The new issue of Eightball
takes up many of the challenges of Daniel Clowes's previous work, and even on those terms the self-contained story "The Death-Ray" is no disappointment. As one of the smartest and most adept cartoonists of his generation, Clowes has raised the bar for literary comics with everything he's done since starting Ghost World
. In any new Eightball
, we'd expect to see expressive and skillful drawing, daunting narrative complexity and ambiguity, and story details that suggest deeper symbolic structures we can never quite decode. Clowes writes the most excitingly difficult comics this side of Chris Ware, and most alternative-comics readers endure the long wait between issues with pained anticipation or a deadly worry that Clowes might somehow let us down.
It seems unlikely that any serious comics reader would need more encouragement than the first sentence of this review to trade a scant $7 for his or her own copy of Eightball 23
. In fact, for most of us, the first five words would be enough.
What surprises the most about this new issue, however, is not its craft or complexity: that, after all, is what we expect. Yes, Eightball
23 has much of the formal complexity of its predecessor, the "Ice Haven" issue, though "The Death-Ray" is broken into fewer points of view, and Clowes's changes in drawing style are more subtle here. (Both of these shifts tether the book more tightly to its protagonist, a high-school ectomorph and loner named Andy.) Yes, there are surprising gaps in the narrative, and mysteries left unsolved, as in David Boring
; yes, our main characters, Andy and his one friend Louie, like Enid and Rebecca before them, are a pair of disaffected, distant teenage outcasts whose main emotions are loneliness and scorn. There are even sequences in "The Death-Ray" that evoke or allude to Clowes's early "Duplex Planet" strips or "Like a Weed, Joe." It would be tempting to look at Eightball
23 as a sort of summa
of Clowes's mature work, and it would be rewarding, too, to consider the ways that "The Death-Ray" reprises and refracts the themes of those earlier comics; in fact, I'll have to revisit David Boring
and "Black Nylon" in the course of this review.
|Panel from David Boring
But there are also formal developments and innovations new to "The Death-Ray."1
One previously infrequent device becomes prominent in this issue: panel borders often crop off large pieces of speech balloons, so that the reader must guess or imagine the rest of a character's utterance. This generally seems to indicate speech that Andy hears or attends to incompletely, thereby limiting our immediate understanding to what Andy sees or understands -- forcing us to read through Andy's eyes, and making us work back over the comic for its meaning as Andy might reflect on his own memories. But this occlusion of speech balloons is also both a way for Clowes to direct our focus (to Andy's captions instead of the "soundtrack" of events taking place, as in 22.3-8), or to misdirect our attention, as in a crucial moment when a bystander's insult almost vanishes beneath Andy's narration (39.11). Andy later kills the bystander for this insult, and because the murder happens silently, between panels (40.7-8), we will hardly notice it (or even recognize the victim) unless we've pieced together the hidden dialogue. In fact, obscured dialogue is a small example of a larger pattern of misdirection, incompleteness, and inference that we could call manipulations of "closure" in a more general, non-McCloudian sense of the word: as in Eightball
22, the fragmented narrative of "The Death-Ray" allows Clowes simultaneously to conceal and to reveal a central character's crimes. Just as the reader of the "Ice Haven" issue has to deduce that Random Wilder has kidnapped David Goldberg (or that Mrs. Ames has been cheating on her detective husband), many of Andy's murders are left unspecified, unrevealed, or implied.2
Increasingly, we suspect Andy's unreliability as a narrator, and see that he isn't telling us the whole story or perhaps even the truth.
This duplicity turns to woeful irony because, as Sean Collins has pointed out, although Andy's story is told with the trappings of a superhero comic (including an ill-fitting costume and two separate origin stories), it's really the story of a serial killer.3
And it's in the story's high moral stakes that Eightball
23 least resembles Clowes's earlier work: this is a comic with something specific to say.
In most of his work so far, Clowes has been not only reticent about making claims, but also ambivalent about literary interpretation or literary meaning itself. His comics until now have traded heavily on a sense of symbolic significance, usually without offering any coherent reading of this symbolism: he frequently uses details that ought
to mean something, but in a cagey or evasive way that keeps the reader from being sure of any meaning. Clowes has spoken against "didactic" storytelling, but if this technique is only a method of writing without revealing his own "agenda," it's more ornate than it needs to be.4
Rather, Clowes seems uneasy about the process of interpretation itself. In Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron
or in short pieces like "The Gold Mommy" and "The Party," Clowes flirts with Freudian patterns of dream analysis, suggesting a rich set of personal symbols that nevertheless remain illegible. Clay Loudermilk, the protagonist of Velvet Glove
, is unable to interpret the signs and clues he's presented with, and thus falls into a common Clowes archetype, the failed or incompetent detective. This group would also contain the aforementioned Mr. Ames and several characters in David Boring
: Lieutenant Anemone and Agent Roy Smith, who may never get their man (or men?), as well as Professor Karkes and David himself, who enlist professional detective help in their quest for Wanda because their clues lead nowhere. David's persistent study of the Yellow Streak Annual
for clues about his father, however, is another sort of search for meaning: a sort of literary criticism. And criticism in recent Clowes comics fares even worse than detective work: Prof. Karkes practices a parody of literary criticism in David Boring, as does "Harry Nabors, Comic Book Critic" in Eightball
22. Indeed, if Clowes sees Harry's questions -- culminating with "Do you think the author likes me personally?" -- as the end of literary reading, then perhaps it's natural for him to evade interpretation by providing more symbols than meaning, more clues than solutions.5
It's therefore strange that Eightball
23 is not only a superhero story, but also a sideways but coherent commentary on the superhero myth that is so prominent in our culture and deeply rooted in the comic-book format. Our adolescent protagonist Andy and his friend Louie are familiar enough with superheroes that they know (apparently without discussing it) that Andy needs to shop for a costume (14.10) once he discovers his super-powers. (They leap from rooftop to rooftop even before Andy gains his powers.) They also know that Andy's private life, for all its tragedy, lacks the catalyzing event that will define his identity as The Death-Ray: "Sure, you've got some powers," Louie says, "but that's nothing without motivation. Look at the Hulk -- his wife died, or something" (18.5-6). It's telling that Louie knows this much about superhero origins but gets the details of the Hulk's story wrong; it's also telling that the origin Andy imagines for himself, like the costume he cobbles together, bears a superficial resemblance to Spider-Man's. These half-recalled approximations show us that neither Andy nor Louie is a Chalky White -- they are neither superhero fans nor comics specialists -- and the boys are thus easier to read as everymen, or "everyteens" at least, their actions more typical because they aren't immersed in the conceits of a narrow genre.
In fact, although Andy seems to share a hometown or a high school with Clowes,6
he's unusual among Clowes's recent protagonists for having no creative ambitions: he's more a figure for the ordinary citizen than a figure for the artist. This makes it possible for us to read Andy's decisions -- about what to do with his super-strength or his ultimate weapon; about whom to kill and whom to save -- as points in a moral drama. The more ordinary Andy seems, in fact, the more generally his story seems to apply. He's a shy teenager who finds himself transformed by smoking his first cigarette: with nicotine in his system, he has the strength to tear The Odyssey in half or challenge schoolyard bullies. Andy's cigarettes are an externalized version of Spider-Man's (or the X-Men's) correlation of super-powers with the physical changes of adolescence, and they're explained as such in his father's notebook ("He figured on age 13 instead of 17"). His nicotine-based strength takes him beyond being "as strong as a normal kid," which was all his father had intended, and allows Andy to impress his classmates (13) and Coach Pasternak (16). Once Andy's aunt sends him the "death ray" gun, he can make his enemies utterly and permanently disappear, without facing any punishment for their deaths or leaving any clues behind.7
Both of these powers are the fulfillment of fairly typical fantasies for shy or persecuted teenagers like Andy (who almost musters four pull-ups in one early sequence, and has very few friends at school). Andy's powers thus represent not only the imagined physical capabilities of adulthood but also the distorted dream of adult freedom that teenagers often hold -- the ability to act against perceived injustice that we wrongly assume we'll gain with the right to vote or to be drafted.
Andy's choices, however, argue that the teenaged superhero is basically a fool's fiction, an archetype built on fundamental misunderstandings about adolescent psychology. And it's not simply that Andy lacks the benevolent ghost of Uncle Ben Parker, or the sense of great responsibility that's supposed to come with great power: he acknowledges, in fact, that being able to "erase you from the landscape" is "a lot of responsibility" (40). In fact, Andy wants to do right, as his superhero oath (to protect "the weak, the innocent, the unloved, and the friendless") would suggest, but he lacks the wisdom or the moral scope to be more than an arbitrary and unjust executioner. Without obvious villains or criminals to oppose, Andy is lost in ambiguities that at first paralyze and frighten him: he won't use the death ray on the bully ("Stoob") that he beat bloody a few pages earlier (28). When his powers are new, Andy fears that his strength will drive him, like a werewolf, to uncontrollable violence: "Was I going to kill someone and forget about it by tomorrow?" he wonders (9.15). When Louie finally goads him into using the death ray, however, Andy does so without remorse, and even Louie is stunned at how coolly Andy takes it: "I mean, he was more upset about the chipmunk!" (31.2). Killing Louie's sister's boyfriend kicks off a string of murders, most of which Andy does not tell us about, and unnumbered later executions he refers to callously as "times I've fallen off the wagon" (35.1). Using the death ray turns him, almost before our eyes, from a scrawny would-be superhero to a detached and angry serial killer who finds people to be "the ugliest creatures in all of nature" (40.1).
The psychological assumption of the Spider-Man story is that, in a young man who means well, wisdom will come with the exercise of power. Andy, however, is never able to see that he's not using his power wisely, in part because he can (and will) vaporize anyone who opposes or criticizes him. (We're surprised to learn that the middle-aged Andy's "one friend in the world" is the sad yes-man Sonny, but Louie does not survive his second thoughts about their first murder.) Andy's power allows him to ignore or annihilate any normal person who might try to instruct or influence him, and he ends the comic convinced of his own righteousness, with the words of Rambo on his lips, even as he disintegrates a man for unrepentant littering (40). Clowes seems to argue, here, that this is the more likely career trajectory for a young wallflower endowed with superhuman strength and a range weapon -- that super-power itself would only further alienate Andy (or any teenager) from the social world he supposedly swears to serve.
Andy's powers are conveniently chosen to make this point, of course. Like Plato's Ring of Gyges, the death ray does not lend itself to virtuous use, and thus builds a conclusion into Clowes's thought experiment. Andy's weapon is so instantaneous and final that he need never think twice: once he pulls the trigger, the choice cannot be reversed. His strength is also so decisive (and his anger so convinced) that it's almost like the death ray, and his fistfights almost always happen in a single panel, showing the effects of one or two brutal blows, rather than in a Kirbyesque sequence of swings and dodges. Of course, this is because Andy has no equally powerful opponents, but even so Andy's death ray would trump any opposition and make Andy a murderer every time it is used. Andy's powers will never teach him moderation, and his environment will never chastise him.
There's clearly a reading of Eightball
23 that would make Andy a metaphor for America in 2004: more powerful, and more easily able to abuse his power, than any of his enemies. This may be why Andy buys Patriotic Marches: the Musical Legacy of Military America
while Louie is shopping for punk records by Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers (24.6-8), or why the strip "The United States of Andy," in which Andy delivers his most misanthropic screed, ends with a fireworks display. Andy, as an adult, has the problems that the current regime seems to have: too much power, too easy an access to the trigger, and no capacity to hear criticism. But the comic does not need to succeed as an indictment of Bush foreign policy to work as a critique of the superhero myth. The fact that it can use the tired symbol of the superhero to do this work, however, is a large part of what makes this such a compelling book.
Clowes has been interested in superhero comics for a long time, and has articulated an uneasy animus against them in several other places. Perhaps it's hard to imagine the author of the Dan Pussey stories finding that he has something to say from within the superhero milieu, but because it has a moral dimension "The Death-Ray" is a considerably stronger statement than "Black Nylon" (an earlier Eightball
story that superficially resembles the current issue) -- and even stronger than the treatment of "Yellow Streak" in David Boring
. Both of Clowes's previous superhero comics have taken up the superhero from outside, using the general figure of the superhero as a cipher for something else, rather than challenging the assumptions of the medium directly, or speaking about how these assumptions may reflect things outside of comics culture. In David Boring
, Yellow Streak seems to exist primarily as a figure for David's absent father, either invisible or negligent (DB
, 35.4) -- which might also imply that Clowes sees superhero comics as inadequate literary forebears for the sort of film David is trying to write, or for the sort of comics that Clowes himself is creating. "Black Nylon" is more mysterious, and harder to parse, but seems to treat the generational shift in superhero comics from adventure and detective stories to "gritty" violence. Its world is every bit as grim as Andy's, but seems less firmly connected to either the conceits and structures of superhero comics or to our own familiar world; "Black Nylon" therefore reads more like a nightmare -- more like Velvet Glove
or "The Gold Mommy" -- than like a satire or realist fiction. To Clowes's credit, "The Death-Ray" succeeds chillingly in both those genres. Andy is both a critique of the assumptions behind Spider-Man and a plausible portrait of a young man gone wrong.
For all its power, Eightball
23 is harder to like than the "Ice Haven" issue, and this is not only because its humor is darker and its narrative more dense. "The Death-Ray" leaves the reader feeling uncomfortable. Having been encouraged to identify with the protagonist Andy from the early pages of the book, the reader is finally excluded from Andy's moral sphere, declared inferior by a solitary and unsympathetic figure in a doubly damning final monologue:
Look at you: what have you ever done? What gives you the right to sit there with a smirk on your face like you're better than me? You think anybody cares about you? Guess what -- they don't. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the rest of us are wise to your scam. You should have been an abortion or sold into slavery. Who gave you the right to take up space in my world? (40.2-4)
When the reader is brought back into Andy's regard, it's as an afterthought -- "Hell, you're probably a decent person yourself" (40.16) -- and by this point we can hardly care whether the awful, self-deceiving Andy likes us. "The Death-Ray" is remarkable even in Clowes's canon for its misanthropy and for the paucity of sympathetic characters it leaves us. Aside from long-suffering background figures like Pappy and the maid Dinah, every character in the book seems selfish, insensitive, and prone to brutality. We might have some hope for Louie's moral awakening as he starts to regret setting up his sister's boyfriend for incineration, but Louie's best moral effort is to lead his best friend into an ambush, where he tries to kill Andy to get the raygun away from him. Clowes finally offers us three endings to choose between, but none of them is at all hopeful; nor does any ending bring Andy to justice. This lack of moral resolution is difficult to face, and a good deal more bitter than readers might like their satire, but it seems to be Clowes's honest judgment about the consequences of unstoppable power put into the hands of teenagers. Read it as a critique of our foreign policy or our gun culture, or understand it as the Spider-Man story that Clowes never drew;8
"The Death-Ray" is a comic with claims to make. Of course it's smart work from a genius cartoonist, and of course it's formally and thematically interesting: this is no surprise. It's also Dan Clowes breaking new ground by challenging old assumptions, and it will be worth reading and re-reading well after three or four years go by and there's another new issue of Eightball
A digression on lettering: as in the "Ice Haven" issue, variations in Eightball
23's lettering indicate shifts in voice. The lower-case serifed hand (which harkens back to Clowes's Lloyd Llewellyn
lettering) indicates Violet’s zine writing in Eightball
22; in “The Death-Ray,” this hand seems to indicate Andy's letters to his putative girlfriend Dusty, whether handwritten (6.10-12, 7) or typed (32.16, 33). In this new issue, however, the flat, lonely voice of Andy's epistolary confessions creeps into other segments of the comic, so that we understand the strange details of "Andy’s Dream" (26) and even his self-definition and superhero oath (24.1-3, 25.1-2) as having been written for Dusty's eyes. Clowes may be self-consciously marking these teenaged characters' melodramatic prose with the hand of his own juvenilia, but the effect in "The Death-Ray" goes beyond merely marking a voice or a tone, because it also implies a specific audience. If Andy is writing to Dusty, and not merely speaking over his breakfast cereal or in the stands of a baseball game, then he might have reasons other than self-disclosure to declare himself "kind of an All-American type - a modest guy with common sense who knows the difference between right and wrong" (24.2). With Dusty as an audience, the words start to sound less like self-description, and more like self-invention or self-defense. Andy may be trying to convince Dusty of his virtue, "common sense," and conformity, even while he's trying to convince himself. (Does he really love patriotic marching-band music, or does he merely want to love it?) In fact, when he tells Dusty what amounts to his superhero creed, dedicating himself "to the protection of the weak, the innocent, the unloved, and the friendless" (25.2), we recognize even at the moment that this statement is at best wishful thinking on his part, and may simply be self-deception. Return...
I suspect that Andy has killed his grandfather Pappy in a sort of instant euthanasia, for example, though I suppose Pappy might be colored blue on p. 41 simply because he died of natural causes. Return...
3 www.comicbookgalaxy.com/070604_sc_review.html Return...
When Matt Silvie remarks, "You've always been pretty clear in all your interviews that you don't approach art with a didactic agenda," Clowes replies, "I can't really think of a worse approach: the opinions of an author or artist should be held as highly suspect by everyone, especially the artist himself." (Interview in The Comics Journal
233 (May 2001), p. 54) Return...
5 Ghost World
is the exception to this pattern, because its suggestive details (the missing letters in the sign for Angel's restaurant; the Lunchables the "Satanists" are buying; "the pants" that Enid and Rebecca walk by) are meant to evoke an urban environment in which meaning, when there is meaning, is not symbolic but personal. Because the story is so focused on the emotional lives of the girls, any meaning for the "Norman" sidewalk square is constructed by Enid and Rebecca. We don't read Ghost World
's realism as we would read the nightmare details in Velvet Glove
or "The Gold Mommy." Instead, we understand vivid details to be evocative and not symbolic. Return...
Andy wears a Cubs jacket that suggests he's living in Chicago (or lived there before moving in with Pappy), where Clowes grew up. Clowes’s high-school experience seems to have been similar to Andy's. In his 2001 Comics Journal
interview, Clowes says, "... I think that most people’s characters are etched in place when they're very young. A lot of people I went to high school with that were really nasty, evil little brats and when I see them now they're running recycling centers and things like that, but I can still see it in them. They still have that nastiness, but they just sort of learned to bury it somewhere. ... I don't think people change very much." (TCJ 58-59)
Curiously, Andy’s nemesis Stoob also winds up running a recycling center (EB 23, 40.12), which we discover just before an adult Andy announces, "Underneath it all, he was still the same guy. Nobody ever changes" (40.14); I’m not sure what to make of the connection here, though I can see that "Andy" is a near-anagram of "Dan." Return...
The difference between the "death ray" and an ordinary firearm is not in the final effect but in the perfectly clean and instantaneous way death comes about: it doesn't even leave "any fucking ashes," as Louie notes on p. 23. Return...
"The funny thing is [Peter Bagge] actually did ask me to draw Spider-Man
. ... It was hard for me to turn down" (TCJ 52). Return...