ICE CREAM MAN Delivers Year-Best Horror, Soft-Served

Horror fans, this comic is for you!

Suburbia can be a scary place. Many great authors and filmmakers have mined manicured lawns and little box houses to reveal the insects and darkness writhing underneath. Few, though, have done so served up as three scoops of cold, creamy goodness piled high on top a crunchy cone.

Ice Cream Man, a horror anthology comic book from Image, just released its second collection, Strange Neapolitan. The graphic novel features the series’ latest four issues, a collection of one-shot tales of terror set in and around suburbia. The comic book is one of the weirdest, scariest and most heartbreaking things you will experience this year. It’s a flat-out wonderful series, with gorgeous artwork, surprising stories, a deliciously sinister monster at the center and … and … why the heck are you still reading this article – go and read the dang book!

For those still reading (thanks, Mom!), what images are conjured up when you think of horror anthologies? Tales from the Crypt? The Vault of Horror? Creepy? Chilling Adventures In Sorcery with Sabrina the Teenage Witch? I’m sure it’s something of that nature – gleefully graphic tales of zombies, werewolves and vampires narrated by grinning ghouls and wise-cracking witches who traffic in puns. But horror can mean a lot of different things. Throughout the course of the first eight issues of Ice Cream Man, writer W. Maxwell Prince and artists Martín Morazzo and Chris O’Halloran find horror in, just to name a few places, the death of a child, the abandonment of dreams, inescapable addiction to both love and drugs, the heavy shackles of loneliness and, yes, werewolves, poisonous spiders and unexplained carnage delivered by a vulture with a taste for eyeballs.

Rick, dressed in Good Humor uniform whites and never without a wide grin, is the Ice Cream Man at the center of the series. But Rick the Ice Cream Man is not a passive narrator, existing at the peripheries at the stories to offer a joke, a wink and a summary of the morals readers were meant to take away from the story. Rick the Ice Cream Man is a slithering, fang-toothed demon wondering through the lives of the unfortunate town he has chosen to call his temporary home. Torturing, maiming, devouring and corrupting the stories’ characters, Rick the Ice Cream Man is more Pennywise the Dancing Clown than Crypt-Keeper. He is the danger lurking at the edges of the story, whispering madness into the stories’ protagonists and transforming into monsters – both fantastical and human – as the need arises. His motivations are unknown – is he hungry for human flesh, desirous of souls to corrupt or just bored and looking for a way to pass the time?

Prince, the series’ writer, hints at some larger mythos behind Rick, introducing a spiritual foil by the name of Caleb, a cowboy who appears sporadically through the series to halt Rick’s plans and who seems to have a very, very deep-rooted past with the monster. Readers are never given the full story and only experience small hints that something bigger, perhaps more cosmic is playing out around them.

I love this!

These hints at some great game beyond the understanding of mere humans is a wonderful way to world-build without abandoning the weird, quasi-surreal tone that Ice Cream Man has made its bed out of. The comic book can get as weird as it wants to and doesn’t need to let the rest of us in on the joke. This, if anything, causes a desire in readers to invest that much more of themselves in the story, filling in the pieces missing with our own theories, fascinations and fetishes. Future issues seem to be set in the past, so clues will no doubt be revealed as the series progresses. While Prince might have plans to expand the mythos behind Rick, I’d be perfectly happy never knowing exactly what is going on behind the scenes – horror is in the not knowing.

The sixth issue of the series, titled "Strange Neapolitan," is a perfect distillation of the possibilities and beauty of the series. In it, the story (told completely without dialogue) begins with a young man buying Neapolitan ice cream from Rick. From there, the story splits in three directions, each color tinted to resemble the flavors of Neapolitan. In one story, the young man bumps into a young woman, falls in love and finds happiness, only to experience the tragedy that can come with losing said happiness. In another story, the young man finds a young puppy and discovers a fulfilled life raising it, taking drastic measures to make sure he doesn’t lose it. In the third story, the young man is jumped by a masked killer (Rick, naturally), is brutally tortured, and has a small bird hatch out of his chest. Three realities, three flavors of ice cream. Goddamn, this series is great.

Other stories deal with a one-hit-wonder teaming up with fiction characters from rock songs (Ruby Tuesday, Rocky Racoon, Ziggy Stardust to name a few) to try and write another hit song; a young girl who lost her best friend but refuses to believe her spirit has departed; and a small gaggle of children who attempt to provide a funeral for a dead clown.

All these stories, innately weird and unpleasant at their center, are made magical through the work of artist Martín Morazzo and colorist Chris O’Halloran. Morazzo’s character designs are filled with humanity, their eyes brimming with sadness and desire. The artist is pretty much a sadist, illustrating characters that are immediately relatable and then gleefully teaming up with Prince to do the worst imaginable things to them. By contrast, his monsters are scary as all get out, wonderfully creative and surprising. Their designs mix the classic with the unexpected. O’Halloran’s crisp coloring ties the whole thing together, giving the book a look that evokes the retro sensibilities that are interwoven with the very idea of an ice cream man itself.

If you are a fan of the films and television shows of David Lynch, have a hankering for horror fiction that refuses to be defined and are unafraid to confront some truly unpleasant stories that consistently threaten to ruin that good day you thought you were having, you cannot afford to miss out on Ice Cream Man. Two collections are now available from Image Comics and the ninth issue arrives in January. In addition, the series has been optioned for a television show adaptation by Universal, with Sneaky Pete writers Max Reid and Adam Reid adapting the comic for possible pick-up by premium cable or streaming services. Warning, though – reading this series will cause you a lifetime of flinching upon hearing "Pop Goes the Weasel."