“The Death Ray” a Carefully Crafted Meditation on Superpowers and Everyday Life

by Charles Mahoney

It’s hard to imagine what a real-life Batman would do with his time. Once he cleaned up the mob and scared away the murderers, there would be almost nothing left for him to do. He would have to either pray that a long-running villain like the Joker would appear to occupy his time or figure out another way to cope with his grief. But as Daniel Clowes’ new graphic novel “The Death Ray” contends, there are no real-life Jokers; only the ones we make for ourselves. If superhero powers do come to earth, Clowe contends, a superheroes greatest foe will not be kryptonite or laughing gas. It will be boredom and self-pity.

It’s easy to slot “The Death Ray” into the “real person becomes a superhero” trend of “Kick-Ass” and “Super.” The frame is certainly there. A nerdy, young boy named Andy and his friend Louis are routinely picked on and degraded by school bullies, until one day Andy learns that he has a special ability.  His late scientist father has endowed Andy with the ability to gain super-strength when he is under the effects of nicotine. As another gift, his father has left him the titular death ray: a gun that causes anything it shoots to disappear.

This last bit is especially important. Unlike other fictional death rays, this one does not incinerate its victims or electrify them. It makes them disappear, erasing them from existence. This sort of absence consumes “The Death Ray”. Both of Andy’s parents are deceased, and he lives only with a senile grandfather and an intermittently appearing nurse. Louie is his only friend, and his “girlfriend” has moved far away and refuses to respond to him. Sections in the book are introduced with grand openers like “The Adventures of The Death Ray” or “The Unthinkable” but nothing happens after those openings. Or rather things do happen, but they are subtle; instead of grand fights, there are wrestles with frustration and boredom.

And ultimately, boredom wins. There are no surprises here; the book even begins in media res with a depressed, bitter Andy groveling about how his life has degenerated into a wasteful mess. Despite all of his powers, he cannot escape his troubled circumstances because his focus is wrong. He tries to find meaning acts of patriotism and vague platitudes of “protecting the righteous.” At times, Louie and Andy are provoking bullies or pick fights with mild jerks. By destroying so many people and things, Andy is trying to fill the hole in his heart with an absence.

Clowes’ eye-popping artwork is a perfect complement to these themes of absence. In “The Death Ray,” he favors bright, sleek colors that contrast with his realistically drawn world. In one scene for example, Louie’s sister’s ex-boyfriend Sonny cries over his break-up in a quiet display of emotion. But while every wrinkle on his face is carefully drawn in, the lush yellow of his shirt and bright brown of the back wall can divert the reader’s attention away from Sonny’s very real pain. If one get’s distracted by the beautiful, overarching colors, he’ll miss the emotion underneath these scenes

And that is the trick of “The Death Ray”: it is set-up to mislead the reader into focusing on the big powers rather than tiny issues underlying them. It’s easy to blame this tragedy on Andy’s powers or on his difficult upbringing, since these are the things at the forefront of his life. But Andy is miserable when he is weak as well as when he is strong; his position in the hierarchy of life is not the root cause of his unhappiness. Instead, he’s miserable for a much simpler reason: he has accepted a worldview that makes happiness impossible.

Charles Mahoney is arts editor. Email him at cmahoney@nyunews.com

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