if you don’t accept my Zizekian breakdown). (The quote you provide from Clowes is more about how his story isn’t an intended critique of the superhero reader, not necessarily the superhero narrative.) Both comics are critiques of vigilantism, which as you note is a common element to the twisted “monomyth” of the superhero narrative. And I’d suggest that they’re critiques of the unfortunately widespread cliche that superheroes are myths in some traditional sense (cf. Grant Morrison’s embarrassing Supergods). Really, Clowes has created a superhero comic disguised as a character study just as much as your “character study disguised as a superhero story” — you know, for people who don’t normally read that sort of thing. Otherwise, why include all the superhero attributes?

    3 & 4. Death-Ray’s politics and Lee/Ditko’s Spidey:

    A couple years ago, I blogged about the comic’s connection to vigilante films. A little bit of research led me to an interesting feminist critique of retributivism (the driving moral stance of the vigilante film) by Dianne Martin. The Death-Ray is critiquing the same naive (and typically right-wing) stance she gets at in the following quote:

    These promises of morality, protection, and recognition of harm are false promises. The criminal justice apparatus is about order and its reproduction, and about maintaining the existing hierarchy of status and privilege, and only incidentally about crime or morality or the safety of individual citizens and their communities. It operates most effectively at the level of the symbolic, by naming individual offenders as morally defective, and using them as scapegoats, and only incidentally as a useful tool for community security, although at times it is the only and the most appropriate social institution available.

    Dirty Harry supplies the viewer with a ready-made villain who’s unquestionably evil. Clowes keeps the moral stance, but deprives the reader of any such villain. What results is a twisted version of “with great power comes great responsibility.” (If memory serves) Louie sort of functions as Andy’s Stan Lee, encouraging him to fulfill his symbolic duty. Without any real supervillains, Andy begins to substitute those who have done him a personal wrong. By reducing the supervillain to the mundane, Clowes mocks the scapegoating that tends to be only symbolically dealt with in most vigilante stories (including the average superhero comic). Likewise, his use of carcinogen performs a similar critique of the 60s origin stories, where realworld radiation was symbolically justified by the cool powers. At least, that’s what made me laugh.

    • Briany Najar says:

      Seems to me it’s not a superhero book because it has different formal and idiomatic qualities from superhero books.
      Is Jimmy Corrigan a superhero book? It does have a superhero in it, but I don’t think that means it is at all informative to refer to it as belonging to that genre.
      When Charlie Brown plays baseball, is Peanuts a sports strip? It isn’t.
      Death Ray is a lot more like absurdism or perhaps a kind of magic-realism with a heavy bias on the magical. But mainly absurdism, out of those two.
      The first time someone (a Grant Morrison fan, as it happens) suggested to me that Death Ray was critical of superhero books, I thought they were tripping out defensively because of their own preference for superhero books and Clowes’ status as an avatar of the indie/alterno/art/underground/everything-else type of comics creators.
      (on a side note, I agree with C Reese about superheroes not being the new mythology. They’re not universal enough. Celebrities are the new mythology, they are like wrestlers that everyone knows about.)
      I don’t think there’s an unreliable narrator, or that everything “really” happened, either. I reckon it’s all symbolic, poetic, lyrical, something more along those lines.
      Apologies for vagueness, I need sleep. Night.

      • Ken Parille says:

        Briany,

        “I don’t think there’s an unreliable narrator, or that everything “really” happened, either. I reckon it’s all symbolic, poetic, lyrical, something more along those lines.”

        Hmm. It seems grounded in ‘realism’ to me, though Clowes uses various formal devices to remind us of Andy’s possible unreliability. Overall it feels too firmly connected to character-driven chronological narrative to have the abstract sense that you get with, say, the disembodied voice of a conventional lyric poem.

    • Ken Parille says:

      Charles,

      It seems that Briany takes up the position in 2 , though from a very different and interesting angle.

  8. Ken Parille says:

    Charles,

    Thanks for that response.

    I think part of your disagreement with #2 is actually my fault.

    I end #1 with “Clowes’s deadpan comic is perhaps the lone ‘realistic’ superhero comic”

    and start #2 with “The Death-Ray really has nothing to do with superhero comics.”

    I assumed, wrongly, that it would be clear that I could not hold both of these views at the same time—they were thoughts/prompts for a discussion. Sorry. I had read a few reviews that made a similair claim and though I would include it.

    For me, the comic is a superhero comic—that’s certainly how I read it and have taught it in the past– I’m teaching our “Modern Fantasy” course in the spring, and we will read Watchmen and Death-Ray back to back — as fantasies.

    I used that quotation from Clowes primarily to give readers some insight into how he thinks about the comic: more as a character study, and not really as a comic about superhero comics. Clowes: “You know, it’s not about anything; it’s just about this particular character having super powers, a guy I understand completely inside and out, and about what that would mean, and really following that up and not thinking at all about other superhero comics as I did it.”

    Yet, I also think a case could be made that the comic is so distinct from basically every other superhero comic, that that genre term fundamentally misrepresents it. Andy’s superpowers, for example: he tears a thick book in half and lifts a compact car a foot or two off the ground – non superhumans can do those things. I almost feel like Clowes wants us to question every aspect of the comic that appears superhero-ish . . .

    Your comments have helped me to rethink the book’s genre, and how it handles ideas about genre. TDR might need a new classification: maybe “non-ironic superhero satire,” “minimalist deadpan superhero story.”

    Part of Clowes’s achievement to me is the way he implicitly dismantles the notion that genre is in any way remotely stable – not just in TDR, but throughout his career. Ice Haven, for example, is clearly detective fiction, but that term feels so incomplete, like it’s a mistake to even use it to classify the book.

    Also: my point in explaining the veiled references to atomic/military facilities was to show that Clowes does give Andy an origin fully in line with ’60s Cold War superheroes – yet does it such a subtle way that its easy to miss – he is really downplaying genre conventions in so many ways, though he clearly is using, or at least, referencing them. This kind of “referencing” could be considered postmodern.

    “Watchmen being modernist, with its mythologizing/superheroizing realworld politics, and Death-Ray postmodernist, with its “filling in” all the quotidian bits that go on in-between the world shattering action.”

    I see what you are saying here. But because there is no “world shattering action” in TDR, there’s no really anything to fill in—it all seems quotidian to me. It can’t really be, of course, because there’s a sci-fi death ray.

    For me, one thing that often makes a text seems modernist, especially in “The Wasteland” sense, is that it operates in an elegiac mode, such as Eliot’s lament for the loss of the totalizing grand narratives — aesthetic, political, and spiritual — that earlier generations embraced but that he cannot. Given that the narrative is closely associated with the older Andy, it seems a little elegiac. Clowes’s text seem postmodernist in terms of its approach to form – a playful pastiche, a kaleidoscopic narrative that affirms Andy’s subjectivity by asserting that exteriority /objectivity is an illusion (although that approach to form seems “High Modernist” too: Eliot, Joyce, Faulkner, Stein etc . . .)

    “Dirty Harry supplies the viewer with a ready-made villain who’s unquestionably evil. Clowes keeps the moral stance, but deprives the reader of any such villain.”

    This is true as well. Yet Louie is a villain (in some ways) – and Andy becomes one. In a way, the story starts with a ‘hero’ and no villain – and ends with characters who can’t be classified. Clowes blurs all of those familiar genre roles, but never by using a facile “the hero is an anti-hero” reversal.

    • Eric Reynolds says:

      “Part of Clowes’s achievement to me is the way he implicitly dismantles the notion that genre is in any way remotely stable – not just in TDR, but throughout his career. Ice Haven, for example, is clearly detective fiction, but that term feels so incomplete, like it’s a mistake to even use it to classify the book.”

      Absolutely.

  9. Eric Reynolds says:

    I’m enjoying this thread a lot. One funny thing I noticed upon reading The Death Ray recently for the first time in a few years was how much Louie reminded me of Lloyd Llewellyn’s pal, Ernie. I don’t remember noticing that previously. Same with his very subtle use of race, which I couldn’t even begin to unpack, but to say I think he sometimes doesn’t get credit for just how purposefully diverse his casts of characters are.

    • Ken Parille says:

      Eric,

      “Same with his very subtle use of race, which I couldn’t even begin to unpack, but to say I think he sometimes doesn’t get credit for just how purposefully diverse his casts of characters are.”

      I definitely agree with this, and it’s especially true in “Gynecology” and TDR. Andy’s relationship with Dinah is easy to overlook when focusing on the male-centered superhero aspects of the story.

      It seem to have something to do with his loss of his mother and the fact that Dinah keeps the family going by taking care of, and looking out for, Andy and his grandfather.

  10. Nick Gazin says:

    What do you make of Andy’s Dream?

    Also, here’s a not totally satisfying short interview I didi with Dan Clowes about the Death Ray.
    http://www.vice.com/read/nick-gazin-comic-book-lo

    • Ken Parille says:

      Nick,

      Here is Clowes talking about that dream in a recent interview:

      “Actually, there’s a dream in the comic, where Andy dreams that there’s this tree with these little berries that make everyone disappear. I used to have that dream all the time. So it felt like something absolutely essential to my conception of superheroes, and the way I felt about the world when cornered and frustrated. It came out of something really profound in me that I didn’t really understand, so I felt like I needed to go forward with both of those things.” (source Onion AV Club)

      Clay has a related dream in Like a Velvet Glove. Here’s a section of it and Andy’s:

      http://core.ecu.edu/ENGL/parillek/DRdreams.htm

      Andy’s dream especially seems connected to ideas that occur throughout Clowes’s work: fantasies of global and personal apocalypse – you see both of these throughout LVG, David Boring, and TDR.

      In an odd way, these dreams also appear to be associated with the character’s yearning for a “nothingness” that is not death, but something like a new level of consciousness, an escape from the “is this all there is?” kind of questioning, an escape that leads to some mystical awareness that offers not just consolation but affirmation, maybe . . .

      I think one of the movies in LVG made by Interesting Productions is titled “Atttaining Cosmic Consciouness.”

    • Ken Parille says:

      Here’s an exchange from your interview that is helpful in thinking about the comic’s characters:

      NG: Do you see yourself as a bad person? Are you just interested in the ways that people justify their selfish actions and personality flaws to themselves?

      DC: I think it’s hopelessly reductive to think in terms of good or bad in regard to human nature. Whenever I hear of someone doing something particularly strange or awful I like to try to imagine what it would take for me to do the same.

      • Nick Gazin says:

        My own viewpoint is pretty similar to Clowes’s response. I asked him that since the character from Caricature seems himself as a bad person and he seems to have more and more main characters who seem entirely selfish.

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  12. Briany Najar says:

    5. Freud.

    Andy surely is a classic retentive type.

    His ambivalence of relationships connects with that. He wants the good stuff, but it’s so messy, so hard to control. Everything needs to be cleaned up, negated.

    Louis seems slightly different, he’s quite happy to utter all his nastiness. Boastful, grotesque fantasies spilling out everywhere.

    The Death ray itself is, of course, a symbolic Phallus. That may be why it is less phallic looking than scifi guns tend to be. It imparts potency, agency, authority, control.

    9. Graphic forms.

    The transchronic narration thingy is not unheard of in film. I haven’t seen Goodfellas in a while, but, I seem to remember the protagonist doing some past-tense narration (to camera?) from within the story setting, even while appearing as the younger self who occupies that setting.

    The pointy balloons appear every time it’s the older Andy addressing the audience, except the last time, which is in the section titled, United States of Andy. I wonder if there is a pun intended here – i.e. psychological/spiritual states, rather than geographic.

    Also there is the cursive text used to denote epistolary form, first used in Dear Dusty, which sets up the device for later.

    10. Fantasy / form. (almost 9b, kinda sorta)

    When the pseudo-couple appear as ‘actual’ superheroes, this is one of the things that to me seems kind of lyrical and leaning towards ‘pataphorical. The boys’ youthful self-mythologising infects the style of the work itself. The realist situation of that conversation isn’t as significant as what the boys felt they were becoming, that is, an infantile imagining of ‘big strong men.’ Also, “Right again, old chum!” is not quite in character, is it? Maybe the lads are playing and it’s like in Calvin and Hobbes when we see the (toy) tiger as a sentient being.

    In the spread where Andy lamps a guy on a rooftop, some interesting things are going on with the arrangement.

    – The panel with Louis saying “You Think you understand me, but you don’t. Just when you think you got me all figured out I’ll surprise you. I’m a very complicated person, Andy.” does a couple of things.

    A. It censors the violence, which is consistent with the rest of the book, Andy’s violent acts are always out of view, guttered, unthinkable.

    B. Andy is punching this panel. He hates it. It makes him want to attack, destroy, negate.

    – The crook loses grip of his weapon and Louis is reaching for it. Directly Below the figure of Louis is a segment where he is saying, “The last time I saw my dad i told him, “I’m never gonna let anybody push me around again. / From now on, I’m the boss, understand?” / Let’s face it, Andy — guys like us don’t stand a chance, we just get crushed if we don’t put up a fight.”

    So, um, yeah, yadda yadda Freud again.

    And one other thing, maybe nothing but a coincidence but it set me a-wondering. Could be a 7-related thing:

    Just after Sonny says thanks, Louis has Lucy the dog on a leash. Andy declares himself the new boss, Louis says OK and then asks who he’s going to kill next. At this point, the dog runs ahead, pulling Louis with her.

    Louis is not walking the dog, the dog is walking Louis. Seems like a nice metaphorical exposition of the dramatic moment. The dog is walking Louis and, despite his earlier resistance, Andy is at the disposal of his new power.

    Hey, this book is a lot like Elric of Melnibone! (I think that means I’m done)

  13. Ken Parille says:

    Briany,

    “When the pseudo-couple appear as ‘actual’ superheroes, this is one of the things that to me seems kind of lyrical and leaning towards ‘pataphorical. The boys’ youthful self-mythologising infects the style of the work itself. The realist situation of that conversation isn’t as significant as what the boys felt they were becoming, that is, an infantile imagining of ‘big strong men.’ Also, “Right again, old chum!” is not quite in character, is it? Maybe the lads are playing and it’s like in Calvin and Hobbes when we see the (toy) tiger as a sentient being.”

    I agree here – these sections erase the simple “it happened in the world/it happened in a character’s mind” opposition, creating a new form, in what you call the pataphorical sense. Clowes inserts a lyrical mode within a narrative mode.

    “Right again, old chum!” – As you say, this is a strange moment. You’re right that it doesn’t seem in character for Andy to say that phrase, a quotation from the 1960s Batman TV show, which is referenced in a few places. With this phrase, Clowes implicitly asks us to compare the Batman/Robin model of male friendship and hero/sidekick relationship to what’s happening with Andy and Louie’s relationship – the ‘pseudo-couple’ as you call them. Clowes alludes to the possible homosexual subtext of any Batman/Robin-esque male superhero team in a passage in which a schoolmate asks Andy where his ‘boyfriend’ is.

  14. patrick ford says:

    The story is age old. For me it’s less about character, than it is about power and revenge fantasy.

    Certainly these thoughts are timeless. R.Crumb’s “If I were King” is along the same lines of thinking in the broad context. It comes down to the thought many people have of what they would do…if…they had power.

    There are a lot of different stories which can be told based on that theme, and I imagine many, many people have their own internal fantasy of what they would do if they were king, or had super powers.

    Andy is an introspective type, and personally I don’t take his “friendship” with Louie as having any depth. It seems more that they have drifted together and are drifting along. The talk about loyalty and friendship feels empty and shallow as I read it. I would imagine Clowes relates in part to Andy. You see what might happen if an alienated/disconnected person gained great power. Andy isn’t an evil type with grand ambitions, he could be seen as a stand-in for a moralistic Ditko type personality. A reticent Mr. A.

    • Ken Parille says:

      “The talk about loyalty and friendship feels empty and shallow as I read it.”

      Perhaps it’s shallow in the sense that Andy and Louie both are not always that successful at being good friends; but the talk expresses a deep longing for the kind of friendship that Andy (especially older Andy) is not really capable of having. So in addition to being about an actual friendship, the story is about the difficulty of finding that kind of close companionship, especially for certain kinds of people.

      That’s what I think Andy’s story about his relationship with Craig Jones gets at – they were best friends for three years, and then it just ended.

  15. patrick ford says:

    Ken, I wouldn’t call the relationship a friendship anymore than I’d see Dusty as Andy’s “girlfriend.”

    It does depend on how a person defines friendship though.

    Andy seems to have high expectations centered around dog like loyalty tests rather than acceptance. Having lost both his parents at a young age this is easy to understand. One thing which is clear is he’s never met a person who lives up to his Mr. A like standards.

    • Nick Gazin says:

      Pretty much all of my friendships before I was 18 were like Andy and Louie’s. They’re not healthy but they are friendships. They’re not shallow, they’re based on deep loneliness and desperation.

  16. patrick ford says:

    Just how many people did Andy send to the cornfield?

    There is a reason 18 is a good age for a soldier.

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