September 25, 2010

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Ice Haven

Written by Daniel Clowes
Illustrated by Daniel Clowes
Pantheon Press

I know I lose a bit of indie comics reading street cred because i am not a big fan of Ghost World, but for whatever reason I just wasn't able to get into
the characters. However, since everyone including my wife seems to like Daniel Clowes, I figured I'd give him another shot. Turns out that was definitely the right move, as this book worked for me on many levels and showed me why Clowes is so well-regarded as a creator.

Ice haven has the same type of unlikable characters as Ghost World but the addition of style parodies and a variety of quirky (if horrible) characters gives this a feel that differentiates it from its better known cousin. A send up of both old comic strips and Our Town (one of the characters is an unlikable poet with the last name of Wilder), Ice Haven focuses on several
members of the town, each of whom get their own style of comic strip. When one of them goes missing and is presumably killed, a detective strip enters the mix to solve the mystery. Of course, because this is a Clowes book, these new protagonists do not help in any significant way.

Among the brilliant send ups are evil theories about comics from the 1950s, several Charles Schultz pastiches, riffs on old romance strips, soap opera strips, and of course the detective
comics of the period Clowes is aping (my guess is that everything is to mock the Eisenhower years, but I could be off a bit on this analysis). Each of these pieces is drawn in a style designed to be a twisted homage of the artistry that marked those strips, yet also mercilessly making fun of how stilted they were by using them for the worst possible characters Clowes can dream up.

Not one to let anyone off the hook, Clowes even inserts a comic book critic, who is careful to note he only reads comics for adults. (I see this as a subtle jab at Clowes' own readers who steadfastly insist that they only read "important" comics. A man who appears on the Simpsons certainly doesn't take himself too seriously, and neither should his readers.)

Despite the varying style and constantly shifting point of view, the reader is easily able to follow the narrative and Clowes never allows his tricks with style to override his point--namely that an innocent looking town is often the one filled to the brim with petty people leading petty lives. We've seen this idea going back at least to Mark Twain, so it's not exactly original. However I love what Clowes does with it here. The commentary works on so many levels, from the artistic innocence to dark secrets kept until someone gets hurt.

If you weren't a big fan of Ghost World, give this a try. If you do like Clowes and you haven't read this yet, what are you waiting for? This was a great book, and I need to read more of Clowes in the future.