Cartoonist Dan Clowes is getting close to automatic: Another issue of Eightball, another story for the comics canon. Clowes' best-known work remains Ghost World, a serialized graphic novel about adolescent outsiders addicted to and poisoned by cynicism. But he equaled and even surpassed that work with Eightball #15's short story "Caricature" (a profoundly uncomfortable examination of how art mocks life) and Eightball #22's "Ice Haven" (a kaleidoscopic look at a stiflingly pleasant small town). Now, two years after "Ice Haven," Clowes hits a new peak with "The Death Ray," a meltdown of superhero mythology.
As with "Ice Haven," Clowes breaks up "The Death Ray" into one- or two-page chapters, drawing in a range of styles, from simple cartoons to naturalistic sketches to full-scale, dynamic action layouts. Unlike "Ice Haven," "The Death Ray" tells one continuous story. It's narrated by Andy, a tense, middle-aged loner who recalls his high-school years in the late '70s, when he was a scrawny outsider living with his grandfather. When his friend Louie pressures him to take up smoking, Andy acquires superhuman strength, due to a latent chemical reaction engineered by his late father—who also provided his son with a death ray, capable of disintegrating its targets without leaving a trace. With a keenly developed sense of justice and no supervillains to battle, Andy and his proto-slacker sidekick begin a covert terror campaign, directed at the jerks in their lives.
Clowes paces "The Death Ray" masterfully, letting Andy explain himself in a distant voice that makes his evolution from victim to thug a queasy one. But more disturbing is the introduction of the titular weapon. It seems justifiable for Andy to use his power to torment bullies, but once he starts deciding who deserves to live, the story calls into question the concept of leveraging power, even for a just cause. "The Death Ray" could be read as a critique of American foreign policy, or a kiss-off to superheroes, but it's also another of Clowes' keen dissections of teen ennui, with the details of a young man's first cigarette and his first punk-rock album serving as more than just coming-of-age signifiers. In the devastating final two pages, Clowes returns to Andy in the present day and sucks the air out of the piece, as fireworks pop and the hero explains that the petty grudges of young adulthood never fade, but resolve themselves into a system of values, guiding the way the world is run.