Friday, June 8, 2012

Great Responsibility: The Death-Ray And Daniel Clowes' Film Career

Daniel Clowes' super-hero story The Death-Ray provoked a lot of very interesting commentary.  The two best articles on the subject are from Isaac Cates (published at the time the original source material, Eightball #23, came out back in 2004) and Ken Parille, upon the re-release by Drawn & Quarterly last year.  I will address some of those points in bullet-point fashion, but I wanted to start with an observation not many have discussed.

To wit: few critics have addressed the effect that becoming a screenwriter has had on Clowes. While film has always been an obvious influence on his work Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron makes that clear, but the humorous follow-up strip where the Hollywood version of LVG is a huge, embarrassing flop that eviscerates Clowes' original text is interesting in light of him adapting his own material for film. Beyond the psychological and eschatological themes that run through much of Clowes' work, the three issues of David Boring (Eightball #19-21, published annually in 1998, 1999 and 2000) are structurally produced like a three-act Hollywood script.  There are so many film-related trappings in this comic that I could film an entire column, but the film-poster cover of Eightball #21 lays it all bare. These comics were created at roughly the same time Clowes was writing the script and working with Terry Zwigoff on the film version of Ghost World.  The infatuation with film so present in this comic may well reflect Clowes' creative enthusiasm in writing the script and seeing it come to life in such a satisfying way.

Conversely, the reality of distributing and promoting a film as well as the all-encompassing nature of its release, may well have had a significant impact on the creation of Ice Haven, originally released as Eightball #22.  Regardless of the motivation, it seems obvious to me that Ice Haven is a reaction to film as Clowes endeavors to put the language and feel of the comic into very comic-book terms. It's as anti-cinematic a comic as I can imagine, fracturing the narrative and look of the comic into newspaper-style strips. There are frequent narrative digressions into killer bunny rabbits and cave men that have nothing to do with the temporal narrative but have significant connections to the emotional narrative that moves in a straight line from strip to strip. More to the point, the character of Vida (the struggling zine writer who proves to be kidnapper Random Wilder's poetic nemesis) is about to quit writing when "a phone call came from Hollywood!" Improbably, she was "being summoned immediately to work on a big movie project!!"  She promises to "be the biggest, richest, most popular writer in history! You just watch dear reader, I'll be the biggest whore ever!"   It doesn't seem to be too much of a leap to see this as a sardonic autobiographical statement about how Clowes felt as an artist while working in Hollywood, especially as he started to take on work that wasn't based on his own comic.
Still, there's a joy at work in Ice Haven that celebrates the language of comics and the way it can easily mash up genre, obscure language, and convey meaning in ways no other art form can. It's still his master work in my opinion, as his formal command of comics is dizzying and his characterization is rich, complex and frequently hilarious. People tend to forget just how funny Clowes can be, and Ice Haven displays his merciless sense of humor at its sharpest. The central conflict of Ice Haven winds up having no teeth, as even the kid who seems like a thug is just all talk. It's all a put-on, a joke Clowes shares with himself and the reader as he makes you do a little bit of work in deciphering the text.

By contrast, The Death-Ray feels uglier and more cynical. It was originally the 23rd and final issue of Eightball, and it feels like a coda of sorts to a certain body of work. Isaac Cates said in his article that the critic Sean Collins said that this book isn't so much a super-hero story as it is the origin story of a serial killer. After the success of the film version of Ghost World, Clowes followed that up with Art School Confidential, an ugly and cynical film that was a huge critical and commercial bomb. If Ghost World represents a film that accurately conveys the spirit of the original and substantive source material, then Art School Confidential represents a film made from the slightest of source material (the original short story is more a rant than an actual narrative) dressed up with an absurd serial killer plotline. Sure, Clowes pokes fun at this with the metatextual commentary of the filmmaker in the story doing something sillier, but the fact is that Clowes wrote a serial killer movie.  In his own parlance, he perhaps "became the biggest whore ever!" There are things to recommend in this film, not the least of which is the daring choice of making every one of the characters completely despicable by the end of the film.  The character of Andy from The Death-Ray even reminds me a bit of Jerome, the protagonist of Art School Confidential: at the beginning of each story, they are naive if alienated.  By the end, they have completely shed any pretense to moral or ethical behavior as a result of being buffeted by the forces surrounding them. Something in them simply snaps, and when they cross the line, there's no coming back.

Steeping The Death-Ray in the language of comics and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man in particular creates a tension between the exaggerated ethical struggles Spider-Man found himself faced with and the fact that Andy and his sidekick/instigator Louie had to create all of their own struggles. In both cases, the "heroes" triumph because of their superior application of violence rather than the correctness of their own moral position. Unlike Spider-Man, and because of the uniquely brutal nature of his titular weapon, Andy only occasionally feels pangs of guilt. He gets to decide who lives and who dies, a power that would overwhelming for anyone, much less the typical Clowesian alienated loner desperate to make connections. Like Steve Gerber's Foolkiller character, the line between "evil" and annoying behavior is a thin one--is it just to murder a jaywalker or litterer?  There are no good or evil characters in this story, per se, just frustrated and angry people. Or perhaps, there are no heroes to be found, but plenty of Marvel-style villains: misunderstood misanthropes who lash out after a lifetime of abuse or neglect, paying back their misery a thousandfold when they find themselves with powers. Louie is clearly the protagonist of his own story (as are all teens) but winds up acting as a sort of malicious Greek chorus for Andy, pushing him and pushing him to act so as to fulfill his own dark and juvenile urges until Andy finally does it. That's when he understands that there's a line, and that he's pushed Andy across it, and there's no turning back now. There is no justice, no retribution, no resolution. Even Clowes teases the reader with a "choose-your-own-adventure" ending, with a couple of them winding up as typical genre resolutions and the third being in line with the rest of the book: Andy keeps living his life and occasionally "falls off the wagon" and kills some more people for ridiculous and selfish reasons. It's not surprising that Clowes' later comics (Mister Wonderful in particular) were far more in touch with humanity and connecting with others in a successful manner (despite many pitfalls); The Death-Ray represents Clowes at his darkest, most cynical and most grim, and I don't blame him for not wanting to return to that place anytime soon.


  1. Great insight, even if I think the relationship between Clowes' screewriting and The Death-Ray is a bit tenuous. However, I also think that Ice Haven is his clearest reaction to his movie experience and quite arguably his greatest work; it was a revelation when it came out.

    I'm afraid I'll have to play the pedant, though: Ice Haven was released originally as Eightball #22 (2nd-to-last issue), not #23. This is why I still can't help but want to refer to "Ice Haven" as Eightball 22, that's what it was known as for years before the reissue.

  2. Whoops...I knew that. I transposed a bit of text, alas, but I will fix it.

  3. Rob,

    Nice essay! When I interviewed Clowes in 2009 for the Conversations book we had an exchange that relates to this topic:

    KP: Since Eightball #1 many of your comics have referred to film: the movies and production company in Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, the movie in “Green Eyeliner,” and David and Dot’s films and David’s desire to be a filmmaker in David Boring. But since David Boring, which you wrote and drew while working on the Ghost World movie, it seems like there’s been almost a reversal; as you worked in Hollywood more, your comics mentioned films less, and even looked less filmic in many ways.

    DC: Yeah, I hadn’t actually thought of that. After I finished The Death Ray I was going to do a big graphic novel—a Hollywood story about Vida from Ice Haven. At the end of Ice Haven she’s being sent off to Hollywood, and so it was going to be about her adventures there. It was this epic thing that I spent about a year writing and figuring out, and when I finally sat down to draw it, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less. It just seemed like I was trying really hard to do “The Great Graphic Novel.” I had all this material, but it didn’t have that inspiration I was talking about earlier. It just seemed like, “I can follow through this schematic idea and it will be a big book.” But it didn’t feel like what I wanted to spend a couple of years working on. So I scrapped it. The experience left me not wanting to deal with movies at all, so that might have had something to do with it—I don’t know. Someday I will probably do a three-page story where all of that material will somehow be boiled down to the bare essentials.


  4. Thanks, Ken. Interesting that none of these ideas were at a surface level for Clowes (especially the reversal in Ice Haven), even though it seems obvious from a textual reading.