Eric Haven’s new collection of short works, Compulsive Comics, offers good laughs and vigorous surrealism, and you can easily enjoy it for those two things and walk away from it entertained and cheerful. But if you let your brain linger a while as you read it and allow the text and panels take you by the hand and lead you along, it will reveal the multi-dimensional underbelly of his work, with clear indications of how his unconscious unfolds in his work and winds its way through like a philosophical thread.
The first story, “The Glacier,” concerns itself with glacial exploration of the scientific kind, most specifically a glaciologist. Glaciology and I’ll just quote Wikipedia here for simplicity, is “an interdisciplinary Earth science that integrates geophysics, geology, physical geography, geomorphology, climatology, meteorology, hydrology, biology, and ecology. The impact of glaciers on people includes the fields of human geography and anthropology.”
Glaciologists, in other words, are renaissance people, capable of winding knowledge around multiple lures. By the end of this story, though, our glaciologist may have encountered too many inter-disciplines colliding with the outcome of his current studies. “The Glacier” might just be an examination of some things being all too much, and regardless of academic research bringing together so many forms of data and enlightenment, there’s always the moment you reach that is beyond all those reference points, and you feel the need to ground yourself however you can.
Let’s just say our glaciologist discovers a lot more than he expected, as does our hero in “I Killed Dan Clowes.” That story pretty much delivers what the title promises, but with the added attraction of Eric Haven himself, in performing said killing, discovering much more about the universe than he previously suspected.
“Mammalogy” brings the concept of unknown secrets in the universe into superhero terms, spanning millions of years on Earth to settle into a scenario with a volcanologist — surely the opposite of a glaciologist — and an encounter with a superhero named The Mongoose who seems like someone out of a Fletcher Hanks comic and who wants to explain to the comely volcanologist the secret history of the earth through a lens of war — mammal versus reptilian — but fears she will never comprehend such a sweeping indictment of reality as she has experienced it.
Volcanology is a more streamlined area of study than glaciology, according to Wikipedia anyhow, so the Mongoose is probably correct. Volcanologists are not as varied in the knowledge, nor experienced in placing multiple disciplines into service of one, multi-dimensional scientific explanation of anything.
These first three stories are instructive in context of the stories that remain, each existing in a realm of comic book logic that remains invisible to the comics readers because we are so used to it. Comics are their own language, and a number of us learn this language concurrently with other media languages as kids. What flies in a novel or a movie seems weird in a comic. The opposite is true. That’s why though films and television based on superheroes have become more faithful to the source in tone there are aspects that never meld comfortably.
Haven plays with these ideas. It’s the same way language works in something like Jaime Hernandez’s Maggie and Hopey stories, where fantastic science fiction elements coexist alongside gritty dramatic scenarios, where dark drama can elicit the same visual response in the characters as you might see in old Archie comics. The language that comics has developed over 70 years or so is a distinctly surreal one that takes each part of itself and reuses it in unlikely scenarios.
This results in comic book fans seeing movie adaptations of their favorite books and loving them, but movie fans rarely moving in the opposite direction. This results in Betty and Veronica meeting Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. It results in Haven telling his stories.
This is exactly the landscape that “Confluence” and “Secret Origins” rest in. These companion stories show the stereotype of a lonely, pathetic, self-effacing modern cartoonist getting swept up in the adventures of old cartoon style — that is, a battle between an aviatrix superhero and a giant monster. These comic book creatures from two different genres — autobiographical and superhero — have their moment together, but they could never stay together, though Haven’s footnote is both sinister and pathetic enough that it goes well with both worlds.
“The Accuser,” though, is a different animal from all that came before it — in a way it felt like a wonderful unpublished story from the ’70s that was meant to appear in Star*Reach. A debate between God, angels, and the Devil, it’s a dialogue that argues, in essence, that the sin of chaos is that it destroys order and that the sin of order is that it controls chaos, a spinning wheel of cosmic order built on suppression. In context of Haven’s comics, it’s a bit like the dynamic of his narratives, which feature competing styles attempting to cancel each other out, but instead melding into something different — a universe governed by chaos and order, equal parts creating reality.
This is followed by “The Highway,” which intros like a universal order and exits like a free-for-all. Both chaos and order are presented as one — a road with surprises, a set path with unexpected attractions that uses a known structure to foist these on you. Haven’s work lies somewhere in that description.