Written by Nate Derr
I really went into Smoke/Ashes with high expectations. The cover looks great, the story sounded promising, and Smoke was nominated for an Eisner when it was released. But in spite of some interesting story ideas and some cool moments, this was overall a big disappointment.
Let me start out by saying that the Smoke half of the book is much better than Ashes. In every aspect, Smoke feels much more tightly and purposefully constructed. The art is effective, the intricate story is satisfying, and the tone is consistent. Smoke’s greatest asset is, without a doubt, its plot. The story follows Rupert Cain, a British assassin, and Katie Shah, a young reporter, who find themselves wrapped up in a conspiracy more complex than they, and most of the other people involved, initially suspect. Rupert and Katie are both more multifaceted than these sort of characters tend to be, and it was nice to see how those characteristics manifested themselves over the course of the book. There were some things that bothered me, like how easily Rupert reveals to his ex-girlfriend that he’s working as a government assassin, but otherwise it’s a solid espionage thriller with plenty of surprises.
Ashes is where things start to get messy. Where Smoke felt neat and consistent, Ashes is sloppy and fragmented. A large contributor to this feeling is the discrepancy in the art from chapter to chapter. For whatever reason, writer Alex de Campi decided to go with different artists for almost every chapter. It worked for Sandman, and it’s worked for other series, but it just doesn’t work here. Where the Sandman artists all adhered to a similar visual aesthetic while still bringing their own styles to the table, the art here is all over the place, resulting in characters that look completely different from chapter to chapter and massive shifts in tone triggered by the change in the art. Add to this the fact that the art for two chapters looks downright amateurish, with expressions that don’t match the dialogue and other baffling faux pas, and you can’t help but start to wonder just what happened with the production of this series.
Ashes’ story follows suit: a substantially overlong flashback sequence, a large plot thread that goes nowhere, and a wholly unsatisfying ending are a few of the problems here. Rupert and Katie weren’t the most complex characters in Smoke but at least they acted like real people. Here their characterization consists of a series of random outbursts, and their relationship with each other is an alternation of apathy and histrionic concern. By the end of the story I had no idea who these characters were and why I should bother trying to figure it out.
So what’s the verdict? In a nutshell, if you can find a copy of Smoke on its own and you like political thrillers, it’s probably worth your time. There isn’t a whole lot that’s especially unique, but it’s a solid story with some interesting twists. With Ashes, however, just save your time and money.