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In ‘The Death-Ray,’ Clowes Takes on the Powers of a Teenage Superhero

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You may not yet recognize artist, writer and cartoonist Daniel Clowes by name, but there’s a growing chance that you’ve been exposed to his work.

Clowes is among the most well-known of a group of cartoonists whose original work in alternative comics from the ’80s and ’90s has increasingly captured attention and critical acclaim in the mainstream media and entertainment world. His work — told frequently in serialized comics form and published sometimes as graphic novels (though he’s no fan of that term) — often looks at the darker elements of American society, featuring characters who are loners or don’t quite fit in and who occasionally share some autobiographical shadings from his own life.

His most famous story, originally published in the comic serial “Eightball,’ is “Ghost World,” the tale of two cyncial teenage girls in the ’90s dealing with post-adolescent issues, their own relationship and American culture. He wrote the Academy Award-nominated adaption of his story for a 2001 movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Thora Birch. Along with filmmaker Terry Zwigoff, he also adapted another one of his “Eightball” stories into the 2006 film “Art School Confidential.”

His latest work to be published and packaged into a hardcover form is “The Death-Ray,” which has been just been released by Drawn and Quarterly. Among other themes, he takes a very different take on the superhero genre.

Art Beat talked with Clowes about “The Death-Ray” and his art:

A transcript is after the jump.

ART BEAT: Daniel Clowes, thanks for joining us on Art Beat.

DANIEL CLOWES: Well, thanks for having me.

ART BEAT: Let’s start by talking about “The Death-Ray,” your new work, or at least newly published work. For an audience that might be unfamiliar with it, can you give us a little sense of what “The Death-Ray” is about?

DANIEL CLOWES: Well “The Death-Ray” is a superhero comic, but it doesn’t follow the same approach that most superhero comics follow. I’m really much more interested in kind of exploring why as a teenager I was sort of interested in the kind of power fantasies behind being a superhero, and I’m kind of exploring what would happen if someone like myself at age 16 were to be given this kind of ultimate power and what kind of awful things would I have done.

ART BEAT: And we should say he gets his power from smoking.

DANIEL CLOWES: Yes, I thought was sort of the perfect trigger for something like this. The thought of wanting to have super powers is such an adolescent impulse, and I thought smoking was the kind of perfect thing that adolescents think of as signaling that you are an adult, so I thought that was the accurate trigger for his powers.

ART BEAT: You’ve talked about this that are some parallels, not exact, but there are some parallels between the main character in “The Death-Ray” and what you were dealing with as a teen, too, back at the time.

DANIEL CLOWES: Well, he certainly has the same wardrobe and hairstyle that I did and I imagine the story taking place in Chicago, where I went to high school back in the ’70s. It was something I created in a way back when I was that age, 16 or 17. I used to try to write my own comics, but I never actually got around to drawing, and that was one that I spent a long time conceiving and coming up with this long complicated outline and never actually drawing. But it had a great emotional impact on me at the time. It’s the kind of emotion that you only have as a teenager where you feel so strongly about something. I remember thinking about this story about a kid who had this ray gun that could obliterate anyone he wanted to, and when I started doing this story in my 40s I was trying to recapture that feeling of being 16 and thinking about this story and actually kind of taking it seriously. Except now I’m looking back on it and seeing it from a distance and seeing all the unhealthy impulses at play.

ART BEAT: Now, as you said, there are quite a few critical references to the superhero genre in this book, and you’ve said many times that you are not a fan of this genre. What is it that gets under skin about it?

DANIEL CLOWES: You know, there are certain personal things of just being in the comic book business that’s so over-dominated by superheroes, you get frustrated by talking to people who aren’t really up on what’s going on in comics, and they just assume that all comics are about superheroes. And there is this sort of default idea that that’s the only thing that can be done well in the comics form, so of course I bristle against that a little bit. I don’t have anything against the genre of superhero comics. I think it’s a very dicey thing to try to do, a non-ironic superhero, I think. It’s a ridiculous concept that the most successful superhero comics over the course of comic history are those that are done with a sense of the absurdity of it, like the early Marvel comics, or Plastic Man, or things like that. So to undertake a story like this is really almost the exact opposite of anything I’d ever recommend anybody try to do. I really took it as a challenge.

ART BEAT: And this was all originally published back in 2004, I believe. At the time it was published it was also something of a commentary on America in the post-9/11 era, the war in Iraq. Can you talk about your thoughts at the time and how you tried to weave that into the story?

DANIEL CLOWES: You know, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious thing or even anything I noticed until I was well into the story. As I was conceiving the story I was certainly listening to NPR, listening to the NewsHour every day and sort of getting the sense of dread of this inevitable build up to this war that didn’t seem like a good idea to anybody I knew and feeling this sense of what American exceptionalism really felt like. We were acting as entitled bullies in this world arena, and I think that really informed the idea of this sort of adolescent minded character getting all this power. Earlier I had done a book called “Ghost World” about these two teenage girls, and at the time it really felt like they were almost stand-ins in for America, these kind of brash girls that kind of just did their own thing and forged ahead without thinking of what anybody else thought of them. And then as I was working on this story, America seemed to be much more like this kind of middle-aged guy who was perhaps past his prime and frustrated and angry with the way things were turning out.

ART BEAT: Did you ever think you’d find this kind of success and is it the kind of success where there has been a quite bit of a monetary reward or is it still financially tougher for even an artist of your talent and success than we might think at this point?

DANIEL CLOWES: I have no complaints. I get to do what I want every day, and I don’t have to think about anything that anybody else wants me to do, and I can sort of pick and choose my projects. So I’m perfectly happy with the way all that turned out, but it’s always a struggle being an artist. There is no retirement plan, or insurance or any of that stuff, and you have to sort of live by your wits year after year and kind of figure out what you’re doing. And I’m in a very fortunate position, but I know a lot of artists who are not so lucky and it’s worrisome how difficult it can be.

ART BEAT: Daniel Clowes, thanks for joining us. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, and much success on “The Death-Ray” and all your future work.

DANIEL CLOWES: Well, thanks so much for having me.

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