Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
(originally printed in Eightball #25, 2004)
Andy, goes through more than the normal adolescent changes.
Louie, aggro sidekick to Andy’s passive hero
Being an orphaned inheritor of nicotine-activated superpowers and a Death-Ray doesn’t always lead to teams of mutant friends with whom to fight built-in villains. Sometimes it just leads to moral quandries.
If you set a superhero story in the world that Daniel Clowes’ characters populate, then you have to take out the “super” (unless you add “-awkward” onto the end of that), and put quotes around the “hero”. Andy’s world may have enough fantasy in it to allow him his transformation, but otherwise we’re in a realistic late ‘70s high school setting, getting a look at the life of adolescent boys, with all of the cursing that implies.
Andy is a quiet, unmuscled boy with a pugnacious friend, Louie. Louie’s the type of guy who, after besting a classmate in number of pull-ups completed, offers a handshake and a “no hard feelings”, and when the classmate doesn’t respond, develops a lifelong burning hatred towards the guy. Andy spends his days fantasizing about the woman who cleans the house he shares with his grandfather and typing letters to his girlfriend, Dusty, who he met when he lived in California, full of the stuff you write when you don’t know how the heck to write a letter to someone you care about: “I guess I don’t have a lot in common with most other kids. I don’t really like rock music or a lot TV shows. Louise listens to Punk rock with I hated at first until he explained it to me. …I love you so much. Why are we so far apart? I saw ‘Rocky’ finally, which was good like you said.” From what Clowes shows us, Dusty is pretty much unresponsive.
One day, Louie peer pressures Andy into taking a puff of a cigarette, and Andy’s life is changed forever. He can suddenly rip books in half (until the nicotine wears off) and beat up the guys that get on Louie’s nerves. And his dead father also left him the legacy of a gun that makes things disappear. The book follows Andy as he wrestles with what to make of such power, and how the only person in whom he confides reacts to the knowledge as well. Because once you know you can right wrongs permanently, it gets harder to figure out the scale of right and wrong.
For me, the hallmark of a Clowes story is that people talk a lot and they say things that are just this side of weird, but not so weird that you couldn’t imagine overhearing someone having the conversation in a coffee shop or diner. It’s like his books are populated with the best character actors around – more subtle than in Twin Peaks or a John Waters movie, but with the same underlying current of moroseness. I think the first time that I saw an excerpt of his work it was an exchange between two guys in a car and one was talking about how he had a valve in his stomach out of which he had to offload ketchup.
Putting the trope of superpowers into this world works really well. There are really funny teenage-boy moments, and really sweaty moments of existential dread, often marked by a change in the coloring or shading of the panels, as you can see here:
(There’s also sample pages up at Drawn and Quarterly!)
Clowes plays with the format of the book just like he plays with the concept of superpowers – many of his strips take the form of a full-color Sunday comic, but where the title panel would be there’s just a standalone portrait or scene – the word CIGARETTE? with Louie offering Andy his first smoke, and Andy saying “No, thanks”
Unlike most superhero comics, this follows Andy from adolescence to middle-age, and we see how he has wrestled with a power he can turn on and off – and how it has affected his personality. Because the power (if not the Death-Ray) is connected with smoking, he can treat it like an addiction. I’m harping on it probably a little too much here – the metaphor isn’t overused in the book. It’s a tall but slim book, and Clowes is a master of brevity and characterization. So I’m going to try to follow his lead and stop blathering on–if you like Clowes already, you’ll like this, and if you’ve never read him, this would be a good place to start.
Feig was one of the main writers and co-creator of Freaks and Geeks, and this is one of two books that he’s written detailing excruciating moments from his teenage years.
Disclosures & Digressions
I got this book from: the library, but I’d like to buy it.