By Jeet Heer
National Post (July 8, 2004)
All superheroes need psychiatric help. As a class, masked avengers tend to suffer from a combination of multiple personality disorder (all those secret identities) combined with an unhealthy propensity towards extra-judicial violence. The Hulk in particular has anger management issues while Spider-Man always seems to be on the verge of a neurotic nervous breakdown. In writing his case histories, Sigmund Freud liked to give his clients pseudonyms like “the Rat Man” and “the Wolf Man”. The great analyst would have been perfectly at home diagnosing the Batman, a psychopath who fixates on his childhood trauma of seeing his parent’s murdered as a way of endlessly renewing his bloodlust.
If the idea of caped crime fighters clocking in time on a therapist’s couch seems odd that is because we want the entertainment industry to act out our darker fantasies rather than subject them to rational inspection. Cartoonist Daniel Clowes, however, has always been willing to take a trek through the psychological woods. In the just-released issue of his irregularly published comic book Eightball, Clowes offers a long story titled “The Death Ray”, which treats the origins of a superhero with the same clinical detachment that Freud brought to his case histories.
Neither psychology nor superheroes are anything new to Clowes. Born in Chicago in 1961, Clowes grew up amid the fizzy, efflorescent pop culture of the sixties and seventies, the detritus of which still litters his work (the space age suburban dad George Jetson makes a cameo appearance in his latest story). The plastic-smooth art of Superman comics, where every flowing cape had a glazed perfection, made an especially strong imprint on his formative imagination. Yet when Clowes became a cartoonist in adulthood, he gravitated towards the smaller niche world of alterative comics, where he could give free rein to his wild and rebellious imagination.
Although he had earlier gained a cult following for his beatnik/detective novel parody Lloyd Llewellyn, Clowes really emerged as a major cartooning talent in 1989 with the first issue of Eightball, published by Fantagraphics Books. A catch-all title, Eightball allowed Clowes to display his protean artistic range. A man of many styles, Clowes could move from scabrously vicious polemics to unnerving nightmare visions to tender recollections of childhood. His work was by turns personal and surrealistic, amusingly cranky and furtively sad, filled with mockery of the grotesque present and fears of the apocalyptic future. For each different type of story he did, Clowes invented a new style, ranging from spot-on mimicry of commercial art to grotesquely detailed caricatures.
The merciless side of Clowes’s personality could be seen in a series of stories mocking the geeky world of superhero fans, personified by a character named Dan Pussey, a hapless loser who wastes his life obsessing over sub-literate trash. Yet the cruel humor of the Dan Pussey stories represent only one facet of Clowes work. A very different cartoonist is on display in his most famous storyline Ghost World (a graphic novel serialized in Eighball before it was made into a feature film in 2001).
Ghost World tells the story of two teenage girls, Enid and Rebecca, who have a friendship based on a shared alienation from their peers. After finishing high school, Enid and Rebecca drift through the curious limbo between adolescence and adulthood, a nether region where they still enjoy the high school game of defining themselves by ridiculing others. Growing up in a suburban wasteland where even rebellion is pointless since parents and teachers shower them with a shallow and indulgent tolerance, Enid and Rebecca cling to the pop culture icons of their childhood while dreading the onset of an adulthood that seems to promise only dead-end jobs.
The Pussey chronicles and Ghost World represent two poles of Clowes’s sensibility: the slash-and-burn comedian and the sensitive recorder of subtle emotional nuance. Yet in his new story “The Death Ray” Clowes does something remarkable by combining hitherto discrete aspects of his work. The story of two teenage boys who have a go at being superheroes, “The Death Ray” fuses the cultural criticism of the Pussey stories with the psychological realism of Ghost World.
Set mostly in the mid-1970s, “The Death Ray” centres on a recurring Clowes theme, the fellowship of adolescent outsiders. Andy and Louie are both ill at ease at their high school. The shy Andy is too quiet to make it on anybody’s radar screen while Louie’s belligerence offends even his own family. They get a chance to remake their social status when they discover that Andy has a little bit of superpower and a magical death ray, both legacies from his dead scientist father. (Whereas many superheroes owe their strength to radioactive substances, Andy’s powers are rooted in a more mundane toxin, tobacco).
At first, Andy is reluctant to use his newfound powers, but he is egged on by his cocky friend. As always, Clowes is very good at portraying the dangerous Bonnie-and-Clyde dynamic of friendships based on a quarrel with the world, where the twisted synergy of a duo pushes them to do things together that they would never dare alone. (In Clowes’s universe, everything comes in twos or threes. Two is the number of friendship, three of love triangles. The most recurrent relationships in Clowes’s comics are tight, almost, claustrophobic friendships and love triangles that erupt into violence and sometimes murder). Andy and Louie become a crime-fighting team, but their adventures are a tawdry of comic book glory. They are more likely to bushwhack a poor miscreant than to stop a genuine crime.
Much of the pleasure of “The Death Ray” is in reading the unfolding story and tracing the changing personalities of the main characters, so I’ll resist the temptation to say more about the plot. However, the theme of the tale is worth some comment. With only a slight dab of science-fiction improbability, Clowes has constructed a moving study of the adolescent angst behind the superhero mythos. He is particularly good in describing the mixture of self-pity and rigid righteousness that are at the heart of superhero comics.
For some of his earlier work, particularly the Pussey stories, Clowes was accused of being a hectoring and mean-spirited artist, coldly dismissive of superheroes while being unable to understand their appeal. In “The Death Ray” Clowes gives lie to this accusation. It is an all too accurate and deeply felt account of the dark psychology of heroic power fantasies.