The Death-Ray, By Daniel Clowes

Warning: smoking causes super-strength
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Ever since 1997's Ghost World, Daniel Clowes has been shedding the traits which made that book a success.

The thread of this change can be traced through David Boring, Wilson, Mister Wonderful and up to The Death Ray. The latter books have the same counter-cultural sensibility as his earlier writing, but while in Ghost World there was a broad scope, realistic dialogue, and relatable, albeit flawed, characters, post-1997, the worlds which Clowes creates seem to have contracted. It is as if he is testing the audience who felt such a sense of recognition reading Ghost World by amplifying and near parodying the most extreme aspects of his style.

The recurring central characters in The Death Ray, David Boring and Wilson are anti-heroes who excel in alienating their audience. And not in a winsome, Chuck Palahniuk way. They are outsiders, in the manner of Palahniuk or Bukowski protagonists, but have no redeeming nihilistic charm or boozy wit. They are on the margins for good reason. Though the world around them may be disappointing, full of dull, uninspiring people and wasted lives, Clowes's characters are no happier, wiser or more self-aware than the office drones they ridicule, or the disinterested women they simultaneously lust after and despise.

The ugliness of Clowes's recent characters feels like a meta swipe at the reader. Clowes knows that his core readership would consider themselves discerning, cultured and separate from the mundane mass of unthinking suburbanites, and he relishes demolishing such self-regard. Wilson was the nadir of this trend. Andy, the main character of The Death Ray, falls on the same spectrum, although he is less outwardly toxic.

The Death Ray takes on not only superiority and self-obsession but also the mythology of Golden Age comic books, as well as the more recent success of Mark Millar's Kick-Ass. Andy is a withdrawn, orphaned high-school student who lives with his grandfather. He discovers, after trying his nauseating first cigarette, that smoking gives him super-human strength. The results of this discovery, his bloody encounters with local bullies and his homemade costume, mimic the shabby, low-fi aesthetic of Kick-Ass, while the chapter headings, such as "The Origin of Andy" and "The Origin of the Death Ray", send up the comic-book origin story. There is even a direct parallel with the death of Uncle Ben in the Spider-Man origin myth.

Andy is a classic Clowes mediocrity, except that he can take his bitterness out on the world with his Death Ray. His everyday feelings of inadequacy ("What gives you the confidence to sit there with a smirk on your face like you're better than me?") can be assuaged with a beam from the Ray. It is a terrifying idea, and Clowes does well exploring the consequences of being able to act on every violent inclination. However, ultimately the book blends together with previous writing, and, in its stark distillation of Clowes' style, diminishes it.