As My Marvelous Year clubbers know, I like to highlight the near infinite number of different opinions co-host Zack and I have when it comes to comics. Leading examples include our ongoing feuds over the value of Stilt-Man, Alpha Flight, Secret Wars (although he’s come around on this one a bit!), and if I’m being honest the one that will always assure me I’m right, Fallen Angels.
Other examples are too numerous to even begin counting (see also: I, uh, can’t think of any right now), but Ice Cream Man is a notable recent highlight. I’ve been raving about the Image Comics horror anthology since it debuted in 2018, and as of the CBH best of 2020 so far list, I’d consider Ice Cream Man the best ongoing comic book of the year. Co-Host Zack has read some, and without malice, didn’t see why I’m so into it. After an MMY recording he asked me, and I’m paraphrasing, “Oh great one [that’s what he calls me, didn’t ask him to, but I don’t ask him *not to* either], why do you love Ice Cream Man so much?”
*Mild Spoilers for the comics follow*
So, in the interest of trying to articulate thoughts on comics, rather than resort to BECAUSE IT’S AWESOME, I have some thoughts on why Ice Cream Man is such a special comic book series.
Off the bat, I’ll acknowledge that I wasn’t a complete confective convert right out of the gates. In 2018, I ranked the series my 6th favorite comic of the year – high, but not my absolute favorite. Again in 2019, Ice Cream Man was among my year-end favorites, but I would not have called it “the best ongoing comic book.”
What absolutely sold me on Ice Cream Man, and has become exceedingly apparent throughout 2020, is that no comic matches the book’s structural ambition on a month to month cadence. At this point, the absolute open-ended structure of the book is the most exciting aspect to me. There’s a genuine thrill month in and month out about what each new episode might bring. In the span of the last 5 issues we’ve seen everything from a palindrome comic to a crossword puzzle comic to a brilliant satire of Morrison and Quitely’s All Star Superman.
Structurally, Ice Cream Man is nearly 100% self-contained from issue to issue. Which remains fairly uncommon in serialized comics, and increasingly appealing for a medium that asks Wednesday Warriors to pick up the pieces of a story 1 chapter per month (I can barely remember what day of the week it is, but I’m supposed to retain part of a sequential story a whole month later?). For those less familiar, this series revolves around the mysterious presence of an Ice Cream Man, with increasingly dark and sinister secrets. The horror that manifests may not all directly stem from him, but he/it’s certainly an influence.
Within the framework of Ice Cream Man terror, there’s a true sense that this book can be absolutely anything, and Prince, Morazzo and company prove capable of pulling the frightening core out of any genre or scenario. The elements of Ice Cream Man that I find horrific, or haunting in more cases, are the unsettling human realities, not the supernatural scares. It’s the way Ice Cream Man paints the dissolution of a marriage, the uncertainty of fatherhood, and doubting the mere *possibility* of happiness that keeps me pondering the contents long after I’ve finished reading.
Starting with issue #4, Prince and company lay out the idea that there’s a larger mythology to this mysterious Ice Cream Man, with opposing alien forces summarized in Caleb, a cowboy in all black. The specifics of this mythology (where do they come from? What are they really?) aren’t necessarily why I’m invested, but the symbolic relationship has me hooked. At its core the battle between Rick (Ice Cream Man) and Caleb is a battle between fragmentation, and the recurring philosophy that “Everything is one thing.” The Ice Cream Man’s central terror is a voice that tells us every problem in the world is impossibly small, a near infinite swarm of creeping dread that will inevitably overwhelm us. Caleb cuts through this voice with the reminder that “everything is one thing.” We are not so different, and there is unity in centering oneself.
Needless to say, it is too often a battle Caleb appears to be losing. Most characters in Ice Cream Man meet dark, concerning fates. Yet over the most recent issues, I’ve been noticing more hopeful resolutions. In issue #14 (the crossword puzzle comic), the character Earl actually seems to escape overwhelming existential dread, at least temporarily. Likewise, despite the deep sadness of Ice Cream Man #18 and the gremlin stealing a dying man’s memories, he meets his end with really a beautiful sentiment that “having been” was reward enough.
While Ice Cream Man is undoubtedly heavy and contemplative, there’s also a life and black humor throughout the series that keeps the world from tottering into an abyss. I’m frequently energized by the story’s madcap navigation, whether it’s the Tenacious D rock-on metal of a line like “It’s a melody gun with room in the chamber for only one song” or the darkly comical absurdity of “You, Me, and Tim’s head… we can be a family!” Martin Morazzo’s art and Chris O’Halloran’s colors fit this atmosphere perfectly, even in the goriest of moments, as does their creative willingness to experiment with form, style and approach to fit the story.
Above all, Ice Cream Man is a deeply smart exploration of what comics can be month in and month out. It’s heavy-handed praise, but it’s genuine for me to say its endless curves bring to mind the open-world variability of Sandman. In our recent conversation, W. Maxwell Prince told me he could see Ice Cream Man ending with issue #24, which would be both depressing and intelligent. I don’t want it to end, but Ice Cream Man is ahead of the curve in so many ways, setting the bar for a work’s creative reach, why not retire on top?