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Smoke/Ashes Graphic Novel Review

5 min read

Smoke AshesVery British, very 80s, and very good.

Creative Staff
Story: Alex di Campi
Art: Igor Kordey, Milton & Felipe Sobreiro, Carla Speed McNeil, Bill Sienkiewicz, Richard Pace, Colleen Doran, Dan McDaid, Mack Chater, Alice Duke, Alem Curin, Jesse Ham, James Smith, R. M. Guera
Colors: Len O’Grady
Cover Artist: Tomer Hanuka

What They Say
Reporter Katie Shah’s exposés of the corruption of the English ruling class put her in the crosshairs of powerful men on a good day. Smoke and Ashes tells the stories of the bad days, as she and assassin Rupert Cain become targets of a sinister cabal bent on controlling the nation’s oil and of a psychotic intelligence that has uploaded itself onto the Internet!

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
In Smoke, Rubert Kane once ran with Ajax, a special forces unit working directly for the Ministry of Defense (or at least that’s what he believed). To save the life of his ex CO and girlfriend’s father, Tim De Havilland, Rupert takes an assassination job, figuring that he would either be killed or imprisoned afterward. Instead the government recruits him as a hitman. The more jobs he does for them, the more of his debt he wipes away. However, the situation changes when De Havilland is murdered in what appears to be a botched robbery attempt. Kane, out of sentiment, investigates the old man’s death and uncovers a conspiracy involving OPEC, the highest levels of British government, and a shadow cabinet of powerful individuals that has been secretly steering world events ever since the Cold War. Mixed up in this is Katie Shah, a smart, ambitious reporter who stumbles into the conspiracy. Together she and Kane must rely on each other’s distinct skills to survive.

Ashes continues where Smoke left off. Both Katie and Kane try to put their lives back together after the fallout of their previous adventure. They’re brought together again when a bodiless human consciousness is uploaded to the military internet. This consciousness has a score to settle with both of them and to flush them out destroys the world’s economic infrastructures. Now the United States military is after them, and facing this danger means Kane must also face one of the many sins of his past.

I’m not sure how Smoke and Ashes fell under my radar, but I’m very glad that Dark Horse decided to reprint these two series in one edition. One of the more interesting aspects to me about the first series, Smoke, is how very British it feels and how very Eighties. I couldn’t help but compare it to Jamie Delano’s work on Hellblazer or some of the early stories of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. I by no means intend to suggest that Smoke is derivative—just that it shares a very similar tone and attitude, which is a good thing considering the excellent quality of Delano, Moore, and Morrison’s stories.

Ashes maintains some of that tone, but it’s not quite as heavy, mainly because much of the story is either set in the United States or is about the United States. I can’t say that we Yanks come off too well here, but in a way that’s another very British, New Wave sensibility coming through again.

The overall quality of both series is excellent. They mix spy thrillers with science fiction and a healthy dose of absurdism. The main plot of Smoke is that Great Britain owes a considerable sum of money to the IMF and key members in the Ministry of Defense, Parliament, and even the Prime Minister hatch a plan to stage a kidnapping of a representative of OPEC. While he is being held prisoner, the people that staged the kidnapping buy up oil shares while the price is low. The kidnapping will drive up the price and they would then sell the shares before staging the rescue. This is all solid spy thriller territory, but where the absurdism comes in is who they get to actually perform the kidnapping—The Right to Beauty Brigade: a collection of overweight, unattractive people demanding free transport to Argentina and enough money to pay for liposuctions and plastic surgery. It’s bizarre and hilarious and just different enough to elevate this beyond the typical ransom story. It also doesn’t hurt that one of the terrorists looks like fat Elvis.

The science fiction elements come in two main forms: the first with the assassin No-Face who later becomes the sentient computer virus, for lack of a better term. The second with the concept of bio-engineered meat. The first element works very well, but the second one was a little problematic in that I didn’t feel there was enough information given for me to properly understand what was happening. At the end of Smoke, one of the main antagonists, Lauderdale, discovers a mysterious machine. The purpose of the machine is never revealed, but in Ashes we see that he has gone into the meat business, creating artificial pork. It’s hinted that this may well be cloned human meat that is being created (presumably by the device Lauderdale discovered), but it’s difficult to say. In all honesty it could be much clearer than I think, but I’m reading from a digital copy and there are times when I feel like I miss something that I wouldn’t reading a hardcopy. Even if this plot point isn’t quite as well-developed or explained as I’d like, it doesn’t detract from what’s an otherwise excellent story.

However, as good as the writing is, the art is even better. There is a feast of amazing artists on this title, including one of my all-time favorites, Bill Sienkiewicz. Ashes especially plays with the format and tells the story in different, more conceptual methods that really illustrate the strengths of the comic book form. The way the artists play with genre conventions, typography, color, panel placement and gutter space is wonderful and they alone almost make this worth buying.

In Summary
Smoke and Ashes are two excellent works of comic art that blend together spy thrillers, science fiction, and British absurdism in a tightly-plotted story with solid, engaging characters. While one plot point was a little confusing to me, the overall story is too good to get bogged down by one weak element. Dark Horse is presenting two different formats for this release: a softcover and a hardcover. The softcover retails for $29.99 and the hardcover for $59.99. Although $59.99 is a high price to pay, this is an excellent collection worthy of the hardback format. In addition to that, Dark Horse puts so much care and effort into their hardcover collections that the product is worth the cost. Whether you decide on buying the softcover or shelling out the extra thirty for the hardcover, this is well worth the price. Highly recommended.

Content Grade: A-
Art Grade: A+
Packaging Grade: A+

Released By: Dark Horse Comics
Release Date: September 18, 2013
MSRP: $29.99 (softcover); $59.99 (hardcover)

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