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Daniel Clowes
Ice Haven
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Pantheon Books / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-375-42332-X
Publication Date: 06-07-2005
88 Pages; $18.95
Date Reviewed: 06-25-05

Index: General Fiction  Mystery

The complexity of our lives does not easily translate into fiction. Sure, you can grab a strand here, a story there and stitch together a narrative, a novel. Fiction can capture those threads and a good writer can weave a compelling tale. Daniel Clowes 'Ice Haven' offers ample evidence that you can do the same thing in what he calls a "comic strip novel." This 88-page wonder packs all the wallop, all the characters, all the rich evocative emotions of any novel told only in prose. Clowes' art and the sublime storytelling sensibility he uses so well in 'Ice Haven' ensure that his comic strip novel offers an ineffable something more. But the bottom line is that readers who enjoy the standard format novel and especially crime fiction will find Clowes' work just as compelling as anything without art.

'Ice Haven' takes place in the small town of the same name. The crime fiction aspect of the work revolves around the parallels between the Leopold and Loeb case and the case of David Goldberg, a lonely young boy who goes missing in Ice Haven. But Clowes' work goes much deeper than a simple kidnapping. He evokes the inner and outer lives of a large cast of characters, creating figures so realistic and emotionally real so adroitly that they'll get under your skin. Each of the characters undergoes achingly powerful changes in course of the narrative. Clowes approaches his characters with tenderness and clarity.

Clowes' narrative style is unique and complex. He's said that he was trying to create the feeling of the Sunday Comics section, where different writers and artists all land on the same pages, and he's totally succeeded. Yes, his own gorgeous paintings exhibit a unified look, but within that look, he uses a variety of tones, backgrounds and tints to create different layers of ambience and storytelling. Reading 'Ice Haven' is a revelatory experience, all show, no tell. The moments when characters are revealed to have relationships that the reader does not suspect are striking and poignant. He mixes in facts from the Leopold and Loeb case amidst his own story about Ice Haven, using yellowed pages and the simplistic graphics of yesteryear. As the truths are finally peeled away, one can't help but be both moved and impressed by the complexity, the power and the virtuosity of his narrative technique. 'Ice Haven' effectively adds a visual layer to narrative storytelling that's easy to assimilate but difficult to describe.

Readers who are accustomed to reading straight prose will find Clowes' novel remarkably easy to read. The lettering is consistent and legible, and he mixes fonts with care and respect for his readers. Moreover, his design and layout skills are outstandingly clear and simple. Each gatefold spread is well-balanced and the colors are gorgeously rendered. For the low price of this book, it's an incredible deal. It's beautifully produced and printed.

Clowes' ability to create fully rounded characters with a combination of art and prose is impressive. Using a variety of styles, he brings to life Random Wilder, the pompous town poet, David Goldberg, the quiet boy who is kidnapped, Violet and Charles, a troubled stepbrother and sister with some seriously tweaked parents, and many others. Harry Naybors, Comic Book Critic provides a sort of post-modern chorus, discussing the form and the author with the reader. The varying approaches, art styles and layers always mesh perfectly. There's not a whit of waste here, nothing extra, not a bit to spare.

One of the best things about 'Ice Haven' is that in spite of the fact that the compact work unpacks into a fully-realized novel, at the end of the day, it's still pretty small. This is a work that you will read again and again, quite easily. Every time, it will bring out a new set of emotions. Every stroll through 'Ice Haven' will take the reader down a different path. It's a set of mirrors aimed at your world and you, at your small town and every small town. Take a stroll. It's chilly in 'Ice Haven'. Life is sort of cruel. And certainly beautiful.

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