Review time! with <i>Ashes</i>

"Angels never know it's time to close the book and gracefully decline"

A few months ago, while Mr. Pelkie and I were checking out Previews, he noticed something on a page that I might have missed, and it forced me to look underneath the solicit and see the one for Ashes, which is published by Z2 Comics and costs $19.99.

The reason I was interested in it was because Karl Slominski drew it, and Slominski is an excellent artist who will probably win my "Nuke LaLoosh Award" in my year-end review if I remember to include a "Nuke LaLoosh Award" - that is, he's someone who deserves wider recognition, and I hope that he'll get it sooner rather than later. I don't know the writer, Mario Candelaria, nor the letterer, Zakk Saam, nor even the editor, Joey Esposito, but it sounded interesting - a firefighter experiences a horrible loss and has to deal with what comes next - and I knew it would look great, so I bought it. That's how I roll!

Ashes is about a Brooklyn firefighter, Mark Terwillegar, who has a pretty good life. He's a good dude, he's attractive, he has an easy pick-up line ("I'm a firefighter, so of course I'm sexy!"), and he's rising in the ranks. Then he loses his leg from the knee down while trying to rescue someone from a burning building. Yeah, that sucks. Matt has to rebuild his life, which isn't easy, especially as he wants to go back out into the field even though the fire department thinks he's a liability (which, to be fair, he probably is).

So Matt not only has to figure out how to walk with his prosthetic leg, but he has to figure out how he's going to live his life, too.

This is the stuff of good fiction, but Ashes never really comes together. Candelaria presents the story in the most basic way possible, as if he's not writing fiction but simply trying to write an inspirational story about overcoming odds. This kind of feels like an Afterschool Special for adults, as Mark hits all the marks that we expect - he's very heroic, of course, but he downplays it, because of course he does. He doesn't want to coast on his family name - all his ancestors, it seems, have been New York firefighters - and he clashes oddly with his father over it. Early on, his dad tells him he might be promoted to lieutenant, and he objects because he thinks it's because of who he is, not what he does, but there doesn't seem to be too much anger at his dad. Later, he's very angry at his father, for no good reason, and still later, they're back on good terms. The conflict feels created just to add some tension to the book, but it doesn't fit what we know about the characters. Mark seems close to his dad, even though his dad doesn't see the problem with using the connections his family brings, but that doesn't seem like it would lead to such an angry argument in the middle of the book.

After the accident, Mark despairs for a while, both because he has lost his leg and because he doesn't think he's going to be able to afford a good prosthetic. Of course he doesn't want charity, but he has to learn to depend on others, and eventually he gets his new leg. His rehabilitation and re-entry into his job is handled perfunctorily, and then Candelaria sets up a situation where he can prove he's still a hero, but again, it feels very stale. It's such a ridiculous situation (deadly, but ridiculous), as it's a place where Matt can prove his heroics really well, but it's not so horrible that his handicap won't impede him. It's frustrating, because as hard as we're supposed to believe Matt's life has become, Candelaria doesn't really make it all that hard. Yes, he loses his leg, but the rest of the book has a strange tone, as everything that happens to Matt is kind of traumatic, but not anything that he can't overcome with a minimum of effort. It drains the drama from the story. Any small conflict - the one with his father, his need of a new leg, his attempts to get back to work - is resolved quickly. The book isn't too short - it's 115 pages - but it feels like Candelaria doesn't take advantage of the space he has, as we never really get a good sense of the characters, so their relationships aren't as strongly developed as they could be.

It's a frustrating comic, because all the elements for a good story about overcoming serious obstacles are there, but Candelaria zips through them briskly, so the book doesn't have much of an impact.

As with so many comics, it's also frustrating because the art is so good. Slominski is an interesting artist, as his work on characters' faces is just slightly cartoonish, so that they seem a bit more abstract and expressive than more realistic faces, but the rest of his art is extremely detailed and very realistic. It's a good blend, as it allows Slominski's characters to "act" a bit more broadly, but we get a wonderful sense of place from the rest of his art. Despite their wide faces, his characters still look real, as they're all shapes and sizes, and even the attractive women in the book (Matt's ex-wife, his doctor, his potential girlfriend) look like they exist in a realistic world rather than a heightened reality where everyone is a Victoria's Secret model. He does a wonderful job with the few "action" scenes in the book, as his line work is fluid enough that the movement of the characters looks very nice, and his details are terrific. The Brooklyn he creates is both beautiful and old, so that there's a good sense of the neighborhood in all its imperfect glory - there are some wonderful spots, but Slominski doesn't paper over the cracks in the buildings or the social structure.

He uses thick, heavy lines to ground the art even more, and his inking is glorious. His blacks on the firefighter uniforms make them thick and protective, and he uses shadows really well to show Matt's dark nights of the soul that vex him as he works out his problems. He can get messy with his inking to show chaos, as he does when Matt and his co-workers are struggling through a burning building, but he also hatches precisely to show amazing leaves on trees and the speed of the fire truck racing through the streets. Most of the book is in straight black and white, but when Slominski uses grayscales, he does it effectively to cast more doubt into Matt's mind. The art is subtle where the story is not, and it throws the story's shortcomings into starker relief.

It's too bad that Ashes isn't a better-written comic, because it's a pretty fascinating premise - someone whose identity is tied up in doing a physical, heroic job who suddenly can't do it anymore, and what happens next. It's a decent enough read, but the missed opportunities are too much to overcome. Slominski's art goes a long way toward redeeming it, and it's nice to see him doing something a bit more "realistic" - no trips to hell or creepy skulls in this book for Slominski - because it shows how versatile he is. Ashes is a comic with more potential than actuality, and while the bare bones of a great comic are here, it's a shame that it never quite reaches what it's aiming at.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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