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Road Tripping In Álvaro Ortiz’s Ashes

Álvaro Ortiz – writer/artist
Eva Ibarzabal – translator
Krystal Beisick – letterer
Top Shelf/ IDW

In which a journey is made and lives are changed. Those boots are not made for walking. Conflicts and chaos create confusion! Where will connections, quirks, and coincidences lead?

Good weather. Good music. Good company. A good car. They all add up to make a great road trip. What if something is missing though or something else is added?

Álvaro Ortiz’s Ashes is a love letter to friendship and found families. A trio of misfit pals start out on what becomes a wild adventure instigated by another friend whom we come to know but never see. Polly, Moho, and Piter, along with pal Hector met through chance years before thanks to a love of music. Five years have passed since they moved apart and their mutual friendships have drifted apart too. Now they’re miserable and piled into a rundown rental car with no radio and no air conditioning, and thanks to Hector, looking for an “X marks the spot” place on a hand drawn map.

As the seven day journey unfolds Ortiz reveals more about these characters. Coffee connoisseur Molly is the eternal waitress whose musical aspirations were never realized through her mediocre band. Her mother’s book about being an alcoholic made lots of money. Molly is the responsible one of the group. Piter is a compassionate and empathetic soul who is about to be homeless after having spent the last several years as a live in aide for an elderly widow who’s recently died. Sullen and secretive Mojo is a writer. Has a penchant for wearing boots. Oh, and Moho brought along his monkey Andres.

Ortiz’s love for his characters is the foremost reason Ashes is elevated into an extraordinarily beautiful tale instead of becoming a lackluster snipe fest. Yes, their friendships will be tested, their lives questioned, and small and really big lies revealed. The latter is especially true of Mojo whose work as a music critic is nothing but a string of lies and now revenge in the form of two hoodlum brothers named Smirnov and Smirnov is hot on the trail of him and his friends. The banter between these friends reads as authentic, at turns funny, often sarcastic, occasionally angry, wistful, and bittersweet. Woven throughout the main narrative are small vignettes, beautifully concise in details, revealing back stories of the main characters but also Andres the monkey (a monkey just can’t appear out of nowhere!), and the Smirnov Brothers who despite being hired goons play a pleasantly pivotal part. The topic of gay villains in media makes for occasional discussion in some circles. While the villain behind the Smirnov Brothers, known only as the Cowboy, is seen only briefly he reads as pithy commentary on closeted queers trying to have things both ways.

Another factor making Ashes an interesting story is its madcap pacing punctuated with a variety of locales including a hole in the wall diner with wrestlers, half sunken ships, an island full of abandoned deer, and an eerie mansion seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Ortiz has one more trick up his sleeve with his cartoon style linework and muted color palette. Together they make for a appealing visual style that draws in reader while contrasting the intricate plotting.

Much appreciation to Eva Ibarzabal and Krystal Beisick for their respective work as translator and letterer.

After all the bickering, threats, and danger Polly, Mojo, Piter (with Andres in tow) discover their friendships renewed and strengthened just as they arrive at their destination. And then they learn the reason for their journey but you’ll have to read the story to discover Hector’s reward!

Ashes is quite unlike any graphic novel I’ve read before. Just when I thought I knew where the story was headed Ortiz went in another direction. Shortly after reading it the first time I watched Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch and was struck by similarities in tone, structure, and pacing. Review blurbs by other reviewers mentioned David Lynch films as possibly being a source of inspiration.

Readers who appreciate character driven stories, for example Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies which we learn Polly has read, or the films of Wes Anderson or David Lynch will find much to love in Ashes. Let’s hope more of his work is translated into English!

Look for Ashes at your local comic shop (Diamond order code OCT228162) or bookstore (ISBN 978-1-60309-517-4). You can also find it at Bookshop and Indie Bound. If all else fails or you prefer there’s also Amazon.

February 7, 2023
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