‘The Death-Ray,’ by Daniel Clowes

November 12, 2011

Teenagers love superheroes, but they don’t have much in common with them. Superman’s Clark Kent was a slickly coiffed, overachieving jock; Batman’s Bruce Wayne was a millionaire playboy with a fancy car. But with “The Death-Ray,” graphic novelist Daniel Clowes finally gives blemish-battling everykids a man of mystery they can relate to.

In “The Death-Ray,” Clowes — also the author of “Ghost World” and “Mr. Wonderful” — applies his darkly comic touch to the caped-crusader genre’s most beloved narrative. His hero is Andy, an ordinary, 90-pound weakling living in 1970s Chicago. After his best friend peer-pressures him into smoking a cigarette, Andy discovers that nicotine imbues him with super strength and, later, the ability to wield a cereal-box-style laser gun as a sort of existential peacemaker.

Heroism and derring-do are not natural territory for Clowes. His protagonists are often mundane, ordinary and slightly irritating folks, prone to irrational hang-ups. His storylines are subtle, cynical and not at all given to the operatic tone that typically fuels the exploits of masked men. “The Death-Ray” employs the core super-hero conventions — the origin story, the costume and the sidekick — in the most banal ways possible.

In Clowes’s hands, super strength is not liberating. Andy dogs the varsity baseball team, ignores the popular kids and neglects to use his powers for the benefit of mankind. Instead, he settles petty grudges for his antisocial best friend, Louie, and nurses an awkward crush on his grandfather’s middle-aged housekeeper. He can turn over a car but remains a prisoner of his own hormones.

Clowes highlights the moral ambiguity and fuzzy logic of super-powered justice. After irradiating a squirrel, Andy is grief-stricken. But when he zaps Louie’s sister’s boyfriend out of existence for little more than being a stoner, he views it as a profound coming-of-age moment. And, having just brutalized a pair of burglars, Andy ponders, “Somebody has to impose some kind of structure on the world, I guess. Otherwise everything would just fall apart, wouldn’t it?”

In Clowes’s other comics, characters frequently morph through different forms — alternating among deformed egg-shaped selves, googly-eyed caricatures and realistic portrayals. In “The Death-Ray,” Clowes sticks mostly to realism, however, which highlights the ridiculousness of Andy’s situation. His super-suit clings to his spindly form like a pair of sweaty Underoos. His fight scenes are rendered as ugly and brutish exchanges.

First published in 2004, in Clowes’s semi-regular comic book serial, “Eightball,” “The Death-Ray” is, in part, a post-9/11 parable in which a well-meaning but ultimately fallible hero fails to do justice appropriately. Even more, it’s a clever tweak on a well-worn series of cliches. At a time when comic book heroes are regularly delivered to the big screen in three-hour epics, goosed up with psychodrama steroids, Andy’s unwillingness to rise to remarkable heights of heroism or villainy is weirdly refreshing. “[People] surely are the ugliest creatures in all of nature,” he laments, pudgy and balding, hauling a bag of groceries back to his single-bedroom fortress of solitude.

Leitko is an editorial aide for The Washington Post’s Reliable Source column.

THE DEATH-RAY

By Daniel Clowes

Drawn and Quarterly.

41 pp. $19.95

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