Writer/Artist: Álvaro Ortiz
Translator: Eva Ibarzabal
Letters: Krystal Beisick
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions

Published more than a decade ago in 2012 by Spanish comics publisher Astiberri, under the title, Cenizas, cartoonist Álvaro Ortiz put a year and a half into a book backed by an Alhóndiga Bilbao grant that he was drawing regardless of anyone willing to publish it. Ashes, much like its production story is a Spanish cartoonist’s dream come true, and it’s finally available to read in English thanks to translator Eva Ibarzabal’s deft ghostwriting skill.

Beginning with a cold open jam packed with elements to watch out for calls particular attention to itself as a graphic novel, but instead of suspending disbelief, Ortiz uses these tools to create dramatic irony in small, consistently rewarding ways that breadcrumb to a finale all its own. The book is structured along the seven days of a road trip that brings three estranged friends back together from the ruins of their individual lives and back to the mausoleum they collectively built through neglect, distance, and intransigence.

After the cold open, Ortiz employs an unseen narrator to bring our misfit cast into the fore: Polly, a rebellious barista, Moho, a troublemaking journo, and Piter, a friend-shaped nurse. Between these “getting the gang together” slices, we are treated to an alt-colored one-pager that regales us in the history of cremation; these will continue every chapter until the end, building to a satisfying wrap-up that reinforces the narrative without distracting from the goal too much. Some might find this and another monkey themed non sequitur segment jarring, but they’re short enough respites between large enough gaps in time for this seemingly random construction to flow seamlessly.

If you’re a fan of formalism, congratulations! Ortiz works a 4 column x 6 row 24-panel grid for the first chapter, then, he switches to a 4×5 20-panel grid from chapter two on. Ortiz might’ve started the book in a 24-panel grid only to find the compositions cramped, and the caption space claustrophobic, then swapped to a 20-panel grid to let the page breathe, and ideally give his wrist/arm a breather! By combining panels above, underneath, and to the sides in a 20-panel grid, Ortiz can create bigger spaces for these tiny, plain-faced people to live out their exhaustion. For such ligne claire crafted folk, Ortiz does enough with a dot for eyes, a U for a nose, and a T for furrowed eyebrows to efficiently communicate emotion in such a panel-dense novel.

With all these panels per page, most western writers would have a considerably tough time getting their dialogue in without sacrificing art, but let’s give Ibarzabal some credit for sticking to words with less letters, a surprisingly small vocabulary, and shorter phrases, so as not to crowd the already busy page. Ibarzabal performs an absolute masterclass of ghostwriting that complements pacing, which makes Ashes an easy, fun read despite its compacted nature.

Same can be said of letterer Krystal Beisick’s font choice! Ortiz packed these pages tight, so font size must be under 10 pt, which one would think looks most accessible with an all caps sans serif font, but Beisick chose an eclectic serifed font in sentence case that absolutely clings to the overall vibe of Ashes. The font has wobbly kerning built in, so it easily mirrors the jumbly outbursts of our put-upon roadtrippers. Bravo!

An attribute I’d love to highlight is Ortiz’s use of clouds. Over the course of the novel, these soft billowing creatures fluff about as air éclairs, and always reflect the overall status of the group dynamic. This is further pushed by the emotive color moods casting furtive eyes towards and away from this rollercoaster friendship. These clouds are bright when they reminisce, murky green waves when they’re being tested (or testy!), then ultimately form barrier walls around their effervescent personal space. Honestly, just another subtlety streamlining the cacophony of guilt at play in Ashes.

Much can be said of Ashes’ pacing in outline form, in illustrated form, in translated form, but 10+ years removed, renovated for a different language audience, and writ-large, it’s quite sublime to experience. I’d like you to experience it for yourself.

Ashes is available now.