The Death-Ray (June 2004)

The Death-Ray

Here’s the thing about The Death-Ray–well, more specifically, here’s the thing about Daniel Clowes. He knows what he’s got. At some point during the comic, it becomes clear his ambition and his confidence are almost equal. The comic just gets better and better and it covers a lot of years and a lot of panels. Not so much pages, but panels. Clowes packs Death-Ray with panels. Never too big, but sometimes even tiny. There’s so much content. Clowes homages the experience of reading a sixties Marvel comic, but integrates everything. There’s no letters page because he knows how to get the reading experience of a letters page–at least any memorable parts–into his narrative. Sometimes through tiny panels. He’s excited and it feels extremely communal. Clowes is showing off something he’s figured out you can do with the comic book medium. He’s exuberant.

Clowes forces the reader to evaluate each narrator and balance their perspectives.
Clowes forces the reader to evaluate each narrator and balance their perspectives.

What’s so striking about the comic is how much Clowes is able to get in. He casts two comic nerds as the leads. There’s no real mention of comic books in the comic itself, but they come up with the idea for a superhero. Maybe there is some reference, the point is they’re standard characters. Only they aren’t. The protagonist, Andy, has a really messed up life. His sidekick, Louie, has a similarly messed up life, but far less tragic in the details. Even though the comic opens with Andy narrating as a mid-aged guy–and Clowes continues using him in the flashback–somehow it’s Louie who gets to have the story for a good while. Clowes wants the reader to examine Andy not from the perspective of first person narrator, but from Louie’s perspective. It’s how Clowes is able to encourage a lot of questioning. There’s a lot of text in The Death-Ray, a lot of first person, a lot of exposition–and shockingly little dialogue, Clowes just wants to hint at it, the interior mind is what’s important here–Clowes needs the reader to pay attention. Otherwise they won’t get it and he wants to see if he can pull it off.

Look at all these panels; Clowes goes even smaller to fit it all in.
Look at all these panels; Clowes goes even smaller to fit it all in.

Clowes’s style is gorgeous. He’s got a simple comic strip–detailed, but relatively simple as far as his panel compositions–for the majority of the story. It’s far from hostile. When he goes off on a comic book medium tangent, he’s got a little bit different of a style. The flashback is already in color–the present day varies between color for “reality” and monochrome for Old Man Andy’s interior monologue–but these formal tangents are somehow more vivid. Clowes wants to do an ad, he wants to do a recap, he doesn’t want to hide the entertainment from the reader. He wants you to enjoy The Death-Ray.

The romance comic homage.
The romance comic homage.

Because an entertained reader is one who pays attention and Clowes does look at a number of serious things. Louie’s misogyny, for example, and misogyny in general. A little with race. A lot with class. The Death-Ray is unpredictable. Clowes initially promises a riff on the original Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Amazing Spider-Man with annoying indie comic sidekick. He excels on his fulfillment of that promise and then he moves on. He takes the reader through various stages of expectation–whether it’s Andy imagining everything, Andy being some kind of superhero, Andy being some kind of monster. Old Man Andy is narrating and The Death-Ray is all about readers having no idea who is in their head. And Clowes navigates it beautifully. He guides the reader, occasionally a little hard but always with respect. He never gets impatient. There are no false starts in The Death-Ray’s plotting. Clowes paces it deliberately, sublimely.

Clowes does regular high school comic strip too.
Clowes does regular high school comic strip too.

When the comic ends, Clowes gives the reader a multiple choice question. He directly asks readers to reflect back on the comic they have just read. There is a test. You had to be paying attention to the details in those really tiny panels.

The Death-Ray is a great comic. It’s also a singular use of first person, with the consequences of the narrative distance being something the narrator himself gets to exploit. It’s really good.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Daniel Clowes; publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.

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Patience (March 2016)

patienceThe past is far behind us / the future doesn’t exist sing the puppets of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. But eventually everyone runs out of time. Never truer than in Patience, which longtime Daniel Clowes fans may not find to be his best work, but is nonetheless unlike anything he’s ever done before – and first time readers will find it an excellent introduction to his talents. Clowes has never created a book of this length or focused upon a protagonist so intense as Jack Barlow, a haunted man whose surname references the vampire of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Like an ageless ghoul, Jack lurks outside of time, referring to himself at one point as a ghost. The story begins with the murder of his pregnant wife, the eponymous Patience, so he’s already dead inside – at least until the discovery of time travel gives him the opportunity to somehow prevent that murder.

The story begins by establishing Jack’s total adoration for Patience and his hopes for their future family are a breathtaking refutation of the divorce-trauma cynicism about traditional family life which characterized Clowes’ generation. Strong stuff from an artist whose name was so synonymous with Gen-X in the 90s that Coca-Cola hired him to design packaging for ironically, intentionally mediocre soda pop. His Fantagraphics contemporary Peter Bagge eventually got married with children too, but even Buddy Bradley’s embrace of fatherhood over any hedonistic autumn years as an aging ink stud (or even Robert Crumb’s for that matter) was never celebrated so sincerely as in these first few opening pages before the bottom drops out. Clowes has also never written a protagonist so obsessively focused on one singular life-or-death matter as Jack’s quest to recover the new beginning his new family symbolized. Personally, Clowes’ The Death-Ray speaks to me more but maybe that’s because I’m not yet a husband or father. There’s palpable excitement for the reader upon realizing how ruthlessly driven Jack Barlow is about what may be an impossible effort, and knowing he has the rest of the heavy tome to see that one objective through.

Except for a few pointed scenes of internal narration by Patience herself, Barlow constantly narrates directly to the reader, alternately terse and conversational. Clowes has done similar character narration before, but never with the film-noirish tone of a furious and potentially doomed man as his star. His anger is far removed from the outbursts of frustrated, semi-passive loners to whom Clowes usually gives center stage. Barlow may be angst-ridden but he’s no nerd; he’ll cave your face in if you get in the way of his mission. He’s also scarily funny, when sometimes indulging the one typically Clowesian trait bestowed upon him; his lack of patience (ahem) for any oblivious idiots blocking his path. The absurdity of these remarks within an otherwise extremely grim story compounds the occasional comic relief into an unexpected shotgun blast; Enid Coleslaw with a laser rifle. Fuck you, asshole – I’m from the future! Even on top of the havoc played with the metaphysics of time-space, Barlow makes the book exciting and unpredictable by sheer force of his personality, and with a menace previously unexplored by the author.

A brief look into the future and some striking double-page spreads of Jack’s body traversing the fourth dimension are the only scenes in Patience as colorful as the front cover and endpapers. They seem like bait to lure in sci-fi fans, because the vast majority of the book’s settings are the fascinatingly banal suburban vistas which Clowes is now a practiced master at rendering. Every scene is deliberately staged for the simplest, most naturalistic compositions, so as not to distract from the long-form character drama. In terms of exploiting the comics medium’s unique qualities, his longest work is also his least ambitious. It’s a far cry from his previous book Wilson, which changed art styles drastically on every page. Patience probably would have worked better as a limited 5 or 6 issue mini-series but Clowes and Fantagraphics know that no one reads comics “issues” and you can’t count on super-creeps noticing your new, capeless title one rack over from the Harley Quinn jack-off material and Deadpool: Crisis On Infinite OMGWTFLOLs. The book’s length actually made it the first time I’ve had to read anything of his in two sittings, which is a new experience. Fortunately there are basically chapter demarcations every time Jack Barlow travels to a new year, so you often have good points to pause and digest at your own pace.

Until this book, I’d never noticed Clowes’ simultaneous disgust for both the upper and lower classes that reoccurs throughout all his work. The plot of Patience hinges on both the privileged amorality of rich overprivileged jerks and the alcoholic violence of underprivileged rednecks, with white trash as almost constant white noise in the background. The always impeccable character designs put as much vivid detail into the stony sidelong glance of an overpriced boutique baby clothes saleswoman, or the condescending smirks of fey urban hipsters, as the glazed bovine misery of midwestern housewives, or the rodent giddiness of their skanky daughters. One great scene finds Jack in a trendy city bar full of pretentious sophisticates who love how “futuristic” his clothes from the future look. Clowes grew up in Chicago and has previously expressed in Eightball his unease with that city’s overly self-conscious compromise between wealthy and working class cultures. He also knows well the spiritual wasteland of the small towns beyond; Jack stalks Patience’s past through her entirely hateful hometown which bears the generically Midwestern name of “White Oak.” The crux of his future wife’s life is escape from this dead-end place, but even as a married couple living together in the (generic, but probably Chicago) big city, they can’t help feeling cheated that there’s so much wealth all around them when all they want is enough to get by and raise their child.

The question of what will happen to our antihero if he’s successful in changing history is deftly sidestepped because Jack isn’t the type of guy to think that aspect through – explicitly, he twice shrugs off any such theorizing as “sci-fi bullshit.” Somewhat disingenuously with the book’s packaging, including the cheekily hyperbolic (but not inaccurate) back cover tagline “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love” – the story is at its core a murder mystery with time travel used as a sleuthing method rather than a “time travel” or “sci-fi” adventure. Clowes seems to have only slightly less disdain for genre trappings than Jack Barlow. Only a few pages are spent in a Sixties-ish retro-future for providing him a time travel device, and late in the story when another visitor from the future makes an appearance, he come clad in a ludicrously stupid looking costume. Towards the end I found myself guessing a predictable paradox and sure enough, Jack/Clowes mentions that possibility as an obvious pitfall he’ll have to avoid. Our protagonist’s contempt for “sci-fi bullshit” allows him to see a Twilight Zone twist ending coming just as well as the reader. The actual conclusion cleverly ties together every story thread in a logical way while cohering with the plot’s depiction of time travel; it’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Recommended for everyone, but especially husbands and fathers.

CREDITS

Writer, artist & colorist, Daniel Clowes; production and technological assistance; Alvin Buenaventura; editor and associate publisher, Eric Reynolds; publisher, Gary Groth & Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Pussey! (August 1989-October 1994)

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Pussey! is a collection of strips from Eightball, published over five years, concerning a comic book artist named Dan Pussey.

It’s pronounced poo-say, so just remember that distinction.

A lot of the strip is Clowes examining the comic book industry and its fans. I don’t think there’s a single sympathetic character in the entire collection. In fact, Clowes makes a point to make the protagonist unsympathetic as time progresses. Until the finale, when it’s a tragedy comics are forgotten.

Clowes gets in a sadly hilarious analog of Stan Lee and uses him as the face of exploitative publishers. Like much of Pussey!, it’s funny, but only if you have some reference. Clowes misses making the character, Dr. Infinity, likable. Stan Lee is great at selling himself too, whereas Clowes lets the reader know exactly how awful Dr. Infinity’s going to get.

While all of Stan Lee’s return to comics ventures failed, here it succeeds. It turns into something like Image, with Pussey becoming Rob Liefeld. I had to think back to the nineties and the crazy speculative market and so on to get it all.

But Clowes also has a lot to say about his fellow indie creators—and bully to Gary Groth for publishing a comic featuring him as a twerp who makes the Hernandez Brothers do chores for him.

It’s a comic with nothing nice to say about its own medium.

Pussey! has a limited audience but is more even relevant now than when Clowes made it.

CREDITS

Writer, artist, and letterer, Daniel Clowes; Al Williamson; publisher, Fantagraphics Books.

Wilson (April 2010)

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I’ve never read Clowes before. I saw Ghost World and had major problems and assumed I wouldn’t like his comic work.

I was wrong.

Clowes sets Wilson up, intentionally or not, as the craziest collection of Sunday strips from a newspaper comic strip. Each page is a one page strip, with some differing art styles someone more involved might have something to say about (why one strip is realistically rendered while another is not). The strips all end with a resolution and observation.

As a protagonist, Clowes’s Wilson is a poor, untalented version of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” persona… wait, describing him as a realistic George Costanza might be a better choice. He doesn’t have friends, he can’t connect with women and his dumb ideas get him in lots of trouble. So, yeah, a realistic George.

Wilson is frequently hilarious, causing lots of audible laughter, usually when Wilson is being a jerk. There’s a lot of the jerkiness at the beginning and it seems like Wilson‘s just going to be a collection of the protagonist insulting people. Then the narrative starts.

Clowes never makes Wilson anything but an insensitive ass, so it’s interesting to see just how much sympathy for the character the narrative can create.

I suppose my only complaint with the plot is Clowes closing it off at the end.

It’s a fast, fun read, with Clowes quietly presenting Wilson‘s more profound moments, as it should be.

I am a little fearful of an upbeat film adaptation.

CREDITS

Writer, artist, colorist and letterer, Daniel Clowes; publisher, Drawn & Quarterly.

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