Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Book of the Decade: Ice Haven

There is a panel in Daniel Clowes’s “comic-strip novel” Ice Haven in which a boy named Charles tears up a paperback copy of The True Story of Leopold and Loeb.

It’s a moment of real anxiety for Charles: he believes that if he is found with the book, he will be linked to a murder he didn’t commit. Giant beads of sweat hover over his head; his hands and arms are drawn multiple times to simulate the act of tearing; and the word “SHRED” appears twice above torn pieces of the book. Charles’s head is as big as his torso. His mouth—like that of many comic characters drawn in profile (Little Lulu, Henry, Charlie Brown)—is nowhere to be seen. The panel is funny in the way we expect a cartoon drawing to be—full of exaggerated effects. But because Clowes has carefully unfolded the plot and put Charles in a web of troubled relationships, the reader experiences the force of his anxiety.

Many graphic novels distance themselves from their “funny page” origins: to be legitimate, the argument goes, comics need to imitate as much as possible the realism of film. Clowes, however, reveals no discomfort about the seriousness of his predecessors.

Applying a warehouse of cartooning techniques in traditional, unusual, and poignant ways, Clowes again shows himself to be the foremost practitioner of the literary comic.

Ninety pages long and composed of 37 stories, Ice Haven has at its center a crime story—the kidnapping of a boy. But around this plot nearly a dozen others circulate, some of which have little or no connection to the crime. The method of narration, too, constantly changes. Some stories are told in the third person,

others by one of five main characters who function as first-person narrators. Some speak directly to the reader,

one narrates through letters,

and another rambles aloud—is he talking to the reader or to himself?

For visual inspiration Ice Haven looks to the Sunday funnies, in which different genres of strips drawn in distinct styles sit side by side, combining in the reader’s field of vision (in a way film frames never could) to create a kind of imaginary cartoon world.

Clowes draws on his knowledge of American comic-strip techniques to vary word balloons, lettering, and coloring to reflect the different modes of narration. A vignette with Leopold and Loeb (whose crime haunts the novel as it did Clowes’s Chicago childhood)

features a classic big-nosed style of cartooning on beige pages meant to resemble faded newsprint; a story about a prehistoric resident of the town of Ice Haven borrows the look of The Flintstones; and the vignette “Our Children and Their Friends” mimics the ground-level, static perspective of Peanuts.

The result is like a prose novel written by a dozen different authors. Taken alone, each of the stories might remind you of a cartoon you’ve seen before. But much of Clowes’s innovation lies in the interplay of styles.

The technique succeeds because of Clowes’s obvious affection for a range of genres and formats that cover the history of American comics. His use of these forms is never clichéd, like the work of so many literary and cinematic postmodernists who engage in genre-hopping. Instead, Ice Haven evokes the pathos that can make such genres as, say, detective fiction compelling. Recalling Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Clowes’s PI Mr. Ames desperately seeks but fails to find a satisfying relationship, in part because he unwittingly lives out hardboiled clichés: his desire to rescue troubled women makes him blind to the troubles in his marriage.

Even stilted genres such as teen romance are mined for genuine emotion. Like the heroines of the romance comics Clowes read as a child, the teenager Violet is sympathetically portrayed as a victim of family problems who yearns for marriage as an escape. She is both an idealist who sings songs from musicals and a self-absorbed stepsister who is cruelly unaware of the devotion she inspires in a younger brother. On Ice Haven’s back cover are portraits of its “cast of characters” with an exhortation (written by Clowes): “You will feel as though you know them!” The exclamation point might make the line seem ironic, but it’s not.

Clowes has found a home for his writing in Hollywood, but Ice Haven is decidedly unlike a film. Its pacing often seems a conscious reaction to the rapid-fire editing used in so many current films, TV shows, and video games. Mainstream comics rarely go too long before crowding pages with dozens of motion lines emanating from flying superheroes or frenetic teens to compensate for lacking film’s action; Clowes embraces the medium’s stillness. We are asked to examine each character and each panel carefully, looking for subtle shifts in facial expression and wondering what happened to the characters between the panels. We must contemplate them and our own responses. In scenes in which Charles stands still, nearly silent, holding the same blank facial expression, Clowes gives the reader information through other, subtle details: the speed at which Charles bounces a tennis ball, for example, conveys his emotional state as he reacts to other characters’ speech.

You always need to read Clowes with a kind of attention that comic strips have rarely demanded, or even wanted.

On repeated readings, Ice Haven’s crime plot recedes into the background, revealing the book as a story about its peculiarly American namesake (its name on the title page is lettered in stars and stripes) and a kind of Midwestern melancholy, where people wander the streets and talk with neighbors but rarely understand each other. When the poet Random Wilder meets Vida Wentz (the granddaughter of his poetic rival), she awkwardly delivers a prepared speech about her admiration for his writing, handing the poet her self-produced zine. The pompous Wilder accepts it with appreciation, but when safely indoors, tosses it aside: “Hasn’t one Mrs. Wentz done enough damage to the world of letters? Must her befouled lineage carry forth the tradition?” He later reads it and is deeply moved, so much so that he “can’t bear to have it in the house”; unfortunately for Vida, she finds it when searching through his garbage—she has been stalking him. Such strained, disappointing encounters are at the heart of Ice Haven. When characters offer a friendly greeting to the convenience-store clerk, Kim Lee, they get silence and a blank stare in return,

and when a “throng of Ice Havenites” crowd the street to learn about the crime, few of them even look at each other. Only two female characters are able to escape the pull of the town’s melancholy: as the comic ends Violet leaves her distant husband for Hawaii and Vida follows Clowes to Hollywood to become a writer and “the biggest whore ever!!”

In Ice Haven’s second panel Charles reads a manual entitled Do It Yourself.

Perhaps this is Clowes’s reference to the DIY ethic of the 1960s underground “comix” movement in which cartoonists such as R. Crumb, Bill Griffith, and Art Spiegelman exercised almost complete control in the creation of their comic books. The vast majority of comics are today, in contrast, corporate products. The art, writing, coloring, lettering, and book design are done by different hands, a team assembled by and subservient to a corporation’s editorial apparatus, whose primary concerns are the marketability and licensing of characters. Clowes is Ice Haven’s auteur, taking responsibility for every aspect of his book: he even hand-lettered all the mundane publication information and chose the kind of paper.

The only mark that Clowes didn’t make himself is the back cover’s mechanically generated price code, which he incorporates into his design by putting it into a hand-drawn word balloon spoken by Clowes’s shill, a cigarette-smoking comedic bunny who hypes the book. It’s not surprising that the most important graphic novels (which include works by Clowes, Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, and Chris Ware) have been created in this time-consuming and solitary way. Clowes even prefers to be called a “cartoonist,” a term that evokes a vision uncorrupted by collaboration and connected to past masters such as Charles M. Schulz, George Herriman, and Frank King.

Even those who see comics as an important art form often worry that the medium will always be limited in its ability to express the nuance we expect from great films or literary fiction. In his manifesto Modern Cartoonist, Clowes writes that the graphic limits of the form are not something to lament but to exploit. One of our earliest experiences with art, he writes, is drawing cartoons—so reading intentionally cartoony comics such as Ice Haven can conjure up our childhoods. The town’s comic-book critic, Harry Naybors, offers a more abstract, but equally compelling explanation of comics’ appeal: “While prose tends toward 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 replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality.’ ”

In a self-referential moment, Clowes has Naybors explicate the cartoon world he lives in; he notes that Clowes has a reputation for misanthropy. Ice Haven refutes this claim. The book’s final story features 12 nearly identical panels—a young boy lies almost motionless on his bed—interrupted only by occasional short lines of dialogue.

It is in this kind of stillness that Clowes’s humanity—his tenderness toward the loners and misfits that populate Ice Haven—comes through. Ice Haven demonstrates, perhaps more so than any other graphic novel, the great range of the medium. Clowes’s comic is complex, absurd, funny, touching, and profoundly cartoony.

[This essay first appeared in the Boston Review, Jan. 2006. The text has been changed slightly, and images have been added.]


DerikB said...

Thanks for posting this, Ken. It's the kind of piece that makes me want to go back and reread the work under discussion.

Ken Parille said...


Thanks -- Ice Haven is certainly a comic that's worth re-reading --

James Langdell said...

Thank you for reposting this essay (and Tom Spurgeon for pointing to it). I read Ice Haven again yesterday after finally finding a copy post-Christmas as an intended gift for a niece who enjoyed Ghost World. I had read it originally in the single issue of Eightball devoted to it. I'm curious now to see how the different presentation (and possible expansion) of the story compares.

Ken Parille said...


Thanks for reading it -- I'm glad that Tom linked to it --

Luke Geddes said...

Really enjoyed this piece. In my mind I've always separated contemporary "serious" comics into two categories: those clearly influenced by (and responding to) the history of mainstream comics (Clowes, Los Bros) and those existing more outside of a strictly comics sphere of influence, adopting more of their narrative and visual techniques from film and graphic design--as well as other comics that follow such traditions. (Chris Ware is an example of someone who maybe straddles the line.)

Personally, I greatly prefer the former, and I think Ice Haven is the perfect example of a work that utilizes classical tropes while being innovative and without devolving into facile nostalgia.

Very much looking forward to the DC Conversations book.

Ken Parille said...


Thanks -- the Conversations book is set for mid 2010 and is, as far as I know, on schedule.

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