Super Zero

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Superheroes. You can't live with them and you can't live without them. They are inexorably tied to the history of American comic books. After the 1950s restrictions on comic's content, the popularity of superheroes kept the medium alive while simultaneously stigmatizing it as a children's entertainment. Beginning with the first generation of "underground" comix artists, most cartoonists interested in exploring the artistic possibilities of the medium have treated superheroes like a form of radiation — an invisible energy best left ignored lest you get seriously burned. Recently that prejudice has been eroding as more and more alty comix artists work on superhero projects for Marvel or DC. Now we have one of America's top comix artists, Dan Clowes, exploring the form and meaning of the concept with his very own superhero.

"Eightball" #23 (Fantagraphics Books; 40 pages; $7), continues Clowes' ever more remarkable maturation as an artist with the single-issue story, "The Death Ray." Two years ago, "Eightball" #22 gave us an Altman-esque fractured look at the strange residents of suburbia (see TIME.comix review). Like its predecessor, number 23 is divided into multiple vignettes, but this time it focuses exclusively on the life of one character. Clowes takes the traditional superhero motifs — extraordinary powers, special gadgets, the sidekick, and the origin story — but eliminates the "super" and the "hero." Instead we get Andy, AKA The Death Ray, a drip of a guy with a completely self-serving sense of morality who beats people up and zaps anything or anybody into non-existence. Through him, Clowes creates a darkly hilarious upending of the superhero myth of great powers inspiring great responsibility. In Clowes' world, such power would simply become an extension of the hopelessly flawed, dull and petty people we often are.

Bookended by a 40-ish Andy in the present day, the bulk of "The Death Ray" flashes back to the mid seventies when Andy attended high school and first found his powers. Like Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker, Andy's immediate family are all dead so he lives with an elderly relative, his grandpa, "Pappy." Unlike Peter Parker, though, he doesn't even have enough personality as a nerd to register with anyone except Louis, a whiny, hostile ego maniac ("Meeting me was the best thing that ever happened to you") with a shaggy, Prince Valiant-style 'do.

Things begin to change when, in a subversive twist on the spider bite, Andy discovers he gains superior strength after smoking cigarettes. "It was like my entire body got a giant boner," he says. Naturally he takes this newfound energy to the schoolyard where he pounds Stoob, a mullet-headed jock that Louis has inadvisably provoked. Would you really have done any different?

OUR HEROES: Louis and Andy in "Eightball" #23

Doffing an ill-fitting outfit not unlike the gawky, scrawny look of Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man, Andy, assisted by Louis, goes around looking for trouble. But unlike traditional superheroes who mete out righteous justice against inarguable criminals foisting their evil on the world, Andy lives in a more realistic world of pettiness and personal issues. So Andy and Louis are left to manufacture debatable opportunities for justice, like leaving a wallet on the street and waiting for someone to pick it up and try to keep the money. "What good is having a friend with super strength if you can't even find some bullies to beat up," moans Louis. Soon Andy also acquires an absurd-looking gun that completely atomizes anything he points it at. Finding his gun begins Andy's maturation, forcing him to make life or death decisions. In the cloudy world of Clowes, though, such choices are wholly of Andy's own making and highly debatable. Transcending the escapist fodder of its iconography, "The Death Ray" becomes a coming of age parable as well as hilariously cynical meditation on the soul of man.

Just as Clowes uses the dramatic cliches of superheroes to twist new meaning out of them, with "The Death Ray" he uses the genre's visual signifiers to achieve a post-modern effect. For example, panels of banal scenes such as Louis and Andy watching TV or shopping obscure the traditional two-page "splash" panel of the Death Ray socking a bad guy. But familiarity with the genre's motifs is not required to enjoy the book. With each new issue of "Eightball" Clowes gets more and more skilled at manipulating the formal elements of comix while keeping the narrative clear. Divided into short vignettes, many with a distinct coloring scheme or dramatic approach, the storytelling stays constantly fresh. Readers may not even notice some of the more radical elements like word balloons that get cut off by the panel borders. They'll be enjoying the playfulness of it too much.

Using old ideas to build new ones, exploring new frontiers of the narrative and formal possibilities of comix while keeping his work readable and entertaining, "Eightball" #23 continues Dan Clowes' ascendancy as one of America's top comix artists. Even if you hate superheroes, this one will come to your rescue.