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Eightball #23
By Daniel G. Clowes
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $7.00

This really is a good time for comics, and yet, there really are so few genuine masterpieces each year that we critics fall all over ourselves to praise them when they arrive. Eightball #23, like #22 last year, isnít much longer than your average comic book, but surpasses pretty much all of them with its storytelling, ambition and indisputable depth. There I go, falling over myself to praise it, huh?

It was a little disturbing to read otherwise bright people fretting online that this issue, "The Death-Ray," which features a Ditkoesque costumed hero on the cover, would be "yet another superhero spoof," which showed an unmerited lack of faith in Clowesí surpassing skills as a writer and artist, and it also exhibited a lack of faith in superhero comics themselves as being complex enough to perhaps be worth as many spoofs, skewerings, parodies and pastiches as there are real, serious superhero comics. True, Clowes has always displayed a caustic wit in his comics, and hadnít shown any love for the (sub)genre of superheroes in his twenty years in comics, but one would think he deserved the benefit of any doubt that if he was going to delve into superheroes, it would be because he had a unique story to tell involving them.

As it turns out, those worries are irrelevant, anyway, because this isnít really a superhero story. Yes, it involves a young man who gains super strength and acquires a gun able to vaporize living creatures, and yes, in his own way, he feels heís doing good for the world. But looking at the story as a commentary on the "fascism" of superheroes is too limiting, as is the minority theory recently put forth that this could also be a parable of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. The latter is a fun idea, supported by Andyís desire to do something with his powers, whether he knows whatís right or wrong. Another fun theory is that Andy never even had a death ray -- that itís all in his head, to justify his murders -- but really, the theme of "The Death-Ray" is much more classic and enduring than superheroes and current events: Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. If one has to pigeonhole the story into a genre, itís more rightly psychological horror, as the transformation of Andy from cultureless, adrift outsider to self-appointed avenger and executioner is chilling. Super-strength is thrilling, giving him a feeling akin to a "boner" over his whole body, but Andy really comes into his own when he discovers the death-ray. Thatís the ticket, a perfect weapon for one so detached. One squeeze and they donít exist anymore. And once youíve got one, you have to use it, right? Again and again.

Clowes builds this deluded monster with small, smartly conceived details, such as the empty, patriotic, unhip marches he likes to listen to, or his conveniently out-of-state "girlfriend" who obviously cares nothing for him, or his confused lust for the African-American nurse to his ailing grandfather. Sheís a constant presence in his life, a maternal figure, and someone with real problems a hero like him could solve. Of course he falls for her, the poor bastard.

While the book focuses on Andy, Louie is nearly as well-realized, a fellow geek who seizes on Andyís powers as a way for him to gain revenge. He manipulates Andy, telling him heís keeping him "honest," and if Louie had stayed this same type of user he would be a fine character. But Clowes gives him a conscience, and it leads to the unsettling final act, as Louie recognizes the monster Andy is becoming, and tries to set things right. He knows if he doesnít, no one in the world is truly safe. And though itís one of the few unsubtle elements in the book, itís a delicious idea that Andyís powers were activated by nicotine. Naturally, no good could come of something so unhealthy. And if one thinks about it further, Andy is a bit like a cigarette, isnít he? The bland killer one could find almost anywhere, so common as to be almost invisible.

Perhaps unwittingly, Clowes has created the perfect comic for the average superhero fan, though so perfect most of them would run screaming from it. For doesnít the superhero fan feel maligned for his interests, feel set apart from much of the world? Donít we all wonder at times what it would be like to have ultimate power? Would we uphold values or take control? Bring peace or get laid, or wipe out that fucker who made high school such a rich hell? Clowes lets the friends engage in some of this fantasizing but otherwise show how awkward the two remain, how unsuited to the traditional image of heroism.

As good as Clowes has been for years, from Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron to Ghost World to David Boring and Caricature, he takes another leap in artistic growth here. Not so much the drawing itself, which is actually less impressive in some areas, clearly the result of trying to imitate crappy and/or innocuous comic strips of the past, this borne out by ironic letters and titles. Some panels, such as the very detailed shots of Andy and Louie recounting the first use of the death-ray, are as good as ever, as is Clowesí masterful use of color, frequently going from cool to warm and vivid as Andy starts to lose his cool.

But it is the artistic growth of the writing that is most stunning, as Clowes seemingly turns his venom upon himself. Past stories have shown him to have a sneering, contemptuous side, and an obsession with the past and its fond memories and better-quality goods, and in this character he seems to have examined one direction such a person might have gone. If Clowes had the power to eliminate the objects of his scorn, would he? Clowesí characters have often represented some aspect of himself, but even with this, his most monstrous character, there is a new understanding, if not quite compassion. Itís perhaps his most mature work yet, certainly the most disturbing, and the way he achieves such splendid results in such a compact form is a gauntlet thrown down for all other cartoonists of any ambition.

-- Chris Allen



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