Friday, February 17, 2017

Review: Ice Haven

Ice Haven Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review of Daniel Clowes’s Ice Haven

This weird little book is what happens when The Family Circus collides with Crime and Punishment.

Among its assorted threads of stories, the evocation of the Leopold-Loeb murder case emerges and re-emerges as an explicit retelling and as a reworking when a child goes missing and a neighbor boy confesses to a friend that he’s killed him. It’s gruesome stuff, not for its bloodiness (there is none) but for its exploration of a universe that’s utterly indifferent to the happiness of its characters. (That changes a bit at the end, but it does so with such over-the-top irony that it feels even crueler than the earlier coldness.)

None of that content is especially new. This one comes from an era when we had a run of evil-in-the-suburbs things, whether Twin Peaks, Witches of Eastwick, or Poltergeist. It’s not that hard to think of a darkness lurking beneath our supposed safe places. The zeitgeist kind of suggested it.

What is striking here is that Clowes’s medium has to work so hard to contain the nihilism at its heart. These are illustrations that look as if they come from the sunniest corner of the Sunday comics. We see cute cherubs and benign older people. The lines are all clean, and the colors only a little washed out from a full rainbow.

When you look more closely, though, there’s something off. Sometimes it’s that a character’s eyes are too intense. Sometimes it’s that someone is too stiff, too clearly someone who doesn’t belong in a happy, unreflective world. Other times it’s a too-cramped feeling, a series of frames that, while extending the potential for illustration, give us repetition of small, unhappy illustrations.

And then there is the dialogue itself. There are so many species of unhappiness here: a suave, seasoned detective who dimly suspects his wife is sleeping with everyone in town; a loner wannabe poet who fumes at the attention given his doggerel writing neighbor; a boy in love with his new step-sister and worried over the secret he can’t tell anyone; and a pair of teenage girls aware they have more to offer than their small town can accommodate.

If few of the ingredients here are strikingly original – there is nothing, for instance, to rival the fever dream quality of Clowes’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron – what works is the way he pushes and eventually ironizes the medium itself. We get cameos by a comics critic who periodically tries to interpret what we’re reading. He’s in the story but not of it. He has a sense of what comics can do, and he seems aware that he is part of this comic, but he cannot abandon himself to being just a character. Like the work as a whole, he undermines his own context. He gets the penultimate word, but it’s so steeped in irony (he gives a brief bio of Clowes that may be, for all I know, entirely fabricated) that we can’t take it seriously.

This one feels slight from start to finish, but once I put it down I started to feel its uncomfortable weight. This is certainly less memorable than Velvet Glove, but it has its own way of haunting. I’m only two-fifths of the way through my new pile of Clowes (I like the way that sounds out loud), and I am happy to have more to go.

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