How the hardcover collecting Alex de Campi’s Smoke and Ashes made its way to my doorstep is a story itself. Smoke was a 3 issue, prestige format mini-series published by IDW in 2005. In 2011 de Campi and Jimmy Broxton (pseudonym for James Hodgkins) went to Kickstarter to fund a Smoke sequel, Ashes. Shortly into the funding period de Campi fired Broxton/Hodgkins off the book and began the process of finding a replacement artist.
She ended up finding more than a dozen.
I had pledged at the $30 level, which entitled me to a limited HC of Ashes, a digital version and assurances that a mass market TPB would be shipped 6 months after my HC, at the earliest. Estimated delivery was December 2012.
I ended up with digital issues through Comixology, and a slipcased hardcover collection of both Smoke and Ashes published by Dark Horse. Dark Horse simultaneously published a TPB version of the HC for the Direct and Bookstore markets. My copy arrived the first week of October, 2013.
It’s a beautiful collection, and well worth the wait. The slipcase features cover art from Smoke on one side (Igor Kordey) and one of the Ashes covers/chapter breaks (Ama Busia) on the other. The book itself gets a beautiful cover from Tomer Hanuka. It has a signature page signed by de Campi and my package included the surprise of a small signature plate from chapter 5 artist Alice Duke. The binding is tight and the book lays open nicely with no gutter loss, not a small feat on a 420+ page hardcover.
I had read Smoke during its original run and re-reading it now I found many of the same pleasures. It’s a political thriller/satire/spy thriller/action movie with a kind of Watchmen tone of political maneuvering and a healthy distrust of government. It’s set in future London and the plot revolves around a series of assassinations tied to a complicated conspiracy involving oil prices, the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and high level British government officials. Our heroes are an albino assassin and a female reporter who gets herself involved in a hostage situation. There’s also a wussy Prime Minister, a cyborg named “No Face”, a group of obese terrorists who demand money for liposuction and a very cool train station shootout. It’s a fast paced, well written story that is still easily understandable despite its twists and turns. I really enjoyed the story but the best part of Smoke, for me, is Igor Kordey’s (New X-Men, X-Treme X-Men) art. I love his faces; they’re very distinct and expressive. The body language and posture of his characters also express their emotions well. In Smoke his panels are packed, backgrounds are often very detailed and sometimes have a surprising amount of depth. The previously mentioned train station shootout is a great action sequence with clear storytelling, great action panels and a fast, kinetic flow. Kordey’s art has always reminded me of Derrick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, The Boys), and Frank Quitely (All Star Superman, We3) and I’ve been surprised at his lack of mainstream success in the States. According to the original Kickstarter pitch, he’s become popular in France, so, while I’m disappointed he wasn’t able to return for Ashes, I’m happy for his success.
For this reason, and a few others, Ashes is less successful for me. First though, let me say that Ashes, while a direct sequel to Smoke, also works fine as a standalone story. Though much of the cast is carried over from Smoke, the relationships they have in this new story are well established and plot elements a new reader would need to know are laid out early on. My problem with Ashes is largely with the story. While Smoke was a tightly woven thriller Ashes is more scattershot and meandering. It picks up an undetermined length of time after Smoke. Katie, the reporter, is blacklisted due to her participation in the first book's events, and Rupert, the albino assassin, is in some sort of self-imposed exile, working on a fishing boat. An antagonist from the first book reemerges in a new form and Rupert and Katie are on the run again. It all sounds pretty straightforward.
It is not.
Ashes suffers from way to many random plot elements, some of which seem almost entirely unrelated to the main action and that are never really resolved. The meat of the story is the mostly dead cyborg from Smoke uploading his consciousness to the internet in order to extract revenge on Rupert for SPOILER related reasons. Then there’s all this other… stuff. An antagonist from Smoke is running a factory that produces pork grown from pig stem cells, and the resulting meat structure that they harvest from may be alive. This thread is resolved but doesn't ever seem to tie in to the main story. The wife of a soldier who was indirectly killed when the cyborg re-awoke is on a mission of vengeance that has her show up conveniently in the last act. Then there are the deliberately stylized sequences; a series of pages in the style of a children’s book, a short sequence in a “medieval” (I guess?) style and a series of panels meant to represent various television genres. They’re all more or less successful, but the longer parts tended to take me out of the story more than I expect was intended.
The funny part is that the thing I thought was going to be a problem, multiple artists with varying styles, actually turned out pretty well. In most cases, de Campi did a good job matching the artist to the sequence/chapter that would fit their strengths. Standouts include Milton & Felipe Sobreiro on Chapter One, Carla Speed McNeil on a flashback sequence in Chapter Two, a great action sequence from Dan McDaid in Chapter Three and R.M. Guera’s contribution to Chapter Eight. Less successful, for me, is a Bill Sienkiewicz painted sequence in Chapter Eight (I understand the skill Sienkiewicz brings to the table but I don’t enjoy his style as much as others and was disappointed with the more ethereal style of storytelling chosen for the ending) and a section in Chapter Four from Mack Chater that looked too stiff or photo-referenced for my taste.
So overall, Ashes is the lesser of the two stories for me. I do wonder if my reading of the material affected my perception though; if I had skipped past Smoke and counted on my vague recollection to get me through I might have enjoyed Ashes more. But stacked against the tight storytelling and beautiful Igor Kordey art, Ashes couldn’t measure up. This leaves me in an awkward position: Smoke is worth purchasing, Ashes less so. Smoke is only available solo on Comixology (at a rock bottom .99 per issue). There is no print option. The slipcased hardcover is such a nice object that I feel I can recommend its purchase also, provided you can find a copy from one of the few retailers who participated in the Kickstarter (InStocktrades is one). And the softcover ends up being a good value at $29.99 (discounted at Amazon and IST also). So in the end the strength of Smoke and the quality of the presentation overcomes the underwhelming Ashes and I feel I can recommend the collection.