‘Smoke/Ashes:’ Advance TPB Review

Welcome to the world of Smoke/Ashes, two series, separated by eight years in real time and five years in story time, that comprise of writer and creator Alex de Campi’s comics masterwork, being released by Dark Horse in one glorious, gorgeous package.  Don’t know who Alex de Campi is? I didn’t either, but, thankfully, writer Kieron Gillen provides a background on de Campi in his foreword, while also prepping us for the scope of her storytelling.  Smoke tells the story of British secret agent turned government assassin Rupert Cain and on-the-cusp journalist Katie Shah and their involvement with the highest echelons of power in Britain, both secret and known.  Smoke reveals itself in layers, and pulls you down into a maze of past, present, and future, where everything becomes so much more intricate and complex than it at first seems, and that is the beauty of de Campi’s writing.

Small asides or minuscule facts blossom into full-blown mysteries or pertinent revelations, and danger can come from everywhere.  As Cain digs deeper into the conspiratorial miasma that he has unwittingly uncovered, the English governmental ground he is churning up brings to the light a spider’s web of intrigue, all coming from one place and connecting to another, and all bent on stopping Cain.  By the time Cain realizes the can of worms he has opened, stemming all the way back to his black ops secret agent days, he doesn’t care, and he is determined not to stop until he exposes all that the darkness is hiding.  He is willing to die to reveal the truth and to make sure the future is not affected by the dark deeds of the past and the present, no matter if they were done with the right intentions or not.  We all know, though, that the future is always affected by the past, because the past is what creates the future, and that is where Ashes comes in, but I will get to that shortly.

You may notice that I have been speaking about Smoke rather cryptically, not divulging many facts about the story itself, and that is a very intentional move on my part.  If I were to begin unraveling the various elements of Smoke, I would most surely untangle more than I would want, because so much of the story is intrinsically tied together.  Suffice it to say that there is political intrigue, hints of science fiction (which return with a screaming force in Ashes), and some of the most eloquent and elaborate counter intelligence subterfuge I have ever read.  Oh, and there is action as well, as Cain is in his element not only as a spy, but also with a gun in his hand.  He is cool, calm, and albino.  He is an uncompromising hero, detached from most everything except that which drives him: the search for the truth.

The art in Smoke is by Igor Kordey, and it deftly handles the elaborate and minimalist story with clean, thin lines and crisp, almost stoic character design.  At times, a few of the British power players are a bit hard to tell apart, but that kind of works, as they are all cogs in a maniacal machine.  Now in Ashes, de Campi switches it up with the art, by having a plethora of artists contribute to the ongoing saga of Cain and Shah, including Carla Speed NcNeil, R.M. Guéra, and Dan McDaid, just to name a few.  This is a risky undertaking, but the risk mostly pays off, and Ashes, originally only appearing digitally, has the feel and scope of a saga that takes place over a very long period of time, especially with the changes in art.  In fact, the story of Ashes starts even before Smoke began, and yet, so exquisite is de Campi’s overarching story and her ideas, the events in Smoke still act as a catalyst in Ashes.  While Smoke was more of an intimate, personal story, Ashes operates on a much larger scale, involving a more varied cast of supporting characters and making the danger global, and wreaking havoc on society.  The trouble in Ashes directly correlates to Smoke, and so the two fit perfectly together, and it is hard not to read the two series as one giant, 400-page epic, which in reality is exactly what it is.

Ashes delves deeply into science fiction, with lots of plot threads weaving in and out of the main narrative, and both series have a fair amount of humor laced in throughout the danger and intrigue, providing much needed moments of reprieve from the often heavy elements of the story.  I got lost a few times in Ashes and had to look back to remind myself of who a character was, and a few times characters were introduced in such a jarring, almost non sequitur way that I felt I lost my grasp on the story.  Also, a few of the plot threads in Ashes did not seem to pan out for me, and I was confused as to what de Campi was trying to get across by including them, most notably a subplot involving an artificial meat-growing factory.  These small instances did not impede the overall brilliance of de Campi’s vision, but rather they acted as momentary distractions, and yet artistically, they were still wonderfully realized.  Surprisingly though, the changes in art did not muddle the story.  In fact, more often than not, the style of the art enhanced the emotional core of the story and played to the particular strengths of the scenes or chapters it displayed.  One of the best examples of this was the use of Bill Sienkiewicz’s ethereal art style at a point in the story where concept and consciousness meet, and the art perfectly relates what the characters are experiencing.

Ashes may swell the cast and locations and expand on the carnage and offer varying art styles, but de Campi still manages to make this a human and emotional story, and in the end everything boils down to such an intimate, personal conclusion that it leaves you stunned.  I read through the conclusion at least three times, because it somehow vibrates in your soul, and you realize, over the course of the story, over both of the series, just how emotionally invested you have become in these characters.  Smoke/Ashes sneaks up on you like a covert spy, emotionally getting under your skin without you even knowing it, and wrapping its insanely intelligent and imaginative tendrils around your heart, it holds you captive until the final page.  But, even after it lets you go, Alex de Campi’s ideas have already taken root in your mind, and the emotional marks are seared into your heart.  The power of this story and its characters stays with you and seeps into your very being.

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