As one gets through the barrage of misery that is Ice Cream Man, the question arises: why are we so captivated by stories about misery, death, and destruction? There’s something to be said about escapism and happy endings, but horror in particular is something that fans of fiction, in all mediums, cannot resist. Perhaps it’s the sobering acknowledgment that not everyone can relate to happiness and good times, but all of us, no matter how well life has treated us, can empathize with sadness, darkness, and hopelessness (even if we try to deny it). This “everyman” perspective on bad feelings is driven home with this month’s brilliantly relatable, family-focused installment.
In a nod to readers who have stuck with the book since the beginning, the issue jumps right into the problem affecting our protagonist and doesn’t even bother with the usual niceties. It’s assumed that the reader knows all about the Ice Cream Man, his truck, his diabolical nature and his treats. What we spend more time on is Lucy, a 9-year old girl, and her imaginary friend. Her true challenge is being able to come to terms with the death of her best friend, while her parents are distraught and go as far as sending their daughter to a psychologist. Of course, the Ice Cream Man manipulates this very relatable issue and uses it to lure Lucy to his shack, with unthinkable horrors in store for her before the day is saved and Lucy learns an important lesson about acceptance and grief.
As with every issue in this anthology series, the plot is just one important element of the overall package. The stuff underneath the surface is ridiculously full of riches. What stands out here is that there are a lot of firsts in this issue (as is usually the case with every issue). This one manages to be the first issue to purportedly show us the “continuing adventures” of one of the previous protagonists, and unfortunately, the outcome is not pretty. The Ice Cream Man himself also shows yet another new manifestation of himself, with this one arguably being the creepiest one to date — Morazzo draws him like a cross between a snake and a spider in a truly terrifying visual portrayal. Finally, the ending is a surprisingly positive one and marks the first time there is no question about the purity of it; even though there is a tinge of sadness involved, the Ice Cream Man doesn’t have any silver lining he can take away from the outcome.
One other thing that really stood out to me in this issue was just how much attention Morazzo and O’Halloran give to the surroundings of every scene. The issue is full of small artistic details that are never directly referenced in the script, but add so much more context and mood to the proceedings and allow Morazzo to find a way to put his own independent stamp on the story. Whether it’s the small extract from the local newspaper talking about an alcohol and drug related matter, a Yale University diploma hanging in the psychologist’s office, or Lucy’s backpack foreshadowing the new look of the Ice Cream Man, you can find new things with repeat reads. This is incredibly rare in today’s comic world and shows an unparalleled level of thought and care.
As great as the book was, however, there are problems with this issue that also threaten to dampen my enthusiasm if they continue. I should be clear and preface this criticism by appreciating that this series is an anthology and there is almost no plot-based connectivity from issue to issue, an approach that is very atypical for comics. But in spite of that, for the first time I felt that the story was beginning to go in circles, specifically with the Sheriff/Cowboy vs. Ice Cream Man conflict. This now marks the third time these two have run into each other, have a brief verbal confrontation, and then back down. This conflict really needs to move forward in some new way if it is referenced again. Also, the broader themes are beginning to repeat themselves. This marked the third issue where acceptance of death was the main “lesson,” and the second featuring a child. For now, this is tolerable, but this sort of repetition without enough nuance could get boring very quickly.
It says a lot about just how brilliant this series has been that even though I felt this issue was a bit of a step back, it easily matches or eclipses the effort most creators can muster on their best day. While a couple of key plot elements are starting to get repetitive, Prince and Morazzo are still managing to pull out new concepts from their well of ideas and deliver twists on previously explored angles. There’s a bit less hopelessness and misery, but it doesn’t impact how essential this series should continue to be for every collector’s pull list.