Haha: Gustav in the World of Floating Objects (#4) – W. Maxwell Prince

4 out of 5

Haha, W. Maxwell Prince’s second anthology series after Ice Cream Man, has, to me, struggled to establish its tone. The first issue blew me away by coming across as something of a purposeful inversion of ICM, while somehow paralleling its themes; the comparison maybe isn’t fair or intended, but it’s – perhaps – unfortunately inevitable, as Prince plucks at humanity’s unsteadiness in imagery-linked one-shot tales in both series. However, whereas Ice Cream Man has some vague lore and a larger palette of horror to work with, Haha is both more limited – all issues have to deal with, uh, clowns? – and more open-ended, as no real m.o. has been set; both of these “changes” have prevented the series from hitting the same impact as that initial issue. “Gustav in the world of floating objects” gets really close, though, returning to that issue’s exploration of happiness – and how ephemeral, and how frail, it can be.

The title is pretty descriptive: Gustav is our main character, and he finds himself in a world that floats. Everything floats. He narrates to us about specifics that he sees, and then – beyond this premise itself – it diverges into more surreal, and emotional territory. Back on terra firma, a young boy is telling his mother about the birthday clown who shrunk down and disappeared inside one of his balloons, while the mother laments that the clown had shown up drunk…

Prince jumps back and forth between these two – Gustav; the mother and child – clueing us in to the clown’s struggles in real life while he similarly battles some demons in the floating world, all of those interestingly paralleling some more grounded happenstances for the Earthly-bound parent and son. Patrick Horvath’s water-colored, limn-lined art is a very good match for this, capturing a particular light-hearted feeling right away, but mapped to a rather human frailty – allowing everyone to seem strong, or weak, as needed, the story both comical and true.

The full-length comic seems to be a couple pages beyond the needs of this concept, though, as Prince sometimes wanders narratively off the beaten path and tone in the middle, something that can crop up in Ice Cream Man as well. It’s not ruinously distracting by any means, these are just moments when the story doesn’t feel as tightly bound; when the emotions get away from us. And some passing mentions of the movie Up seem to be there just as like a preventative measure, letting us know that Prince is aware of the similarities so we don’t have to point it out. I get it, but I also found these a tad distracting.

I still, admittedly, can’t see how Haha extends, as a series, much further, unless it is reduced down to simply needing to feature a clown, and then the story itself can be whatever, but even that might only go so far. That said, I’m very happy that Gustav in the World of Floating Objects hit back at the levels of the premiere, and given that Prince is way more talented and thoughtful than I am, perhaps we’ll see it’s like again – and more often – than I assume.