You know right away that Ice Haven won’t be a standard comic when the opening strip features a man named Harry Naybors: Comic Book Expert, wearing nothing but tighty-whity underwear, pontificating on the place of comics within society while he performs his morning urination and fixes himself a bowl of cold cereal. But deviating from the norm is part of Daniel Clowe’s cartooning career.
Previously published in the independent comic series Eight Ball, Clowes’ newest book is a darkly comic romp through the small Midwestern town of Ice Haven. The basic story is pretty straightforward. A sad, quiet little boy named David Goldberg vanishes without a trace. But instead of delivering a pulp-inspired detective story David’s tale works mostly as a backdrop for the town. Clowes’s real interest lies in the lives of the bizarre but still all-too-real townsfolk of Ice Haven. It’s inhabitants include people like Violet the lovesick teen, irritable private detective Mr. Ames, Ida Wentz the local poetry treasure, and Carmichael the schoolyard bully. Through little vignettes that jump perspective every few pages, we witness their lives as well as their own unique reactions to David’s disappearance.
As the point of view shifts, so does the artwork. When we see how David’s vanishing effects his fellow classmates at the elementary school, the visual language and rhythm of the panels takes on a style inspired by Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. But instead of the smart and sweet subjects Schultz made famous in his own daily strip, Clowes moves into satire with a bleakly funny schoolyard of young kids talking quite openly about sex, drugs and violence. Other vignettes pull from the styles of detective strips, teen romances, and even the Flintstones. Clowes doesn’t even spare his own style. Random Wilder, an aging, frustrated poet whose greatest enemy is his well published next door neighbor Ida Wentz, fits perfectly in that mold of disaffected characters Clowes is known for through his other works like Ghost World (Fantagraphic Books, 1997) and David Boring (Pantheon, 2002).
While well-read comic fans will get all the jokes, the constant references may frustrate some readers. If you’ve never read Matt Groening’s odd series Life in Hell, for example, some of the jokes in the Blue Bunny vignette just won’t make any sense. But Clowe’s skill with character and inventive use of satire leave plenty for newer readers to enjoy. The depth and breadth he achieves in a short 89 pages is amazing, making this one of my must-reads of the year.