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The Death Ray by Daniel Clowes

01/04/2012. Contributed by Aidan Fortune

Buy The Death Ray in the USA - or Buy The Death Ray in the UK

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pub: Random House. 48 page graphic novel hardback. Price: GBP14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-022409-411-5.

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Originally published in the final issue of ‘Eightball’ magazine in 2004, Random House has released a hardback edition of Daniel Clowes’ tale, ‘The Death Ray’ where outsider Andy discovers that he has superhuman strength when he smokes a cigarette.

Subversive is the keyword for this collection. Andy gains his strength when he starts illicitly smoking, his father having given him these powers so he wouldn't be picked on as he was and also has the power to remove people from existence thanks to the eponymous Death Ray. A far cry from being bitten by a radioactive spider and learning that 'with great power, comes great responsibility'.

The protagonist's experiences are interspersed with asides offering a more romantic view of a stereotypical super-hero. But as the adult world starts clashing with Andy’s sometimes naïve outlook, he finds it increasingly difficult to distinguish right from wrong. Even best friend/fellow outcast/would-be sidekick Louie is unable to prevent him from crossing the line between vigilante and murderer. Although what is perhaps more shocking is how Andy is able to justify each use of the Death Ray and it’s to Clowes’ credit that you almost sympathise with him.

The various shades of grey creates an interesting moral dilemma that every one of us might find it difficult to answer. If you had the power to make someone simply disappear, would you use it?

There are some obvious parallels with recent series ‘Kick Ass’, but this is a different beast altogether. Rather than the escalating violence and garish colours of ‘Kick Ass’, ‘The Death Ray’ is more subdued and reflective, with some beautiful spreads and excellent use of sepia tones.

Those familiar with Clowes’ work will recognise his trademark style. No matter what decade his stories are set in, the artwork and style look dated. This works to the book’s advantage, similar to ‘Ghost World’ and ‘David Boring’, as it helps convey the awkwardness of the main character. ‘The Death Ray’ however features plenty of colour on its pages, although perhaps they shouldn’t have bothered as black and white would have given it more of a pulp comic feel.

While I had high hopes for ‘The Death Ray’, I felt that the ending was a little flat, although perhaps that was Clownes’ intention. It subverts a traditional super-hero tale that would typically end with a bang and a moral lesson and literally leaves us having to make up our own mind about Andy’s ultimate fate.

Fans of Clowes will enjoy this volume however and it would make a nice bridge for traditional tights and capes fans who want to try something a little more indie.

Aidan Fortune

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This book has 79 votes in the sci-fi charts

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