Ice Cream Man: Haunting for Beginners (#19) – W. Maxwell Prince

5 out of 5

Ice Cream Man, W. Maxwell Prince’s longest running series to date, has been visually striking, tonally unique, and rather brilliant throughout, but it has also had its relative ups and downs.  Accepting that it’s essentially an anthology series, exploring very “human” horrors via our anthology “host,” the titular Ice Cream Man, Prince has occasionally fallen into the problem of most thematic anthologies in that concepts repeat, and then has also partially damned himself by inserting a background narrative concerning ICM and his opposite, a black-suited figure.  Note that that’s relative ups and downs: the whole creative team never fails to deliver something that’s at least narratively daring, even if it’s playing with similar ideas (i.e. “what very mundane, everyday thing scares the heck out of you?”), and artist Martín Morazzo, colorist Chris O’Halloran, and designer Good Old Neon have made each and every issue a true piece of art, functioning perfectly both as comic book and coffee table-type flipthrough.  That repetition issue is challenged by something I’m not sure that any other series has achieved: I think you could hand any single one of ICM to a new comic reader – even my dad, even my mom – and they’d be, in some way, piqued by what they’re looking at, whether that means it’s intriguing, or puzzling, or flummoxing.  It just doesn’t look like a comic that you’ve read before.

But once you are reading it, there’s the aforementioned looping concepts, and then something of a more personal judgment that has hung over Prince’s work for me: that it’s often quite comparable to Grant Morrison.  Toss in Morazzo’s fine-lined similarities to Frank Quitely, and you could stack ICM next to, say, The Filth, and possibly convince yourself that it’s the same creative team, going for minimalism vs. Grant’s more verbose style.  Sometimes Prince’s obtuse wording and backwards plotting rings of Grant; and the overall weirdness and everything-is-connectedness certainly does.

This “arc” of ICM, while still haunted by similarities to the issues that’ve preceded it, has been different, though: because there’s hope.  Not that hope has to be a part of a book to make it better – I quite like things that dare to be hopeless – but I think this is an especially interesting approach to the subject matter, as it’s often looking at things that are, inherently “hopeless” in the sense that they cannot be halted – death; aging – and has injected a type of happiness that can come from those things by accepting them.  This is not a roadmap to enlightenment by any means (in this issue, for example, you have to live a mundane life into your 70s and have been scarred by witnessing a suicide as a child in order to succeed), but it’s a fascinating way to iterate on ICMs themes.  Book 19 is also a landmark, as I feel it’s where Prince has fully come into his own: this reads, and looks, like “a W. Maxwell Prince” book.  I cannot compare it to anything else.

“Haunting for Beginners” studies the life of Casper (womp womp) in three sections: childhood, adulthood, and old age.  In each section, the page is gridded and listed out in “steps” to become a ghost.  The final step to ghosthood is… dying.  But “haunting” may or may not be positing that we are dead from the moment we begin.

Whereas previously, I’d been getting to a point where I sort of wanted Ice Cream Man to either continue with its loose narrative or come to an ending point, with this issue, and this arc, now showing Prince and team in their prime – and without hyperbole, I mean that this could be the writer’s Invisibles, or the kind of title that gets referenced alongside some holy Alan Moore work – I want Ice Cream Man to continue.  I want to keep reading.  I want to keep reading books that affect me beyond when I close the covers.