Trouble with Comics
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Released in 2002, Daniel Clowes's Eightball #22, a masterful tapestry of suburban intrigue and desire, is widely regarded as the greatest single-issue comic ever. What does its author do for an encore? He makes a superhero comic.
Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration. Oh, sure, Eightball #23: The Death-Ray is an explicit response to the genre -- a critique, even -- but it properly belongs to another maligned type of genre fiction: the serial killer narrative. The superhero trappings throughout this pitch-black work provide an easy in for discussion, not to mention one of Clowes's trademark meta-references to the history and ephemera of the medium in which he is so alarmingly proficient, but in the end The Death-Ray is about superheroes in the same way that The Silence of the Lambs is about psychiatrists. The professional inspiration of the killer is interesting, but it's the fact, the existence, of unflinching, unreflective evil that's the point.
The Death-Ray's protagonist is Andy, to whom we are introduced when he's a twice-divorced middle-aged dog owner, but whom we mostly follow during his years in high school. (In fact, we're not even sure we're following the same guy, at least initially; I had to go back and reread the opening high-school sequence ("The Origin of Andy") before I realized that the brown-haired, skinny kid in it was, in fact, not a girl.) Andy is a quiet, nondescript kid of no discernible social strata in his school, whose only friend is bespectacled, somewhat arrogant crypto-Nietzschean student named Louie. Raised by his aging and ailing grandfather following the deaths of his father, mother, and grandmother, Andy discovers upon smoking a cigarette (one he initially thought must have been laced with PCP) that he gains superhuman strength with the introduction of nicotine into his bloodstream. A letter addressed to him from his late scientist father explains that this incredible power is the result of an experimental hormone with which he treated Andy during the boy's childhood. The letter also reveals the existence of another experimental weapon: A yellow gun resembling a science-fiction blowdryer, that fires something referred to by Andy's dad as a death-ray. We soon learn that when Andy (and only Andy) pulls the death-ray's trigger, whatever he aims it at is erased from the face of the Earth. With the advice and encouragement of Louie (who, following a trip to New York City, has become enraptured with the exhibitionistically angry punk movement), Andy sets about finding a way to use his newfound powers for good, in pursuit of the "something big" for which he feels his tragedy-laden life has destined him.
And oh, geez, where to go from there. Eightball #23, like its predecessor #22 (Ice Haven), is a staggeringly rich and dense work. Like #22, #23 is divided into numerous subsections of varying artistic styles, each with its own old-fashioned sub-title. Unlike #22, though, #23's subsections would be difficult to understand if read on their own; the individual titles are less a mechanism of the paradigmatic writing method involved in the previous issue (in which individual vignettes about various characters cohered to tell an overall story, a la the films of Robert Altman) and more a convenient method of simultaneously transitioning from one scene to another, setting up and/or commenting on the scene at hand, and tying the entire work back to the superhero and melodrama genres with which Clowes is constructing his new work.
Primarily drawn in a slightly looser, sketchier style than is customary for Clowes, the art of The Death-Ray conveys a sense of terrible urgency, as though this was a story Clowes felt he had to tell as soon as possible. (This despite the two-year gap between issues -- it sure doesn't feel like it's been that long.) Switches between one style and another are not done with the rigorous regularity of #22; there's less of a sense of aiming for something different with this section and more of "this is just the most efficient way for me to keep the story going at this clip."
The primacy of the need to get this story out is reinforced within the narrative itself by the way Clowes has Andy, the bookís narrator and in almost every scene its focal character, tell us the story. Rather than using traditional thought balloons or thought caption boxes, Andy's thoughts and narration are contained in actual word balloons. There is a slight difference between the balloons that contain narration/interior monologue and the balloons that contain actual dialogue -- the former are slightly rectangular, the latter have the usual rounded shape, but the overall effect is that wherever Andy goes, whatever Andy does, his personal view of the world is not just inescapable but dominant. It's a brilliantly evocative technique, familiar to any reader who's ever gone through the motions of interaction with others yet spent the whole time in his or her own head. (As Andy puts it -- not of his way of thinking but of his use of his superpowers -- "somebody has to impose some kind of structure on the world, I guess. Otherwise everything would just fall apart, wouldn't it?")
Andy, then, is very much the star of his own movie. That is also one of the themes of the book: The degree to which pop culture molds individuals' expectations of themselves. Andy's adoption (largely at Louie's behest) of a superhero's costume and vigilante techniques make next to no sense given Andy's actual life experience, even given its wealth of tragedy and the incredible introduction of superpowers into it; after all, Andy surmises that his father simply intended for his son to become as strong as the more athletic kids in his grade and "turn myself into the most popular kid in school." It's the boys' exposure to funnybooks (and, one assumes, the Batman TV show) that convinces them to use Andy's super-strength and death-ray to fight crime, such as it is. The sub-titles that Clowes assigns various sections of the book, "ON PATROL, THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE DEATH-RAY," "THE LAST STRAW," further drive home the artificially constructed nature of Andy's self-perception. Moreover, the occasional sequence depicts Andy and Louie swinging along city rooftops and battling crooks in the traditional superhero manner, even as they themselves continue discussing the far more quotidian battles in which they're engaged. (The occasional "Right again, old chum!" is thrown in, but only to demonstrate the depths of the budding psychosis; we know that this was not spoken aloud, but it's no less an accurate depiction of Andy's mindset for that.)
And it's not just mass, mainstream culture that's to blame, by the way. Louie's cookie-cutter punk outlook is as much a catalyst in the terrible events that follow as is the boys' familiarity with superhero tropes, since it gives Louie's preexisting contempt for nearly everybody a cultural framework in which to thrive. Punk does little more for Louie than providing him an avenue to get laid, making him a bigger asshole than he already was, and giving him an excuse to pick fights -- which he then cites as proof that other people are assholes who deserve what they get.
Indeed, the real problem besetting Andy and his supposed sidekick is the arbitrariness of their actions in combating crime and bad people. Simply put, the disconnect between the crimes committed and the punishment Andy and Louie dish out is so great that the act of punishment itself becomes meaningless. Andy and Louie use a discarded wallet as bait, then bully the impoverished man who picks it up, committing a "crime" that couldn't even have occurred without the boys' intervention. Andy roughs up a couple of burglars who he spies running off with an old man's TV set, but even before he catches up with and knocks the snot out of them, theyíve dropped the TV, destroying it; it's clear from the old man's expression that he can't afford to buy another. (It's this vignette that most directly challenges the efficacy of the methods depicted in traditional superhero comics. Roughing up a crook is well and good, but it doesn't bring anyone's TV back.) A girl Louie has the hots for gets smacked around by her father; Louie and Andy beat the man, but do so as he's walking the girl's beloved dog, who runs away, thus making her life even more miserable. Louie constantly tries to persuade Andy to have at a high-school meathead named Stoob with whom Louie has a long-standing and incredibly stupid grudge; it gets to the point where Louie lies on the sidewalk motionless in front of Stoob in hopes that the kid will kick him, in order to "prove" that Stoob deserves to die. In a sequence that quietly hits home for the grown-up Andy, a bartender is rude to a man whoís drinking because his grandmother died that day; Andy subsequently beats the oblivious barkeep to a bloody pulp. The beginning of the end for Andy and Louie occurs when Louie's resentment toward his sister Teresa's drug-dealing boyfriend leads the boys to indulge Teresa's ex's semi-veiled request to take the man out permanently. As Louie, abuzz with newfound moral qualms, puts it to Andy after the event, "You know, C.J. was an asshole, but he didnít deserve to die. You didn't even know the guy." This from the kid who came up with the whole idea in the first place, as Andy immediately points out to himself. Louie may have had enough, but by now Andy is too far gone, too attached to the notion that he finally has the ability to "impose structure on the world," to stop.
So at last we come to the heart of Eightball #23's darkness: We're witnessing the birth of a serial killer. Murder has never been far from the surface of Clowes's work -- with the exception of Ghost World, all his major works have contained violence or the threat of violence -- but this is his most thorough (and not coincidentally his bleakest) examination of the subject to date.
The day before I bought this comic, I used my employee discount to pick up Michael Newton's The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. In it, Newton quotes a jailhouse monologue from prolific serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas:
It's a damn shame about people, it really is. We are surely the ugliest creatures in all of nature. Look at you: What have you ever done? What gives you the confidence to sit there with a smirk on your face like you're better than me? You think anybody cares about you? Guess what -- they don't. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the rest of us are wise to your scam. You should have been an abortion or sold into slavery. Who gave you the right to take up space in my world? I've never done anything to anyone they didn't deserve. My justice is nothing if not merciful. Does that mean I'm soft? Hell no. You think I'm afraid to erase you from the landscape? Look, I know what you're thinking. Hell, maybe you're right. It's a lot of responsibility, but I'm not one to complain. I've got a job to do like everyone else. Who am I? Your worst nightmare.Chilling, horrifying -- and fictional. That wasn't Lucas at all, but our hero Andy, toward the end of the book, in one of the strongest sequences Clowes has yet created. Throughout this grotesque monologue the present-day, middle-aged Andy's "mask of sanity" remains intact: He returns from the grocery store, puts away his food, strolls over to his closet, reaches inside, walks up to his apartment building's roof, surveys the green below him, eats his TV dinner. It's only just now, after several readings of the book, that I'm realizing that the thing he reaches into his closet to grab is the death-ray, that his talk about "eras[ing] you from the landscape" is no idle chatter, that the bell-shaped silhouette in the eighth panel of this sequence is not the doorknob to Andy's apartment but the muzzle of the death-ray as outlined against the evening sky, and that the man sitting on a park bench below Andy (the appearance of whom made me nervous, in a Charles Whitman-referencing sort of way, but little more) has just become his next victim. The insipid banality of the Rambo quote that ends the passage merely heightens the horror: Andy has no real insight into why he does what he does beyond the cheesy vigilante morality of Hollywood.
And this momentous act is not the only one that happens in a caesura. At the end of the book we see a partial line-up of Andy's victims, answering the section's sub-title's question, "Why did Andy destroy you?" We learn that the two divorces Andy has spoken of having were caused by men with whom Andy's wives cheated, men who Andy then murdered. We learn that a brief conversation between the teenaged Andy and his housekeeper, in which the housekeeper implied that her daughter had been taking drugs, led to the execution of a man whose crime was nothing more than selling the daughter some weed. In the same way that the disturbing crime at the heart of Eightball #22, as well as its resolution, took place between the panels, so too do many of the killings in #23. It's as though, to our central character, they're hardly worth mentioning -- the events he does choose to depict are assumed to be explanation enough. Given the circumstances, Andy seems to suggest, any one of you would have done the same.
As with nearly all serial killers, sex is a key component of the killings, although not as obviously as with some. Most serial murderers hunt within the gender to which they are sexually attracted. This is not the case with Andy, as near as we can tell -- he maintains an idealized long-distance relationship with his "girlfriend," Dusty ("I hadn't stopped loving her, and still haven't to this day, come to think of it," he says 24 years later, though once again this is likely just an attempt to assign meaning to a life where none has truly existed). But he displays true, romantic feelings (which it nonetheless appears he is trying to hide from the reader; he never describes them to us, and the one time he does address them directly in the context of a dream about having sex with her, he talks to her ("you") directly) toward his African-American housekeeper. Clowes clearly wants us to see this attachment as an integral part of what makes Andy into what he becomes. The key sequence in which Andy discovers the truth about his superhuman inheritance from his father, "THE ORIGIN OF THE DEATH-RAY," begins with two panels of disembodied sexual dialogue ("Fuck me, Andy!" "Yeah, baby -- that's it!"), and eventually includes yet another ("Oh Andy, you fuck me so good!"). It's not until two-panel daydream sequence pages later that we learn the idenity of speaker -- Dinah, the housekeeper who keeps the place from falling apart as Andy's Pappy becomes more infirm. Andy eventually makes his feelings for Dinah clear to her by attempting a kiss -- by the very next panel, she's gone, and the placement of this sequence just before the most traumatic one in the book implies a causal relationship between Andy's actions in the former and his actions in the latter.
Similar goals influence Louie's behavior. Right after a scene in which he and Andy discuss their lack of superheroic motivation ("Look at the Hulk -- his wife died, or something"), Louie spots the girl on the basis of his crush on whom he and Andy would later assault her father. It's Louie's later discovery of a pretty punkette that leads to the moral conversion that catastrophically unravels his relationship with Andy. (Yes, the "one friend in the world" the grown-up Andy refers to is not Louie, to our surprise.) Moreover, nearly all of the victims of Andy we know of have some sexual connection to him, whether they're the men who "fucked his wives" or the dealer who sold grass to his beloved housekeeper's daughter. And finally, of course, there's the unspoken sexual dimension of Andy and Louie's relationship itself. Paired killers are not at all uncommon, from the Hillside Stranglers to Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, and often the killings serve to consummate the sexual tension that the killers themselves aren't (or, sometimes, are) willing to consummate themselves. It's no coincidence that, just before Andy and Louieís traumatic "break-up," Louie seems to have found an actual girlfriend and Andy has finally acted on his love for Dinah. The two don't need each other anymore. (It's also no coincidence that of the two scenes we see without the interceding viewpoint of Andy, one is of a weepy Sonny, Louie's sister's lovelorn ex-boyfriend and the man whose desire to win her back sets the ultimate breakdown between Andy and Louie in motion, and the other is the conversation between Louie and his girlfriend in which Louie expresses his remorse and his intention "to do the right thing." In the world of serial murder, love and death are inseparable.)
Of course, Clowes's usual dark insights into the human condition are omnipresent. Whether it's Pappy's cri de coeur ("Oh God, why can't I remember things?") and his inability to recall that his wife Sarah has died ("Dear S" reads his unfinished letter to her); Andy's "girlfriend" Dusty's tragicomic pose with a garden hose, using it as a microphone, lipsyncing to the radio with braces on her teeth; carrot-topped Stoob's sensitive acoustic-guitar wooing of a pretty girl; Louie's pre-NYC assessment of punk music ("You like this?" "I dunno -- I think so. It makes me want to kill somebody."); the fact that the mechanism Andy's dad chose to activate his latent superpowers will likely give him lung cancer -- You've got to laugh to keep from crying. It all culminates in Andy's closing address to the reader, delivered on what we assume is the Fourth of July after a run-in with a grown-up Stoob (you can insert the de rigeur "It's about Iraq!!!" reading here, if you absolutely must):
He couldn't fool me. Underneath it all, he was still the same guy. Nobody ever changes.Of course, we don't. But in the same way that Andy's thoughts superimpose themselves against the events of his life, it's Andy's view of The Way Things Are, not ours that has the final say. Andy's among us, and we're his one friend in the world. Maybe he is our worst nightmare, after all.
That's not to say that everybody's an asshole. I know better than that. Hell, you're probably a decent person yourself. There are plenty of you out there.
For you, Mr. and Mrs. Decent Citizen, I'll do anything. Just say the word.
You've got a friend in old Andy.
-- Sean Collins
Sean Collins blogs regularly at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat.
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