An Ice Place to Visit

Columbus Alive | July 21, 2005
Those familiar with cartoonist Daniel Clowes’ work primarily from his graphic novel Ghost World and the Terry Zwigoff film it inspired will see many similar elements in his new “comic strip novel,” Ice Haven (Pantheon).

There’s the eccentric old guy with a weird hobby, the teenage girls with richly romantic fantasy lives and the odd habit of spying on eccentric old guys, the weird, small-town setting, and the slightly dark sense of humor that evokes tension-relieving laughs as often as old-fashioned funny book laughs.

The story involves the disappearance of a young boy in the small Midwestern town of Ice Haven, and a wide cast of characters/suspects—rival next-door neighbor poets, teenage girls who have just moved into town, little boys reading a Leopold and Loeb comic book, husband and wife private investigators, and Harry Naybors, a comic book critic who specializes in the study of Daniel Clowes, who helpfully explains what everything’s about.

On page four, Naybors wanders around his apartment in his underwear pontificating about what to call “that popular pictographic language known to you, the layman, as ‘comics.’” He finds the “marketing sobriquet ‘graphic novel’” to be too vulgar, but his own “preferred nomenclature” has yet to catch on, so he still calls them “comics,” even if it means getting used to a certain amount of irony (especially when talking about Clowes’ existential work).

Clowes’ nomenclature, “comic-strip novel,” is perfect—for this work at least. Designed in a horizontal, strip-shaped book, the central case of the disappearance is explored in a series of chapters each designed as individual comic strips featuring the various players in the drama, or odd but pertinent tangents, like how a hole was formed or what a stuffed animal’s fantasy life is like.

Clowes’ drawing style never changes, but the look of the “comic-strips” does, making Ice Haven a small-town mystery broken down to its molecular level and filtered through the Sunday comics pages of yore.

There may not have ever been a Great American Novel, or even a Great American Graphic Novel, but by inventing his own kind of book, Clowes definitely gives us the first Great American Comic-Strip Novel. OK, so it’s the only American Comic-Strip Novel so far—it’s still pretty great.

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