It’s not as cold here as it sounds.
—Random Wilder, Ice Haven
Dan Clowes loves people. In spite of the angry cynicism and vitriol apparent in the early issues of his long-running indie comic, Eightball, Clowes just seems to love us, warts and all, and it is quite evident from this book that the genuine affection he feels for us crazy humans is rooted in the storytelling possibilities that can be found in our sad, sometimes pathetic, but always fascinating everyday lives. His stories have always featured characters that are strangely familiar and unassailably real, like your kooky old neighbor or a girl you knew in high school, and Ice Haven is no exception.
Collecting Eightball #22 (originally published in 2001) in a lovely little hardcover edition, Ice Haven focuses on the titular town and an ensemble cast of its residents. When a young boy named David disappears mysteriously, the citizens of Ice Haven are galvanized and the relationships between the characters begin to slowly unveil themselves through a series of well-constructed vignettes that are tempered with both anxiety and humor.
The cast is quite rich and diverse, but Clowes focuses more on a select few, including the frustrated and unappreciated middle-aged poet Random Wilder, who acts as the narrator of sorts; the lonely, lovesick Violet; Mr. and Mrs. Ames, a husband and wife detective team, who are called in to investigate David’s disappearance but end up investigating nothing more than their own disintegrating marriage; and the philosophical young Charles, who’s precocious observations are offset by the secret love he beholds for his teenage stepsister.
There are some parallels that can be drawn to both the television series Twin Peaks and the film Magnolia here. Both feature large casts of quirky characters going through their own private dramas, all of which are connected in some way. The tone here, however, is considerably less dark than either, and much of this is due to the artwork.
Clowes’ current method of graphic storytelling employs the use of short one or two page strips, which he compiles and serializes to reveal a much larger narrative. It’s an interesting, economic, and almost modular approach, and the use of these abbreviated segments, which could easily stand on their own as individual strips, allows Clowes to sidestep unnecessary segues between scenes. This actually creates the sense that there is more going on than what is shown on the page. His drawing style has also become more refined in recent years. The Charles Shultz-like simplicity in many of the strips creates an air of innocence visually even as the characters are being brutally honest about their bitterness, loneliness, jealousy, and sexual longings. In Clowes’ hands, the image of a boy peeping through a hole in the wall to leer at a girl in the shower is turned into something sweet and affecting.
Many of the characters could be interpreted as avatars of Clowes himself. In the strip “Vida Goes to Hollywood”, featuring the aspiring writer Vida, it seems that Clowes, who has been riding a wave of Hollywood success in recent years with the feature film Ghost World and the upcoming Art School Confidential, is documenting his success with more than just a bit of sarcastic bite. Random Wilder, in the strip “Seersucker”, is afflicted with the plague of procrastination and the fear of lost time that is the bane of all creative spirits, and this is something that you would suspect Clowes is familiar with. You can easily imagine him, or any artist, reciting lines like, “My life is fading away. The days speed by in a blur. How can I have wasted so much time?” and “How much could I have accomplished if I had put my time to better use?”
Some material has been added that did not appear in the original comic, such as the “About the Author” strip, in which Clowes uses his character Harry Naybors, a comic critic, for a hilarious bit of self-promotion. It’s worth it to note that Clowes always makes use of all space in his published works to the point where even the cover price and bar code are incorporated into the overall design. It’s obvious that small details is totally Clowes’ thing, in his stories as well as in his artwork and design, and this makes his books that much more delightful.
Ice Haven is one of Clowes’ best and perhaps his most accessible story to date. There is a warmth and sense of optimism present that acts as a nice counterpoint to the harsh although not entirely unsympathetic light that Clowes shines on his characters. He reveals the quiet, complex, beautiful, and downright messy nature of humanity with a keen eye, a sharp pen, and an even sharper wit. The comics medium is privileged to have a storyteller of Clowes’ caliber, and we’re damn lucky that he loves us so much to keep putting out these wonderful books.