“What exactly are ‘comics’?” asks a resident of the town of Ice Haven, who functions as a kind of meta-guide on our descent into the underworld of Daniel Clowes’s latest imagining. “The very word itself demands a measure of irony from its user.” It’s a signpost for classic Clowes territory: Abandon all hope for anything comical.
Clowes is perhaps best known for his long-running misanthropic Eightball series, and for the booklength Ghost World, which was adapted for film in 2001. Billed as a “narraglyphic picto-assemblage”—as opposed to the now widely accepted "graphic novel—Ice Haven collects a series of loosely interlocking comic strips, some as short as a single panel, others six pages long, each with such innocuous titles as “Our Children and Their Friends,” and “Vida and her Grandmother.” Individually, the strips are ostensibly light-hearted glimpses into the lives of Ice Haven’s residents, mostly anxious, preoccupied people bound by the reported abduction and ransom of a mute child from the neighborhood. Considered as a whole, however, the strips create a disturbing composite of the town’s personality, chronicling the sobering effect of the boy’s disappearance in brief bursts of Sunday-comics color and brutal satire.
Clowes pays homage in some strips to the playground dynamics of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, while inverting its themes to unsettling effect. In others, he plays with the forms of text and image, as though words themselves were held hostage: dialogue balloons float untethered off-panel in partially visible sentences; several strips end abruptly in wordless silence; and a haunting specter of violence looms in the form of child murder, rape, and pedophilia. But when the real terror is revealed to be that of pre-pubescent confusion, teen angst, and the dysfunctional relations of adults, it’s little relief. That Ice Haven can be simultaneously touching and deeply troubling is remarkable, a testament to Clowes’s ability as a graphic storyteller. It’s hard to imagine this story being told in any medium other than comics, no matter how it’s defined.
Ice Haven is just out from Pantheon Books, New York.