Daniel Clowes has spent the last few years of his comic-making career creating cringe-worthy middle-aged men: sad dupes with strings of failed relationships and no apparent way forward. But he still remains most famous for Ghost World, his coming-of-age story about the lives of two teenage girls.
The Death-Ray is much more like Ghost World, in that it’s about a couple of geeky teenage boys. They’re the class dweebs, the pair that just can’t seem to get on. Andy has spent his life surrounded by death: his mother when he was very small; his father not long after; his grandmother soon after that. He’s left living with his quiet grandfather and their middle-aged housekeeper.
His social circle revolves around Louis, another loser. But as the book progresses, Louis finds exercise and punk music, and sees a chance to leave his geeky childhood behind. All hopes of a normal adolescence are dashed, however, when Andy discovers that smoking cigarettes turn him into a superhero, and that he’s inherited a death-ray – a special gun that can literally make people disappear.
The reader is left to question whether the death-ray is real or fantasy. Is Andy’s increase in power and confidence simply a metaphor for growing up, or is he really experiencing a fantastical twist in his reality?
Using misguided teenagers as his subject matter leaves you more empathetic than you tend to be towards Clowes’ adult misfits. There’s a sense here that these boys are trying to come to terms with the world, but they don’t have the emotional tools or the common sense to manage it. And falling into a world of sci-fi fantasy, where they can make anyone they don’t like disappear without retribution, is not helping.
Originally published in Clowes’ Eightball comic back in 2004, The Death-Ray doesn’t have the complexity or depth of style of some of his later works. While each page or spread tends to tell a different mini-story, the book remains quite coherent and very accessible. You can see how this bridges the gap between Ghost World and later books like Ice Haven and Wilson though. Clowes fans who haven’t seen this in its original format, should certainly not miss out on this latest printing.