Review by Karl Verhoven
Very disappointingly, the gap between one Ice Cream Man collection and the next is becoming longer and longer, with the gap between this and Just Desserts the longest to date, yet there’s no disappointment when they arrive. W. Maxwell Prince has instituted a horror formula only limited by his imagination, and so far there have been no limits on that. That’s seen on the sample art. Being on a plane where the pilots are oblivious to a large red flashing button marked “CATASTROPHIC FAILURE” must rank very high on everyone’s nightmare list.
Prince and Martín Marazzo stretch that opening disaster out over 24 gut-wrenching pages, with the callous indifference to impending disaster stretched beyond belief. An old lady’s needlepoint reads “We’re all going down”, the pilots discuss the possibility of the afterlife, and on the planet surface people with their own problems watch without being able to communicate. It’s five star, first rate horror, and the cynical three page aftermath is great as well. As ever, Marazzo’s poised art is understated and astonishingly good.
A short story follows. Is it a fantasy or a glimpse into the future? Only Prince knows, and there’s no reason to tell us. It’s a teaser about the denizens of a place outside Earth gathering for a trial.
Conceptual toying with the form of comics has been a regular feature of Ice Cream Man, and it manifests again in Michael Arvek’s literal descent through his family tree in an attempt to figure out his neuroses. A clever indicator on the first stop gives a hint. The story is told over spreads requiring the book to be turned.
The conceptual innovation isn’t restricted to form, as the following story’s opening tragedy gives a nod to the ongoing ice cream theme before becoming a reversal of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis as the cockroach Grg wakes up one morning and is transforming into a human. It’s tragic, it’s funny, it’s clever and it’s wonderful. “In place of hard carapace Greg has a fleshy, achey back”, Grg notes as he considers his new form, “he has no mesothoracic legs for morsel-twiddling; he is completely without antennae for high-level sensory relay.”
We follow the journey of an etymologist for the final story, led up a tricky mountain with rickety bridge crossings by an enquiring guide and the blind man he respects as a shamen, given to gnomic utterances requiring translation. It’s funny, darkly funny, with a few connections back to earlier stories, which may or may not be meaningless.
A few volumes back there was a fear that Prince had run out of steam, but every volume since has proved that wrong, and Certain Descents is fantastic horror, innovative, intelligent, chilling, but with laughs amid the despair.