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Q&A: Daniel Clowes

First published in 2004, Daniel Clowes' The Death-Ray tells the story of a teenager who acquires superhuman powers (and the killer ray gun of the title) after inhaling his first cigarette. Here, we asked the author some probing questions about the book.

It's been seven years since the Death-Ray story first came out in Eightball. What made you decide to publish it as a hardcover book now?

Soon after it came out as an issue of Eightball, I realized I had made a really dumb mistake by not just releasing it as a book. As a comic it was only available to those brave and/or foolish souls who shop in comic stores, but at the time I was still having trouble "letting go" of the old magazine-and-staple format. I have now achieved clarity.

How did you come up with the idea for The Death-Ray originally? Knowing that it came out in 2004 (at a time when the world was full of uncertainty) seems to inform the understanding of the story.

I was talking with another cartoonist and we agreed that the stupidest kind of comic to attempt would be an earnest, non-ironic superhero comic. I was arguing that the only good superhero comics are those with some sense of their own absurdity—the early Marvel comics, Plastic Man, fifties Superman. But then, for weeks after, I kept thinking about a story I had come up with in high school about a skinny teenager with superpowers and a disintegrator ray and how deeply personal and psychologically relevant it had been in retrospect, and the next thing I knew I was digging out my old Steve Ditko Spider-Man comics for inspiration.

Andy gets his superpowers after smoking his first cigarette. How symbolic was that of how the Death-Ray saga would unfold?

Smoking felt like the perfect trigger for that sort of adolescent power fantasy. It's exactly the same kind of thing, a childish version of adult power that becomes a destructive, enduring habit.

How do you feel about how the book works in 2011? If you were to update the opening sequence with "2011" instead of "2004," would you change anything?

I think it actually works better, in some ways. The Andys of the world were hanging in there back in 2004, before the economy imploded, but in 2011 our man would only be that much more frustrated, desperate, and resentful.

The protagonists in your work often seem to be fallible people who still very much have a clear sense of morality and how the world should be. Would you agree, and if so, what about that kind of person resonates with you as an author?

I'd say that someone who draws comics for a living is very likely a guy (or gal) who's in search of some form of control over something. I draw comics, it often seems, to relieve my anxiety over living in a world that seems dangerously chaotic and random, so it would only make sense that the characters that seem the most interesting to me are those with the same sort of issues. Having the power to erase human beings from your comics (or perhaps to cover them with Wite-Out) is not so dissimilar to wiping them out with a ray gun in many ways.

—Interview by Jason Chen

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