Eightball #23 is the story behind The Death-Ray, a nicotine-induced superhero with brutal strength and the sole command of a cartoon-ish pistol capable of vanishing its target instantly. Or rather, it is the story in front of Andy, a typical young social outsider living with his grandfather and given, through genetic alterations, a powerful alter-ego.
Upon discovering his uncanny ability, though, Andy is void of the start-up kit most heroes receive via U.S. Post or fate. He has no direction, no connections and a long-distance girlfriend who refuses to respond to his letters.
In a world where Batmen and Robins rise above the fold, where a Spider-Man can grab headlines as frequently as he can snag felons, where nepotism ensures Atlantean and Amazonian sons and daughters a place in the Justice League, surely, there are great heroes called to duty who don’t catch the bus on time or never have a bus in the first place.
So, Clowes unveils the tale of Andy, The Death-Ray. Unable to witness crimes to be fought, Andy and vicarious friend Louie attempt to lure no-goodniks out of hiding or to discover them through moralization. They sit around discussing who deserves justice, the antithesis of the Armageddon-on-a-sunny-day most superheroes find thrown into their laps. Needless, to say, The Death-Ray and Louie never take off as a dynamic duo.
Just as Andy and Louie live upon the context of comic book heroes, so do the X-Men or the Fantastic Four gain context from the failings of The Death-Ray. Being born or altered with a bizarre superhuman trait does not guarantee a tormented life of grandiose vigilance. It is the events that follow one’s incredible origin that matter most. It takes a rare twist of fate and directive for a hero to become super. In a realistic world that forges superheroes, characters like The Death Ray are probably the precedent rather than the exception.
Continuing the eclectic newspaper comics page approach of Eightball #22, Clowes is in exceptional form here. By altering his presentation through variously-titled vignettes, Clowes rapidly changes perspectives and tone without disorienting readers, who are already accustomed to reading these abrupt shifts from the daily funnies. With such precise control over the pacing of the story, Clowes captures the scope of a much longer graphic novel in 40 pages (plus cover). Which brings up what may be the most refreshing thing about Clowes’ recent work: he is not writing serialized graphic novels, he is writing comic books.
The work of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware stands at a curious juncture between the mainstream and alternative comics universes. While forcefully shattering the architecture of the superhero comic, each author has, in their most famous pieces, lovingly preserved the foundation from which to build upon. Although unmistakably underground in overall approach, Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring had prominent deconstructive riffs on escapism and glorification of the mythic superhero archetype. Similarly, Eightball #23 is filled with passion for its ancestry but explores territory that the traditional, serial form simply cannot.
If you are stuck within a comics realm where demigods are relied upon to save countless worlds from bitter destruction, consider Eightball #23 your escape, or at least a well-deserved vacation. It even speaks your language.