The Death-Ray by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I found The Death-Ray intriguing in its main conceit, compelling in its design, and frustrating in its hipster aloofness. I'll spare the plot outline (see the summation under the book's description on goodreads - it's adequate enough) and only say that the main superhero tropes are old enough and trite enough to just be acceptable at face value by anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the superhero genre. And perhaps it's this blase acceptance of the fantastic that led me, ultimately, to feel so depressed by the time I was finished with the book. The lack of focus on the superpower itself forces the reader to concentrate on the main character's failed relationships, the failed relationships of those around him, and the general cruelty of human beings to one another. Not a recipe for a good time, to say the least.
I will say one thing: Clowes' use of word bubbles is brilliant and lends itself to supposition and inference on the part of the reader. That is, word bubbles that are partially off-panel and only show some of the characters' dialogue make the reader dig in order to catch the full import of what is happening, what is being said, and what is not being said. Clowes pulls the reader into the story by giving just enough visual and narrative information to start the reader off, but the reader must supply the finishing touches that spark off understanding in her or his mind. Clowes also uses the trick of giving past narrative (the characters' words) in present panels (the visual representation of the characters' actions). One often wonders if the characters are acting in the present or the past and if their words are to be taken as something that arises from represented action or if they are completely disjointed from the events shown in the illustrations. This keeps the reader sharp, alert, and engaged. It should be noted that these tricks simply could not be pulled off in any other medium. Bravo, Clowes!
Ultimately, the story is about justice and one's right (or not) to mete out justice on those one deems "guilty". Andy, the main character, is the arbiter of said justice, though one never really knows how he internally arbitrates in passing judgement. What is guilt? What is innocence? Who gets to decide? The burden of absolute power forces the question of whether or not absolute power corrupts absolutely. Perhaps the seeds of corruption are already inherent in those that inherit power. If that's the case, then how can our judgement of power-wielders be just? Or is justice blind to predisposition and only executed against those who engage in unjust action?
The Death-Ray did do one thing for me: it made me think. That's usually a good thing, but the arbitrary nature of Andy's judgement, either guided by his maladjusted friend, Louie, or arising from within himself, left me feeling emotionally empty. I'm still undecided as to whether Andy was pathologically narcissistic or simply emotionally paralyzed by the stunning discovery of his superpower (augmented by the death ray of the book's title). Either way, he's not the kind of guy I can feel for and definitely not the kind of guy I'd want to be around for any length of time. I value my safety far too much to endanger it by hanging out with people that don't feel empathy or regret, which seemed to be at the core of Andy's problems and was also at the core of my problems with the book itself. Clowes' The Death-Ray was simultaneously brilliant and draining. In some ways, I finished the book feeling that I had turned the gun on myself.
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