The Death Ray
written by Daniel Clowes
Andy’s a do-nothing kind of teen, orphaned and living with his grandfather in Chicago in the 1970s, and he’s not very interested in much of anything at all. He pals around with his best friend, Louie, and he pretends that he’s got a great relationship with his “girlfriend” (whom he rarely sees in person but sends letters to frequently). But when he smokes his first cigarette, he discovers he’s been engineered by his scientist father to develop some killer superpowers when exposed to nicotine.
The powers are killer indeed: He develops the titular Death Ray, which allows him to eliminate anyone without a trace, because of his bodily interaction with cigarettes. He can get away clean with wiping out anyone, which he knows is an awesome power—and responsibility. But what he does with that power is something else entirely.
Like much of Clowes’ work, The Death Ray speaks to (and about) the sluggishness and disaffectedness of Generation X. It harks back to a simpler time, and even the artwork is evocative of 1970s comics greats (although it is certainly all distinctively Clowes).
The Death Ray was originally published in Eightball #23 in 2004 and it’s been reprinted by Drawn & Quarterly in this handsome hardcover edition. The entire story is relatively short, but it’s certainly packed with gravitas. The plot is straightforward, but things get complex and complicated as Andy gets older. Dealing with that angst and seeming powerlessness is Clowes’ utmost strength, demonstrated in so many of his brilliant works, and well executed here as well.