Haha: Bartelby Rejects the Premise (#1) – W. Maxwell Prince

5 out of 5

This is a juggernaut of a comic. It’s easy to go in with some expectations, given writer W. Maxwell Prince’s work on Ice Cream Man, an anthology horror series in which each issue turns a particular person’s obsessions into surreal, endless nightmares, as motivated / encouraged by an E.C. Comics host of sorts, the titular Ice Cream Man; so another anthology series, seemingly focusing on clowns? Surely it will be more of the same, just a different “host.” Not a bad thing, but again: an expectation.

But this is more than just a palette swap. Perhaps emotionally exhausted by his characters’ various trial-by-fire, depthless, life-has-no-meaning depressions in ICM, Haha isn’t exactly the flip of that – it’s not positive – but it uses, at least in this first issue, the stereotype of a “crying on the inside”-type funnyman to actually, like, promote hope in the face of the general injustices – or uncaring nature – of existence. It is the antithesis of Ice Cream Man, but also this strange, bipolar brew of ultimate happiness and ultimate sadness. Yes, the main character – Bartelby – is a clown. He has a mantra that things could always be worse. …Even when they get worse, and worse, and worse. Prince isn’t picking on Bartelby, though: we’re not laughing at him; we are transfixed by his focus, and kept on edge to see where and when and how he will surely snap, until we’re brought to an absolute endpoint. And then brought, miraculously, beyond it. Even the denouncement at issue’s end offers further doubling-downs on this, feinting toward one final Twilight Zone-twist that never occurs, but that then circles back around to a variant on Ice Cream Man’s ‘life is as it ever was’ ideology.

I’ve liked artist Vanesa Del Rey on other comics, but also have found her heavily-inked moodiness to feel cludgy and forced, on occasion. I haven’t seen her work in a bit, but it’s a perfect match for this issue, and stunningly effected. Layouts are brilliant, leaning in to her jagged inky shading for highlight purposes, and letting layouts stretch out in borderless, but completely readable miasmas, at key points. She juggles the tragedy and comedy of the issue seamlessly. Colorist Chris O’Halloran brings an appropriately tempered tone to match Del Rey’s style.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Haha, and at one issue, I still am not, but you can be sure I’ll be waiting on issue two to find out.