By Susan Tomaselli
“Are comics a valid form of expression? The jury’s still out, I’m afraid. There exists for some an uncomfortable impurity in the combination of two forms of picture-writing (i.e. pictographic cartoon symbols vs the letter shapes that form ‘words’) while to to others it’s not that big a deal.
Alleged awkwardness aside, perhaps in that schism lies the underpinning of what gives “comics” its endurance as a vital form: while prose tends towards pure ‘interiority’, coming to life in the reader’s mind, and cinema gravitates toward the ‘exteriority’ of experiential spectacle, perhaps ‘comics’ in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicate the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality’.”
This is self-appointed comic book critic, Harry Naybors, a pale, bespectacled, breakfast cereal-muncher who talks too much about comics. It is through Naybors that Daniel Clowes gets his own digs in before the critics have a chance to utter ‘comics are for kids’ in Ice Haven, his new multi-layered narrative set in the eponymous Midwestern town.
Clowes brought us David Boring and Ghostworld, and this ‘comic-strip novel’ was originally conceived as part of the Eightball comic series and features more of the same deranged characters and outcasts. Random Wilder, would-be poet laureate, and his rival Ida Wentz; insecure teenager-in-love Violet Vanderplatz and would-be writer Vida Wentz, our narrator who hero-worships Wilder; depressed stationery clerk Julie Patheticstein; Mr Ames, private investigator who provides a noir voice-over to his own work; kids Charles and Carmichael; and poor David Goldberg, a quiet kid who has been missing for more than a week. The story of Leopold and Leo, 1924 Chicago murderers who kidnapped and killed a 14 year-old boy, provides the backdrop to the overall narrative.
Clowes has said that he was trying to create the look and feel of the Sunday comics, where different writers and artists all land on the same pages, and with Ice Haven, he has succeeded. Each vignette exhibits a unified look, but within that, Clowes uses a variety of tones, backgrounds and tints, creating different layers of ambience and storytelling.
Criss-crossing plots analyse alienation and angst, but also the themes of failed artistry, attempted suicide, floundering marriages and the darker side of human nature, our obsession with child murder and kidnapping cases. Much like Luke Haines of The Auteurs who sang jaunty ditties about child murder, Clowes writes smartly, uniting each story by its geographical setting. Digressions include a Flintstones parody set in the same location 100,000 years earlier where we learn of the origin of an ominous hole in Ice Haven’s woods. There’s also a wink at Peanuts in ‘Our Children and their Friends’, but it is much more grimmer than Schultz’s ‘good grief’ exchanges.
Readers accustomed to straight prose will find Ice Haven a gift, his design and layout are clear and simple. This compact work is a fully-realised novel, and Harry Naybors provides a clever post-modern chorus, discussing form and the author with the reader. Welcome to Ice Haven. You’ll want a return visit soon.
Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes