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Ice Haven by Daniel Clowes and “Rocky : 100,000 B.C.”

January 26, 2014


Rocky appears near the middle of the novel. He’s a simple character, with bright (but seemingly emotionless) eyes, black hair, stubble, and an orange animal skin garment. Visually, he recalls a lobotomized Fred Flintstone. This resemblance is important. Rocky and Fred couldn’t me more dissimilar. Fred, a 1960s pop culture icon, inhabits a world that is nominally removed from the present but which is (comically) quite modern. In Fred’s world, the nuclear family, technology, and society are converted into caveman analogues. In Rocky’s world, by contrast, the comforts and constraints of modern society are utterly stripped away. As we see it, Rocky’s world is comically dissimilar to the present.


The Rocky comic strip stands apart stylistically from other episodes in Ice Haven. Throughout much (but not all) of the novel, Clowes makes use of a more realistic drawing style than appears in Rocky. In Rocky, Blue Bunny, and the second Leopold and Loeb strips, however, the drawing style shifts to feature stout, bright-eyed characters with childlike features, reminiscent of “funnies page” stock characters, as well as the Schultz-inflected children who populate the rest of Ice Haven. It’s also important that in the Rocky strip, the panels are small and regimented. This organization aids us in our transport: out of the lofty world of malaise to the primitive and primordial. A version of this shift appears elsewhere in the story; for instance, contrast the scenes of Random Wilder’s grandiose self-oration (8-9), his descent into distraction and self-doubt (54-55), and his clumsy, dejected suicide attempt (72-73).

In Rocky’s case, the simplistic drawing style transports us into a primeval world where human institutions have melted away, where humans are bound neither by society’s rules nor by concepts of “Good and Evil.”

Ice Haven p49

Hence Rocky, nearing the (rather early) end of his life and inching towards an existential void, feels both compelled and free to transgress against (not yet established) moral conventions. He commits murder and rape in a matter of a few panels. Rocky attempts to satisfy a personal longing that leaves him feeling empty. When violence fails to fill the void, he sets out to explore instead, but soon becomes frustrated at his underwhelming surroundings (note how the only emotions besides blankness that Rocky demonstrates are anger at the inanimate things he encounters on his journey and finally exhaustion). Exhausted, Rocky decides to monumentalize himself. His hope is that the monument will survive and grow. Before he gets too far, though, his human limits force him to surrender and die in the small pit he’s prepared for himself.


In a sort of distilled microcosm, Rocky explores themes that weave throughout the book. Importantly, Rocky, like Leopold and Loeb, Random Wilder, etc. feels drawn to express himself through both violence and art—the difference being that the other “modern” characters are constrained by society’s rules in their exercise of the former.


In a Nietzschean sense, Rocky is something of an ubermensch, in that he is free to write his own values onto the world rather than vice versa. Later characters aspire to the same status, but the results are hardly edifying and equally pointless. Rocky, Leo and Loeb, Blue Bunny, and Random Wilder inhabit very private, reflective worlds and perform acts with significance only to themselves, the result being that the “point” of their “art” or “work” is lost to outsiders.

The relationship between Rocky’s violent acts and his “monument” are important.” In the story, they’re shown to be expressions of the same soul-searching impulse. In Freudian terms, we might call this an allegory of desublimation, which refers to the conversion of a repressed, negative impulse into a more socially acceptable one. There is no such barrier between “acceptable” and “unacceptable” behavior in Rocky’s world, but it does exist in the subsequent realities and in the outer narratives–perhaps hilariously so.

Hence we find it ironic that Random Wilder kidnaps David Goldberg—a pointless act of violence—which ironically gives occasion to an unlikely proof of communication happening between Clowes’s comically isolated sufferers. Goldberg proves to have received Wilder’s poem by repeating it.


Rocky demonstrates, however, that absent human constructions, there is no real difference between the two impulses of self-monumentalization and community and no real way to satisfy either.

  1. Even in an existential world there is a place for human empathy.
    Nice essay.

  2. anon234234234 permalink

    Thanks for helping me make sense of some of the comic. There really is a nihilistic undercurrent throughout and you can also see Clowe adopting archetypes for his own use like the hardboiled detective. Personally I didn’t find it cohesive enough to be a comment on society, but rather it was looking on humanity in general. Great analysis.

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