This story is over 5 years old

Nick Gazin's Comic Book Love-In #32

What can I say about Dan Clowes that won't sound stupid? Nothing. I feel dumb just typing his name. Everything he makes is essential and worth owning.

by Nick Gazin
Sep 9 2011, 12:00am

Hello All,

I just spent the last five days in Atlanta for Dragoncon with some other VICE people. It was pretty good and way stranger than any of the other comic conventions I've been to. The Black Lips were with us for part of it and I got to meet Brent Spiner from Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it was pretty fun. When Brent asked me if I'd check out his website and I said yes he gave me this card:

Here's some comics news:

- Top Shelf is having a $3 sale, so check that out if you dig on Top Shelf's comical product.

- My favorite monthly feature on Comics Alliance is up. It's called "Funky Watch" and it documents the most depressing and fucked up things that happened in Tom Batluk's daily comic strip, Funky Winkerbean. The comic, which I remembered being a dull thing about teenagers, is now about people who all want to kill themselves. I look forward to this column each month. I find myself wondering how Tom Batiuk finds the willpower to keep making these comic strips about how boring, sad, ugly, and hopeless life is.

- This clip from an unreleased documentary called A Boy Named Charlie Brown has Schulz explaining why Charlie Brown suffers. God, I love to hear Sparky's voice.

- Over on the Moebius fan Tumblr page, redrawing renditions of his Starwatcher image has become a totally awesome trend that I want to take part in.

Well, enough hard hitting bullshit. Here's a review of Dan Clowes’ new hardcover rerelease of his classic comic, The Death-Ray.

The Death-Ray
Daniel Clowes
Drawn & Quarterly

What can I say about Dan Clowes that won't sound stupid? Nothing. I feel dumb just typing his name. Everything he makes is essential and worth owning. You should start with the comic book pamphlet run of Eightball, which rivals the original Mad comics for importance and quality. Then buy all the books collecting those comics. Then find the old issues of Cracked with his comics in them. Then get the albums he did art for, especially Las Vegas Grind, then go buy the skateboards with his art on them and the dolls based on his characters. Your collection will never be complete until you capture Dan Clowes himself. I advise you to build up to kidnapping and caging the greatest working American cartoonist, though. You can read The Death-Ray while you work out the schematics for the giant hamster cage and feeding tubes that you will need to build in your basement or garage.

The Death Ray was originally released in 2004 by Fantagraphics as a single over-sized issue of Dan Clowes' Eightball series. This is the second time that a single issue of Eightball has been repackaged as a hardcover book, given a few new additional pages of art to complete the design and then sold for more money than the original. People don't take comic books seriously when they're sold in pamphlet form and bound with staples. Context is everything and if a comic is marketed and packaged like a book people still have a tendency to think, “Oh, this is smart, like a book! Not like those awful comics!” Although it bums me out that comic booklets are going away, there's something undeniably pleasant about owning hardcover versions of Dan Clowes' work. Also, everyone should know his work, so if a stiff cardboard cover makes that happen then that's fine. You may get tired of a lot of your modern comics collection, but unless you become homeless or are burgled by nerds you will likely keep your Dan Clowes comics until your death. You might as well own durable, nice-looking copies.

If you already own the original printing, this comic might not be essential to you. It’s a reprinting with about eleven pages of new drawings that make up the front and back covers, end papers, indicia page, and a new title page with a beautiful double-page spread of the titilous Death Ray itself. If you don't own this comic then you should buy it, and you should buy this edition. Do it now.

The Death-Ray tells the story of young Andy, a skinny teenage boy with dead parents who is raised by his senile grandfather and kindly Christian maid. He writes letters to a girl he refers to as his girlfriend who used to live near him, and he has one real friend: a dominating loudmouth named Louie. Louie and Andy hang around and complain until one day Andy smokes a cigarette and discovers that smoking gives him super strength. He's not as strong as Superman, but he can pick up the rear end of a car and beat people up.

Soon he discovers that his father was a scientist who invented a death ray that looks like a cheap plastic toy that only Andy is able to use. It instantly makes anyone he shoots it with disappear with the sound of a pop. Louie convinces Andy to become a superhero, but there really aren't any villains for him to fight. Louie tries to goad Andy into fighting Stoob, a guy who doesn't seem all that bad, but they have built him into a total menace in their minds. Andy is kind of the bottom in this friendship. He is a lonely guy without guidance. The pair begin to mete out justice as they see fit. The story begins with Andy as a lonely, awful, middle-aged man, and then pulls a flashback to his childhood. It’s sad to see Andy as a lost little kid when you know how crappy his life is going to turn out.

When I initially read this comic I didn’t understanding what Andy's problem was. I didn't relate to him in the same ways I understood and liked the characters in Clowes's other comics like Enid Coleslaw, David Boring ,or the others. In some ways it seemed to relate to a comic Clowes had done about a deluded superhero named Black Stockings or something like that. I learned from the press release included with the book that Andy's actions were meant to be a metaphor for America's actions post 9/11, which made sense once it was explained to me, but never would have occurred to me naturally. Not getting that Andy was about America policing the world is one of those things that makes me feel stupid when I read Clowes' work, because I'm good at getting subtle implications most of the time and discussing symbols in storytelling. Clowes is always about nine steps ahead. It's why I've had trouble kidnapping him for my Dan Clowes collection.

Although I can't ambush and trap him, I was able to ask him a few questions about this book. I can't tell if he found them annoying or not, but I am pretty sure I wouldn't like to be asked the questions I tossed his way. Anyway, here's me asking dumb questions at a guy who might be a genius.

Here's a photo of Clowes with me during my sasquatch chic phase.

When the comic was first released I was put off by Andy. David Boring was a little cold, and I didn't feel like I always knew what he was thinking, but I liked him. I wasn't sure about Andy. Were you trying to challenge the reader more with this book?
I'm actually trying to entertain people, believe it or not.

This seems sort of like a transitional phase in your career, where you’re gradually shifting focus from lost and lonely teenagers to grumpy, seemingly sociopathic middle-aged men. This comic has both.
Drawing those few pages with the angry, middle-aged Andy definitely led to Wilson and Mr. Wonderful. My characters are never intended to be symbols, but at a certain point it became clear that America was no longer a brash, vulgar teenager, but edging much closer to an angry, fading, hopeless, delusional, middle-aged man.

This comic also includes some similarities to Ghost World. Two teenage friends grow apart over the course of the story, and the book starts with the same duo-tone soft blue spot coloring of Ghost World. Are both of these comics referencing a specific friendship you had? Or possibly several? Or maybe some romantic relationships?
I had many friendships when I was younger than either Andy or Enid in which I was sort of the innocent counterpart to a more charismatic, devious kid. And I was always having to grapple with my own questionable morality. The Eddie Haskell-Wally Cleaver dyad holds a lot of resonance for me.

What are the fireworks at the end of the book for? The characters all seem to be wearing coats, so it can't be the Fourth of July.
About the fireworks—it is supposed to be the 4th of July. I guess I'm just used to northern California where it's always cold after dark.

Do you see yourself as a bad person? Are you just interested in the ways that people justify their selfish actions and personality flaws to themselves?
I think it's hopelessly reductive to think in terms of good or bad in regard to human nature. Whenever I hear of someone doing something particularly strange or awful I like to try to imagine what it would take for me to do the same.

I first realized how big old Superboy comics were in informing your drawing style when I saw the splash page of Dusty singing into the garden hose. I noticed it most in the similarly creamy lines, and also the way you drew her feet. Which Silver-Age Superman artists do you like the best?
My favorite is Curt Swan as inked by George Klein. These seem to me to be the least stylistically-inflected comics of all time. It’s as though they're standardized pictographic transcriptions of reality.

I was put off by the main character of The Death-Ray when I first read it seven years ago. Has your opinion of the book changed at all with time?
My resolution at age 50 is to try to be proud of what I've done and not fixate so much on the mistakes and inadequacies. So I will say I like both the book and poor Andy.

Do you ever consider collecting and publishing your early work from Cracked or Psycho? Is this a tired question because you're more interested in making new things than archiving your early work?
Psycho will never be collected if I can help it.

The Cracked stuff will probably find its way into a book at some point, but unfortunately most of the originals were destroyed during the anthrax scare after 9/11. The Cracked archive was owned by the Globe, a tabloid in Florida. They were one of the targets of the guy who mailed envelopes of anthrax, so they burned everything in the building, including many Stosh Gillespie pages.

How much do you think about the reader and specific feelings you want to impart to them?
I'm absolutely trying at all times to transmit very specific emotions, but I can't expect more than a tiny handful of readers to pick up on them.

Did you really shave off the stash? If so, the world is a lesser place.

I did shave off the moustache and I cut my hair as well. A girl tricked me, but I don't regret the change. The handlebar moustache has turned into a trend popularized mostly by people I don't relate to and I no longer enjoyed being recognized. Thanks for reading these questions.
Thanks for writing them.

Go buy all of Dan's comics from Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, and Pantheon or you aren't a true appreciator of comics. Either that or you are poor.

Vice Blog