Comics of the Decade: Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray

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This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

By Andreas Gregersen

Daniel Clowes hardly needs introduction. Best known for the comic and film Ghost World (1997 and 2000) and the irregular periodical comics magazine Eightball (1989-), he has attained a prominent place in international comics during the course of the last fifteen years. Five years ago, Chris Ware himself described Clowes as the most significant cartoonist in the US, which — irrespective of any false modesty — is big words from an artist whose own contribution to (and understanding of) the art form is hard to argue with.

Clowes most complex and arguably most successful work so far is Eightball #22, which was published as a full-colour comic book back in 2001. Now, in 2005, Pantheon has republished the story in reworked and reformatted form with the title Ice Haven. Since this more or less coincides with the publication last year of its remarkable follow-up, Eightball #23, and since they have a lot in common both thematically and formally, why not look at them both here?

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IN AND AROUND ICE HAVEN…
Ice Haven is the name of a small town and the story of a cross-section of its inhabitants. Its 29 chapters (or 36 in the Pantheon edition) interweave the threads of their lives in ways that on first glance may seem mundane and lacking in drama, but they slowly accrue to greater significance. The format recalls American ensemble cinema of the kind perfected by Robert Altman, and more recently seen in such works as Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1991), P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Todd Solondz’ Happiness (1998), for the latter of which Clowes drew the poster, incidentally. But in contrast to those, Ice Haven consists of a series of self-contained stories in different comics genres, like a casual flip through the Sunday comics page in days of yore.

Clowes exhibits tight control throughout, managing the storytelling with the eye for the telling image and the sense of rhythm and layout we have come to know and appreciate, but perhaps most notably the story marks a step forward in terms of colouring: best known for his clear black-and-white imagery, at times embellished by a second colour, he here brings a remarkable sensitivity to bear on a much more nuanced palette. The variety of styles on display often works contrapuntally with the material, suggesting the complex nature of life and its treatment in art.

Picks of the Week

“…no artist likes to be exploited, precisely because our work is precious to us in ways more important than money, and we want that relationship we have with our work to be respected. Unfortunately, we live in an economy where money is the most obvious measure of value, and so it’s easy to end up focusing on that as the bottom line, as you put it. Often, when you scratch a little deeper, you find that what upsets artists even more is a lack of respect, of being exploited, taken for granted — even when the work we make is earning someone, somewhere a heap of money and luxury…. I don’t believe I have the right to set the terms by which people access my material, nor where they take it from there. Once I’ve written a story or drawn a comic — certainly once I put it out into the world by publishing it (online or on paper), that comic is out there living its own life and interacting with all the people who come across it. It’s like having kids. Once you’ve brought them into the world, they’re not actually your property to do with as you will. You have a very important relationship with them, and you deserve to have people respect that relationship. But in the end, they’re in the world and they have their own life. Eventually other people will have relationships with them as important as yours — and it’s not fair to try to dictate those terms until the day they die.”

— Dylan Horrocks

The picks of the week from around the web.

  • The Panelists. This new group blog unites Derik Badman, Alex Boney, Isaac Cates, Craig Fischer, Jared Gardner and Charles Hatfield under the Comics Journal umbrella. It promises to be an academically inflected, but accessible resource for the kind of quality criticism for which these folk are already known from other contexts. Welcome to the ‘sphere!
  • Tom Spurgeon’s holiday interviews. As he’s done for the past few years, Spurgeon has conducted an impressive round of interviews for the holiday season. Several of them are great reading for anyone interested in the state of comics as an art form and an industry these years. Hunt through his (still unsearchable and badly indexed) archive for the past month Here’s the archive; I recommend the conversations with Joe Casey, Matt Seneca, Dylan Horrocks, Dan Clowes, and Jaime Hernandez
  • Bill Sienkiewicz on Big Numbers. Following up from my earlier post re: this most famous torso of 90s comics, here’s artist Bill Sienkiewicz’ personal and rather painful testimony on what went wrong way back then. Great reading for people interested in Alan Moore’s lost masterwork and in creative hubris in general.
  • Carl Barks Finally Done Right?

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    Since I’ve been fairly engaged in the sad fortune of the Disney comics of Carl Barks (1901-2000) in reprint, I figured I would comment briefly on the recent announcement by Fantagraphics that they will be helming a complete edition, starting this fall. Already publishing the reprint editions of The Complete Peanuts, Krazy & Ignatz, Popeye, and Prince Valiant (and, soon, Walt Kelly’s Pogo and Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse) — all exemplary presentations of classic comic strip material — one could not wish for a better publisher to undertake this project. This is really good news.

    All earlier editions of the Barks material have been faulty. The best is clearly Another Rainbow’s luxuriously packaged, slipcased hardcover set Carl Barks Library, published in the 1980s. But it presented the strips in black and white — great for connoisseurs, but ultimately uncongenial to material intended for colour — and published several of the less politically correct stories in redrawn, censored form. It was followed in the 1990s by Gladstone’s cheaper series of albums, The Carl Barks Library in Colour, which printed the previously censored strips in their original form, but was marred by insensitive, if not downright counterproductive, computer colouring. Moreover, this edition was the least complete of the collected editions so far, leaving out the late Grandma and Daisy Duck material drawn, but not written, by Barks, as well as the Junior Woodchucks stories that Daan Jippes completed over his layouts in the 1970s.

    Hype: Rikke Bakman’s Glimt

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    Today sees the release of a major new Danish graphic novel — Rikke Bakman’s autobiographical Glimt (“Shimmer” or ‘”Flashes”), an account of a childhood summer at the Danish west coast. Both funny, touching and slightly disturbing, it evokes childhood experience better than just about anything I’ve read in recent memory, and it’s beautifully rendered in coloured pencil. I urge anyone who reads Danish or Swedish to check it out, and any international publisher interested in great, reality-based comics to consider publishing it.

    Glimt is published in Denmark by Aben maler and in Sweden by Optimal Press. There’s a reception for the book today between 57 pm, at Beaver Projects Gallery in Copenhagen (Strandlodsvej 15), where an exhibition of Bakman’s pages for the book will be shown until 29 January. Also, check out this clip of Rikke reading from the book at Berlingske Tidende.

    Here’s a preview of the comic:

    On the plot to attack Jyllands-Posten

    It seems sadly serendipitous, if not actually ominous, that a year that started with a depressing but thankfully failed cartoon-related terrorist attack here in Denmark, ends with another one. Five people, one Iraqi asylum seeker and four Swedes/Swedish residents, were arrested yesterday on charges of planning a terrorist attack on the headquarters of Jyllands-Posten, the paper that commissioned and published the 12 Muhammad cartoons back in 2005, and the center-left daily Politiken, which shares the building with them.

    PET claims they had advanced plans for a Mumbai-style attack on the newspaper, although the information released is pretty sparse. The police have confiscated a submachine gun with a silencer in the car in which they were arrested, and the group had been under surveillance for a while, but other than that, we haven’t been told much.

    Added to the crippled moron who blew himself up in Copenhagen earlier this year, and his no less foolish-seeming compadre in Stockholm last month, I guess it’s only a matter of time before someone actually manages to carry off an attack around these parts. Depressing to thus see the pernicious hypothesis of the Jyllands-Posten editors — that there was a real threat, and that artists felt it — confirmed, having become partly a self-fulfilled prophecy.

    Picks of the Week

    The picks of the week from around the web.

    It’s been a busy few weeks here, plus we’ve been on a short holiday, so I ain’t got much, except for this clip above, of Danish Minister for Health, Bertel Haarder, losing it Thick of It-style on a journalist Friday night (full interview here). It’s a very human reaction — he’d been pulled away from his rice pudding (no shit) and was persistently asked about something he couldn’t answer, but his defense, that he hadn’t been briefed in advance, is also problematic, and in any case, it provides for a yuletide reminder of the increasing blur between Man and medium.

    Oh, and there’s been some good comics criticism around the web lately:

  • Sean Collins on Love & Rockets. Long-standing internet critic extraordinaire, Sean Collins, spent a couple of months reading the entirety of the Hernandez brothers’ work and wrote about it. Lots of good writing on critically neglected, classic material.
  • Eric Berlatsky on time and comics. A piece in Hooded Utilitarian’s ongoing republication of academic work on comics, this is a fine piece on time, space and simultaneity in comics.
  • Matt Seneca on Morrison & Quitely’s All-Star Superman. Seneca is one of the few critics around who really pays attention to the visual side of comics. This is a good list of notes on Quitely’s astonishing work on this landmark series.
  • Titian at the Winter Sales

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    Went down to London to check out the sales today. Lots of good stuff at Christie’s — kind of sad to see the Rutland Poussin Ordination up for sale (I hope an accessible collection secures it for the public), but it was in fine company: a terrific El Greco St. Francis estimated at what seemed to me a steal (£600,000 – £800,000; I’d rather own it than the Poussin). A very fine, and acutely touching, 16th-century Pentecost from Bruges, with beautifully individualised apostles reacting to the divine irruption calling them. And lots more, plus a killer prints section with high quality editions of Goya’s Disasters of War and Proverbs, as well as a great selection of first-rate Dürers and Rembrandts.

    Anyway, the main reason I went down, was the exhibition over at Sotheby’s of the Kisters Sacra Conversazione by Titian, which goes on sale in New York later this month and will be on display in London through Wednesday. Painted 1560s, it is largely a studio production, probably laid out by the master’s faithful but pedantic assistant Girolamo Dente — the weak drawing of St. Luke at the left and the rote characterisation of St. Catherine’s head betray his hand, methinks. But it also shows plenty of the master’s work and seems to me really instructive in terms of understanding how he supervised such studio pictures.

    Inspecting it closely, it appeared to me that he retouched fairly extensively the figure of the Madonna, as well as the faces of the Child and Catherine, at an advanced stage of the production. The rendering of the flesh in these parts is richer, warmer and subtler, with hints of pink enlivening the cheek of the female saint and the mother of God taking on a glowing aspect, smoldering along the contours. There is, furthermore, a real difference in quality between the rendering of the saints’ garments and those of the Madonna. They are all painted according to the same principles — Titian’s — but in the former the effect is comparatively superficial, highlights and shadows never quite coalescing, while the latter in the reds has the depth of tone so characteristic of Titian’s hand, where colouring attains its own logic, beyond form.

    And the sky is glorious. Not just because of the thick strokes of yellowish white lining the dawn clouds, or the pink tinge lent to them in certain places, but also the deeper seep of purple glazing that gives it is depth, suggesting receding night and leaving a certain dampness in the air that suffuses the wet landscape below, suggested in mauve drybrushed in spiky, almost-turqoise. This is characteristic of Titian’s modus operandi in this kind of production, as I understand it: he leaves most of the figurework to his assistants, retouches the painting towards the end, adding the landscape in an inspired flurry. It is inspiring to follow.

    Picks of the Week

    “In fact, we believe it is the most closed societies that have the most reform potential. The Chinese case is quite interesting. Aspects of the Chinese government, Chinese Public Security Service, appear to be terrified of free speech, and while one might say that means something awful is happening in the country, I actually think that is a very optimistic sign, because it means that speech can still cause reform and that the power structure is still inherently political, as opposed to fiscal. So journalism and writing are capable of achieving change, and that is why Chinese authorities are so scared of it. Whereas in the United States to a large degree, and in other Western countries, the basic elements of society have been so heavily fiscalized through contractual obligations that political change doesn’t seem to result in economic change, which in other words means that political change doesn’t result in change.”

    — Julian Assange

    The picks of the week from around the web.

  • Wikileaks. Obviously the big story of the week, I don’t think the leaking of US diplomatic cables and the overarching issues it raises have been served all that well in the analysis I’ve read so far. And I’m really unimpressed with the critical reactions I’ve read (this, by the otherwise solid Anne Knudsen at the Danish weekly, Weekendavisen, is disingenous and reductive). Wikileaks’ smart frontman Julian Assange’s own statements have also been somewhat dubious, especially in this self-important and -serving Q&A session with largely fawning Guardian readers, though his interview with Time Magazine is much better. This New Yorker piece from the time of the Iraq leaks is somewhat helpful, but like most of the media focuses too much on the man and too little on his work. The best general political analysis I’ve seen so far is Ascherson’s for The Guardian.
  • In other news, I found this impassioned critique of the Obama administration by Frank Rich both compelling and, naturally, depressing.