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Cracking The Ice
Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes is a reformatted, expanded hardcover version of the seminal Eightball #22, one of the most assured, multifaceted single issues of any comic book in history. Now, it’s better.
Welcome to Ice Haven, the town whose name hopes to evoke images of a winter wonderland and falls far short of the mark, instead suggesting a sanctuary for frozen emotions and icy walls standing between human connection and understanding.
Meet David Goldberg, the Mason Reece-looking boy who sits or stands silently wherever he is propped, saying nothing. Perhaps he is disturbed, or too sensitive to life’s cruelties to speak of them, and perhaps he knows all the answers.
Have you ever just wanted to be left alone?
Meet Harry Naybors, the comic book expert equated in the book with the horsefly, a pest feeding on what others produce, creating nothing himself but jeremiads to rationalize his stunted interests.
Have you ever wanted to feel important?
Meet Ida Wentz, the homely, homespun, apron-wearing purveyor of platitudes and poetic pap. She spends more time in mindless pursuits such as baking than in true artistic endeavors.
Have you ever wanted to belong?
Meet Random Wilder, the would-be poet laureate of Ice Haven and our narrator, a fat, self-deluded wretch in a seersucker suit that lets us know he’s far less seer than sucker. Watch this man.
Have you ever wondered why others don’t recognize your greatness?
Meet Vida, whose name suggests life and vitality, and so of course, she isn’t long for this town.
Have you ever embraced the weirdness and mundanity of your surroundings? Meet Violet, whose name is pretty close to Vida’s, and who falls, as teenaged girls often do, for a jerk, in this case a boy named Penrod, who takes from her merely what he wants and not all that she offers.
Have you ever tried to carry on a long-distance relationship?
Meet Carmichael, a cruel young punk who may have killed the missing David Goldberg for kicks.
Have you ever acted tougher and cooler than you were in order to get through life?
Meet his friend, Charles, who, like Charlie Brown, is too smart for his age, and also too sentimental. He’s trying to figure out which personality to wear for the next 65 years or so.
Have you ever wondered just how you’re supposed to act in this world?
Meet Mr. and Mrs. Ames, private detectives called in to find David Goldberg or his killer. Mr. Ames lives according to the model of detectives of yore, hard-bitten and relentless, and hey, those guys never had wives, did they? So what’s she to do with her spare time? Hmm.
Have you ever been more caught up in a dream than reality, or have you ever wasted time living someone else’s dreams?
Clowes took another step forward here in his artistic growth in the initial Eightball #22 incarnation, and enhances the effect here with some additional material, though not an extensive reworking. The reformatting to a wide, squat hardcover from an oversized comic does recontextualize the work somewhat, as it no longer appears like an old magazine’s funny pages, but the biggest change is probably just that the material is aimed at other readers than merely the established altcomix fan.
Though the book is as enjoyable as ever, this current reading makes the few flaws more noticeable to me. Where Clowes (and Chris Ware, the only other cartoonist on his level) achieve much of their power is in tales of yearning overcoming intense self-loathing, from the creators themselves bleeding through their characters in varying degrees of intensity. But this is an extraordinarily fine line to tread, and at times both have slipped onto the wrong side, presenting characters so pitiable and grotesque that it drains some of the identification away with the characters they do love, and the point of their stories. Here, as amusing as the more realistic (stupid, raping, murdering caveman) spoof of Fred Flintstone is, it has no place in the story being told, and merely calls the reader to question Clowes’ confidence in the real story he’s telling, that he has to interrupt it with cheap and nihilistic laughs. The same goes for the blue bunny character.
Harry Naybors does have a place in the story, but in a way that reflects poorly on Clowes, as he is merely a pretentious but shallow twit in tighty-whities and crew socks babbling on to no one about comic books. It could be that it’s a way for Clowes to skewer his own pretentions about his chosen art form, and Clowes has said self-deprecatingly that since there is no real person devoted to understanding his work, he had to create Naybors, but it’s not really presented that way. Of course, being a comic book critic myself, I could be a little more sensitive about the one-note portrayal, but in fact I identify more with another character, which I’ll discuss in a moment.
First, though, we find that Clowes has the teen girl characters from both Ghost World and the short story, “Caricature”, yet again in Vida. We’ve got another attractive, slender girl with her own quirky style and absurd fascination with an old loser who has never, and will never, “make it.” “Caricature” had the caricature artist, Ghost World the creepy old record collector, and now there’s Vida, obsessed with Random Wilder and his crappy poems. For a change, though, the fascination seems more sincere in Vida, not so much stemming from an unacknowledged, growing sexual power finding its first satisfaction in easy marks. And for another change, Wilder does not fall under her spell, blinded as he is by his own ego and insecurity. What’s upsetting about Vida is the end of her story, as she declares her willingness to sell out to Hollywood. Since she clearly is a talented writer of real soul -— Wilder can’t help but acknowledge this to himself -— it’s unclear just what Clowes is saying about her character, or perhaps about himself as a talented creator adapting his own works for Hollywood to great acclaim.
Ida is clearly the character Clowes identifies least with -— she’s not really a character at all but a symbol of dull, Midwestern values unchanged (in this fictional Midwestern town) since the Eisenhower era. She’s a caricature of bovine wit and pious conformity and it’s to Clowes’ credit that he takes a quick shot at her and then moves on with the more interesting people in his story.
The Ames are one of the three couples in the book, including Violet & Penrod and Paul (Charles’ Dad) & Dagmar (Violet’s Mom), and theirs is the only relationship to survive, albeit with unhealthy doses of delusion and a strong hint of infidelity on the part of the Mrs.
Clowes is both hilariously vulgar and yet subtle at how this particular mystery right under the nose of Mr. Ames is solved...by his nose, and the well-known effects of asparagus on the scent of one’s urine. Unlike with the unrelated strips mentioned earlier, here Clowes’ delightfully perverse sense of humor really moves the story forward.
Clowes is confident enough to vary his art style for the Charles and Carmichael portions of the book, even when these characters are interacting with other, somewhat more realistically drawn characters in the book. The two boys are obviously modeled on the style of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, which, again, creates a place for Clowes’ vulgar humor in that these children are engaging in acts and conversation that, as in Peanuts, is more adult than normal for children their age, and yet here it goes far beyond what Schulz would be interested in doing or be allowed to do. However, unlike those comic strip characters, who never grow, these boys are out of the cute stage and into adolescence, complete with sprouting legs, a body type too awkward for comic strip success. Carmichael is a natural leader with his forceful personality and line of bullshit, but with customary sublety Clowes reveals his lack of confidence with girls. He’s only cool when he has an inferior around, in this case Charles, quite literally in the middle of being a creep like Carmichael or a non-entity like David Goldberg. Charles notably is monosyllabic with the dynamic Carmichael, but spills his guts just like him in front of his own toady, a boy much like Schulz’s Linus in that he can’t be without his form of security blanket, a stuffed animal.
Violet is one of the more nuanced and identifiable characters in the book, a girl just as melodramatic as Vida but without her creativity and self-confidence. Penrod was probably the first boy to take an interest in her, and of course she thinks their love is forever. Clowes piles on the tough times: she’s the new girl in school; she’s got a new stepdad who may be peeping on her; Penrod’s far away -— and one can’t help but feel for her and/or remember one’s own similar experiences of awkwardness and isolation and uncomfortable living arrangements. Clowes has a wonderful ability to find the sweetness and poignancy in the most ridiculous, prosaic details of our lives, such as when Violet heats a box of microwave egg rolls and reveals they’re her and Penrod’s “official food.” Even if the reader has never had an official food for their first romance, we’ve done something similarly foolish and romantic.
Perhaps the least likeable character in the book, Random Wilder, is nonetheless just as identifiable as Violet. His suit sets him apart from the other characters, with the possible exception of Mr. Ames, as a guy looking backward rather than forward, and his very name conjures up not only Our Town playwright Thornton Wilder, whose play is nostalgic, but the quality of randomness, of going nowhere, with no direction. Wilder spends more time writing angry letters to a neighbor over their kid’s rock band rehearsal than he does on his poetry, and even more time is wasted watching reality television or the “sheer perfection” of The Honeymooners. Wilder is every wannabe, everyone with or without talent who wants to make it but who wastes their time on junk food and junk culture or dissipates their energies on grudges and feuds and bitterness. Go to any message board and one is likely to find a Random Wilder or two, and you might not need to go any further than this column, truth be told.
Apparently, the inspiration for the story was Clowes speculating on how interesting it would be if characters from one comic strip would appear in other, stylistically different strips on the same newspaper pages. This explains the different styles used here, as well as how scenes begin with lettering and titles indicative of comic strips, though the gimmick is not entirely successful because Clowes chooses not to confine the scenes to rigid comic strip format for each page. He ties most of these characters together with the kidnapping of David Goldberg, and not only are the circumstances similar to the famous Leopold/Loeb murder case, he comes right out and includes not only a copy of a book on the case being read by the main suspect, Carmichael, he actually devotes a couple pages to depicting the Leopold/Loeb story. It’s as if he doesn’t trust his readers to recognize allegory when they see it, though thankfully this is a pretty rare occurrence in the book, which contains many subtle details easily missed by the casual reader. And the meaning of the oddly shaped landmark in the middle of town, dubbed “Our Friend,” is unclear, but perhaps more powerful because of its ambiguity.
Clowes has created his most ambitious work here, and it’s his most stylistically accomplished and almost completely successful. There are some missteps and a small bit of repetition of past work in a character or two, but the advances and overall cohesion far outweigh the flaws. A book worthy of its title of “comic strip novel,” and worthy of many readings. Pantheon Books. $18.95
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