Ice Haven
by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon, 2005)

Eerie, bleak and ironic to the point of icy blackness, Ice Haven is a look at life through a wickedly clever lens. It is also compulsively readable and would be enjoyed by anyone who likes Daniel Clowes' other graphic novels or who might want a good introduction to his strange but ultimately sympathetic world. Written in an episodic format, with a number of brilliant characterizations, Ice Haven is about life in a small town, if life in a small town were a mythic, satirical conceptualization full of ironic and metacontextual elements.

And yet there is so much that is familiar about Ice Haven. There is the loneliness, isolation and inanity that is so recognizable about small-town life. The artful, poignant character sketches are interwoven through the narrative voice of Random Wilder, a would-be poet whose anger toward the entire world gives him the right to look down on everyone in it. There's Vida Wentz, who has literary yearnings of her own; lovelorn high school student Violet; Mr. and Mrs. Ames, a husband and wife detective team; and Charles, a young boy who is more philosophical and emotionally mature than adults twice his age. There are many more but these are the primary characters. The narrative style switches back and forth from first to third person to accommodate the dozen or so points of view that extend outward from the main drama.

The plot is structured around the mysterious disappearance of a young boy, David Goldberg. After he vanishes, the citizens of Ice Haven are yanked out of their desultory routines. Each character has a private drama going on, the private dramas being the central, unifying theme of the story; every person is trapped only by his- or her-self, rather than the outside circumstances they hold responsible for deciding their fates. Their desires for emotional and sexual fulfillment are the same as anyone else's. But the inability of each character to translate their inner feelings into any sort of positive outward action is the reason why their every attempt to communicate is unsuccessful. Which, in turn, is why they end up living in such loneliness.

Yet these moments of frustration and self-induced isolation are themselves luminous in their understanding of how people can be so reserved. Clowes is not holding up his characters as the object of any sort of ridicule. Most people, in general, have a hard time understanding one another. Misanthropy and melancholy are far more commonplace than most of us want to admit in the age of Oprah and Dr. Phil. Clowes seems to have more empathy for his characters than armchair television psychologists who ritualistically denigrate their guests. He isn't afraid to explore the difficulties and nuances inherent in the struggle for self-definition.

As for the art, Clowes' modular, economic approach is perfect for the abbreviated segments of one- and two-page shorts comprising the larger story arc. The newspaper-strip simplicity of his style underscores the emotionally fraught nature of the characters. By utilizing the techniques of cartoon artists from times past, instead of adhering to a more modern, realistic style, Clowes has created a comic that is quite literary. It is an excellent example of the power and range of the medium.

review by
Mary Harvey

12 November 2011

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