We’ve all heard the fantastical children’s stories that were meant to frighten us when we were younger. They are meant to drive obedience and good behavior (or more practically, put us to bed). Whether it’s the Pied Piper of Hamlin, Hansel and Gretel, or the Boy who Cried Wolf, the moral of the story is usually for the kid to get in line or suffer horrific consequences at the hands of a nefarious outside entity. In the recently collected Ice Cream Man, W. Maxwell Prince, Martin Morazzo and Chris O’Halloran invite us to hear similar stories regardless of our age. However, this collection takes this a step further. Rather than just declare “Behave, or else!”, the overarching theme of this collection is to explore people’s hopes and dreams and what can happen when we become so fixated on these dreams.
The format is easy to digest and relatively unique as every issue is a separate installment with its own cast and dilemma. However, there is definitely a cohesion in the vein of Black Mirror as the stories are set in the same universe and even the same city. And permeating all of the tales is the titular character himself, a seemingly happy-go-lucky man named Rick who dotes on his customers, particularly the children. But as we see with each issue, there is more to him than meets the eye.
In the first story, the focal point is around the McAllister family, a seemingly well-to-do middle class couple and their grade-school son, Byron, who immediately stands out for his desire for independence, even at such a young age. Things seem normal enough until we find the horrific circumstances under which Byron and his pet spider Rupert have been living in. It takes an effort from an enterprising local detective and intervention from the spider itself to stop dreams from becoming reality. As the chapter concludes, one can infer that when Byron expressed a desire for independence, the Ice Cream Man seemed to show up with his truck. Whatever happened after that would seem, at first, like one getting what they wanted and dreamt of, but would in reality end with total consumption of the individual by his or her dream.
The second story picks up in the wake of the Ice Cream Man’s failure with Byron. This time, we meet a drug addict couple who came together with hopes and dreams, much like Byron. We learn that things were good when they initially met and then eventually they got mixed up with drugs. Now the guy, Jimbo, lies still having just overdosed on heroin while the girl, Karen, panics and tries to figure out what to do. In an issue-long sequence that reminded me of Requiem for a Dream, instead of finding help for Jimbo, Karen proceeds to go to extreme lengths to try and score one more hit for both of them, with an overwhelming fantasy of moving away to Arizona playing out in her thoughts presented in the form of a diary/narrative. It fails horrifically and sure enough, the Ice Cream Man appears just as everything hits rock bottom for Karen (with his truck already having served as an instrument for the start of her downfall). This time, he succeeds wildly and the aftermath of this story leaves us feeling bleak and hopeless as to whether “reaching for the stars” is even worth it anymore.
The third story follows a washed up rocker, Bud Hickey, who was best known in the ’60s for being a one-hit wonder before fading into obscurity. We find that he’s never been able to come to terms with this state of affairs and believes he can come up with one more hit to revive his career, much to the chagrin of his friend Dae. Once again, the Ice Cream Man shows up like clockwork and offers his sweet confection to cheer Bud up. After this, Bud goes home only to find himself drawn into a world where the metaphorical claims of the ’60s, that Bud was going to save the world with his new religion, the rock revolution, are brought to life through mind-blowing means. Up until this point, we got a bit of restraint with monsters in the first issue and gritty drug problems in the second issue, but in this issue the entire creative team lets it rip. The world Bud enters features flying ice cream, a temple designed like a cone, and a flying vehicle that reminded me of The Magic School Bus. However, all of this pales next to the motley crew of characters that includes Ziggy Stardust himself, each of whom is pulled from a song contemporaneous to Bud’s heyday. In the end, while he is encouraged by these folks to write that elusive new song, we are left to wonder if the key to overcoming the misery associated with the Ice Cream Man is to abandon your dreams. And with that, the follow up question becomes whether the emptiness that remains take you right back where you started.
The final story involves a man who gave up on being a father and came to regret it too late. We are introduced to Mr. Carson and his deceased son Chris through the eyes of Pastor Joel, who has a child on the way himself and is musing about his future. If the last issue was the creative team going all out from a supernatural perspective, in this issue they do the same except from an emotional perspective. Carson’s pleas to Joel about not repeating the same mistakes he did are heartbreaking. It takes Joel coming up with an unconventional solution for Carson to finally achieve the closure he has sought for decades. While Chris’s destiny appears uncertain, we get to see the Ice Cream Man finally get some comeuppance.
With the conclusion of the story we get a bit more clarity around who the Ice Cream Man is, but whether he is real, native to this world, or native to the next, ultimately the message the book sends is that every person must take ownership of his or her dreams, the actions taken to achieve them, and the consequences. In various ways, the characters in each issue come tantalizingly close to realizing this but in one way or another they ultimately come up short. Maybe it’s simply a reflection of our humanity, and we’re all doomed to be going through an eternal afterlife of rotating tortures.
I want to give a special shoutout to Martin Morazzo for expanding on the art style popularized by Frank Quitely. What I particularly love about the way characters are drawn in this technique is that we get to see humans as humans, with misshapen teeth, stubble, pimples and wrinkles. It becomes even more fascinating when contrasted with the supernatural elements that Morazzo is quickly becoming my go to guy for (see She Could Fly). I also want to recognize Chris O’Halloran for setting each issue in a distinct time of day or environment. While we noted already that the story takes place in a shared universe and city, the colorist has a ton of power in dictating the setting and just from a glance in the sky we can see that “life goes on” even in spite of the Ice Cream Man and his efforts to ruin lives.
There isn’t a wasted moment in this collection. Every scene feels ominous and fraught with suffering, even the supposed good times. And just when things seem to be turning the corner, reality slaps the protagonists back in the face. To keep this series interesting, I hope Prince builds further on his technique of putting the Ice Cream Man himself in danger. The message would then truly become that no one, not even the Devil himself, can escape the jaws of reality and unfulfilled dreams.