Ice Haven (Pantheon)

Daniel (Ghost World) Clowes creates a portrait of a smll town using an eclectic brand of art styles in this collection of strip-style comics.

 

90 pgs., color; $16.00
(W / A: Daniel Clowes)
 
Quiet desperation is the dominant emotion in Ice Haven, the fictional small town which is the setting for, and lends its name to, a collection of comic strips by Daniel Clowes (Ghost World). The town’s motto was once "It’s not as cold here as it sounds" and this remains an accurate reflection of the point of view of many of the characters. They’re not happy, but neither do they presume that they can improve their lives any more than they would attempt to change the weather. Instead, they’ve mostly settled down to living with their loneliness and frustration, although not always with grace.
 
The central story in Ice Haven is that of a child’s kidnapping, but the interest in this collection is not so much in solving the mystery as in admiring Clowes’ technique as he creates a portrait of the town and its inhabitants through a series of short strips drawn in a number of different styles, from anthropomorphic animal tales to romance and true crime stories. Fred Flintstone even makes an appearance, as does the kids-eye view Charles Schulz made famous in Peanuts. What’s really amazing is not so much that Clowes can work effectively in many different styles, but that this eclectic approach works so well in communicating, often in only a few pages, who each of the inhabitants of Ice Haven are and what they are about. The town itself seems modeled on a Hollywood back lot of an American small town ca. 1950, where houses have porches and kids play by bouncing a ball against a brick wall, but as viewed through some kind of distorting mirror so that everything’s just a bit off.
 
Framing it all is "Harry Naybors, Comic Book Critic," who directly addresses the reader with overly intellectualized ruminations about comics ("There exists for some an uncomfortable impurity in the combination of two forms of picture-writing (i.e., the pictographic cartoon symbols vs. the letter shapes that form the ‘words’)…") while the ostensible narrator, Random Wilder, is more concerned with nursing his secret hatred of a rival poet, Ida Wentz, than of providing proper narration. Then there’s Vida, an attractive but troubled young woman who becomes obsessed with Random to the point of stalking him. Violet is a high school girl in love with an older man named Penrod (the names themselves add another layer of meaning to the stories) and listens to Chopin to clean herself of “all the crap in my life.” Carmichael is a local tough kid, Charles is a precocious child given to Oscar Wilde-like ruminations ("Nature is not beautiful. Only the artificial and the man-made can be truly beautiful") which he mainly confides to his younger neighbor George, whose main attribute is that he is always seen clutching his stuffed bunny. And there are even more characters—it’s amazing how much detail Clowes crams into a small-format, 90-page book.
 
What Ice Haven most reminds me of is Sherwood Anderson’s short story collection Winesburg, Ohio. Both present a bottom-up view of life in a small town, allowing the reader to build up a sense of its reality through a number of self-contained stories about individual characters. Both also convey a muted yet heartbreaking sense of loneliness and isolation among the characters although, thank goodness, Clowes has more of a sense of humor than Anderson. You can see a preview at http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/icehaven.html. | Sarah Boslaugh

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