Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ben's Indy Odyssey: Eightball #23: The Death Ray

Rickey lent me this several months ago at the end of a party when he was very drunk and it was very late and it has been sitting by my bed ever since; as a result, I had the kinda neat experience of going into the reading experience not remembering for the life of me why I wanted to borrow this or why he wanted me to read it. When I saw it was by Daniel Clowes, a dude whose stuff I've never read but heard plenty about, I got extra excited that I decided to clean a bit of my room for no particular reason today.

At the start, "The Death Ray" seemed to fit in perfectly with the whole "coming of age" theme I've already covered this week in other posts, which both struck me as serendipitous and also a bit daunting seeing as how said theme is starting to wear on me after several days of thinking about it intensely. But the first part of "Death Ray" struck a nice balance between slice of life and edging on strange, in the process both holding my attention and making me feel the right kind of uneasy. I found the main characters relatable enough that when more or less out of nowhere (especially for a guy who didn't know what he was reading) the sci fi/psuedo-super hero elements kick in, it's a shock to the system that threw me but that I also cared about. In not that many pages, Clowes had got me invested in these kids, so no matter how bizarro the next act was, I was in for a pound.

That said, I definitely drifted a bit as the book went, and I suspect a lot of that is personal taste/mood/whatever. Everything is pretty well-constructed, but I did feel like the pacing of the book's first half was near-perfect in its diligence while about midway through things starting spiraling a bit too quickly for me to reconcile. This is where lack of mental preparation hurt me a bit, as reading it all in one sitting and not having the slightest concept of what I was getting into led to me getting uneasy when my car veered off the rails maybe earlier than I was ready for it too. I feel weird saying the story would have been better served if it was either gonzo from the get-go or more deliberate in the homestretch because this is one of those times where my gut tells me that my personal reading is not necessarily reflective of the way things "should have been done."

Part of my faith that I didn't get all I was supposed to out of this initial reading and would dig more into the evolution of the story if I tried again comes from how much I dug so many of the flourishes Clowes uses. In even my meager indy reading experiences I've encountered plenty of experimental framing techniques that, in my opinion, fall flat on their face, but Clowes is genius in chopping his story up into sub-sections that are distinct both in terms of content and design and not losing you in the process. I love his clean drawing process, the way he makes simplicity looks pretty and even small things like how he uses borders and panel layout to mix things up.

I enjoyed "The Death Ray," but I think I respect it as a work more. This is definitely one of those cases where as a "reviewer" (I gotta put that in quotes because I certainly don't take myself too seriously in that regard) I recognize my own failings as far as letting my mood dictate my reading. I've been in a bt of a funk this week, so it's hard to fully appreciate a story that has a lot of downer elements in it, regardless of how brilliantly portrayed they are. I do think it speaks to the strength of the work, however, that even funky Ben didn't put this down and say "another day," because I wanted to see what happened next. There really is some smart stuff said in the course of this narrative about human nature, growing up and power that I haven't fully absorbed yet but look forward to processing in the days to come.

Don't take my word for it, buy this book for yourself


Curt Purcell said...

I've checked out ICE HAVEN and DEATH RAY, and liked them well enough, I guess, but I really don't get why people rave about them, or about Clowes if these truly represent some of his best work.

Ben Morse said...

I'm gonna have to read more of his stuff before I speak to that. From Death Ray I could see myself really digging his work because there was a lot I appreciated, but I think I need to be blown away by something. I'm excited to explore further for sure.