From Top Shelf Productions, ASHES is a graphic novel about a group of friends in their 30s embarking on a road trip to the coast in order to scatter a late friend’s ashes. Equal parts heartwarming as it is silly, this debut graphic novel by internationally renowned artist Álvaro Ortiz is a tale about friends come and gone, dreams gone by, and the future that lies ahead.
Ashes’ plot synopsis is as follows:
“Polly, Moho, and Piter haven’t seen each other in years. Now they’ve piled into a car for a loooong journey to a mysterious cross marked on a map. All their old personality quirks and conflicts are resurrected with new wrinkles as this surreal reunion gets underway. Up ahead are car chases, alcohol, roadside motels, banjo-playing thugs, a ship graveyard, violence, sensual tension, and, of course, a monkey!”
The comic has some incredible characterization moments and a fun narrative style that connects directly with the audience. For anyone looking for coming into your 30’s life stories and silly Fear and Loathing-type misadventures involving slice-of-life thought snippets and hilarious twists and turns, this comic is likely for you.
Creator Álvaro Ortiz brings more of his signature art style, which is cute and aesthetically fits the narrative trappings of the story, filled with sidebar facts, and matter-of-fact lessons to go along with the musing thoughts of the characters. Each chapter is broken up by days, with the adventure being 7 days in total and going from meeting everyone at first, then escalates into a heck of a road trip journey with a finale that makes the destination go full circle (though you wouldn’t expect it to).
The story is amazingly grounded and the characters, speaking as someone in his mid-30s, are incredibly relatable. The beginning of the story lets audiences get to know everyone. See where they had gone wrong and sort of fell short in life.
Polly is likely the story’s main character. She’s a woman who ended up stuck in dead-end waitressing jobs, with a troubled family history, and a whole lot of life she seeks to live ahead of her.
Then there’s Piter. The self-described ‘fat’ one. A man whose penchant for food and photography, sort of gets absorbed into a backstory of falling into nursing as a profession. A journey that’s equally heartwarming as it is… lonely, ending up in hospice care, and especially, because he’s the most compassionate member of the group.
Though ultimately, the drive of the comic is Moho, a character I connected to the most as he’s a journalist barely scraping by who often gets into misadventures in what can only be described as every journalist’s dick version of themselves. There’s a scene in the comic where Moho doesn’t want to fork over 5 dollars on concert tickets and so claims to write for an unheard of website, where he asks:
“What you don’t know my website? You sure you work here?!”
Which is a line I have most definitely said aloud at conventions, myself. Without spoilers, Moho’s troubled character history and erratic actions, do make for a great degree of the conflict during the road trip. Oh, and he also… has a pet monkey. Named Andres. Sort an abandoned circus rescue with his own wild backstory.
That said, there are lots of sidebars and did-you-know moments featured in the graphic novel. How factual all of this is remains sort of irrelevant, as it’s meant to entertain, but also, inform the audience at powerful moments in the story. I must stress, themes hit hard in Ashes, as it’s about the fun history of our friendships, but also, the lives of the people who had died.
Life is short. And the snippets about history, tied together with the meanings behind the purposes of ashes and cremation, weigh upon this wanderlust of emotions and ideas regarding what it means to die and why how we choose to live becomes so equally, important. They’re all life lessons that hit hard in your 30s (hi, that’s me) but less macabre and more of a fun way of exploring: what the meaning of it all is.
Now, I will admit some of the continuity can get confusing in the mid section of the novel as the flashbacks can come at inopportune moments and the reorientation back into the story can feel a bit dizzying.. To make matters worse, a good degree of the roadblocks and overall tension felt forced at times, and often, a little bit unnecessary.
There are multiple times where hitchhiking becomes a thing because the group splits off. Often, due to actions of Moho. I found at some point that these moments felt kind of forced, with tensions really individualized with Moho’s actions—past indiscretions committed long before he jumped-in on this journey.
The problem with this is that a chunk of the story then has less agency for some characters, as compared to something that the group had to work on together. That said, this isn’t a story about a hero’s journey. It’s more a slice of life story about characters in an indie comic with a destination that feels serendipitous once it’s conextualized as a graphic novel on the whole (without spoilers, basically, get to the ending and you’ll see why Ortiz created this graphic novel).
That said, I really do like their personal stories. Especially, as I think focusing the narrative on the character-centric backstory works as it makes the funny moments and shock go in its favor. Surprises and silly moments that I think can only work best in the comics medium. The antagonist, if there really is one, ultimately feels more like a distraction though. Let’s just say it’s convenient conflicts for the sake of plot that gets muddled in the comedy.
Ashes is a really good graphic novel about characters you can relate to in your 30s that absolutely made me question my life decisions. It’s a heartwarming road trip of a story, with cute art, chaotic twists, and a lesson to be had in finding your home in where the heart is.
Author: Álvaro Ortiz
Imprint: Top Shelf Productions
Format: Trade paperback
Trim size: 6X9
On-sale date: February 7th, 2023
Price: $19.99 US | $25.99 CAN