Pipeline: Revisiting Quesada and Palmiotti's "Ash"

Tue, June 18th, 2013 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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"ASH"

In 1994, Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti teamed up to create Event Comics. While they published a couple of other books during the company's relatively short lifespan (including "Kid Death and Fluffy" and the longer-lasting "Painkiller Jane"), the company is best remembered for its flagship title, "Ash," about a super powered firefighter. I randomly tripped over those comics in a longbox recently, and thought it would be fun to look back on the series. Since it ended before Pipeline started, I shouldn't be repeating anything here.

"Ash" is a Very 90s Comic in many ways. It is art-centric, throwing lots of elements up in the air in hopes that a story might emerge. Production values on the comic use lots of the growing world of computer publishing techniques that made lots of comics of that era illegible. There's a nod to the beginning of the internet age. There's a #0 issue to explain the origin that was published after issue #6. There's also an ash-can giveaway through Wizard Magazine that recapped the series so far while being set between panels from issue #3.

Let's start with the art. This is Mighty Morphin' Joe Quesada Artwork. You can take panels from the book and see where he was influenced by Michael Golden, Todd McFarlane, George Perez, Alphonse Mucha, Sam Kieth, or Will Eisner. Picture the Quesada style of today, and then exaggerate it just a bit. Regular people in the series regularly morph into manga-inspired caricatures of themselves, to the point where it doesn't even look like Quesada was drawing the pages. The ones that are less exaggerated often look like extras from an Eisner graphic novel. The overall look is very McFarlane/Golden-esque, from the big bug eyes to the energetic fire licks and prop design.

Quesada drew a diverse set of civilians. Can you guess which ones are caricatures of Quesada's friends?

Quesada liked to insert his friends into the book, so you wind up with pages cohabitated by the relatively cartoony made-up people next to caricatures of folks like Nick Barucci and Gareb Shamus and too many to count that I don't recognize. There ought to be an Uncanny Valley theory addendum for comics where people drawn to specifically look like someone appear next to random people drawn out of the artist's imagination. It's distracting and, at times, interferes with the storytelling. A one-panel appearance by a drunk is likely another friend, but it adds nothing to the story. Was that panel thrown in there for the sake of adding a buddy into the book? Did someone win a charity auction or something?

Some art style changes are clear experimentations. Quesada liked to play with Alphonse Mucha art nouveau stylings, and that appears in decorative elements later in his run, to the point where it appears he's channeling P. Craig Russell in spots. Some of that type of work shows up later in his "Daredevil" run, too.

Near the end of the initial nine issue run, things started to fall apart. The initial series ran roughly bi-monthly. In the end, the first six issues took 13 months, finishing up in December 1995. "Ash Zero" came out in May 1996. The follow-up two-parter, "The Fire Within," carries cover dates of September 1996 and January 1997. It looks in retrospect like there was a major rush to get things out the door. If my timing is accurate, the Marvel Knights gig didn't kick off until the following year. I can't blame that for the rush, so who knows what was happening behind the scenes?

As chaotic and inconsistent as the art would be, the story was even worse. A strong first issue that dropped lots of hints and teased historical plot elements gave way to a series in which the creators were anxious to throw every idea they had into the pot, hoping to mix it into a cool stew of some sort. Ideas that were half-baked showed up on the page, leaving the audience to think that it was part of some grander plan, only to be disappointed later when it never paid off. Characters would pop up for an issue or so, make their grand stand, and then disappear without a trace, often for reasons never explained. The worst example of this was The Covenant, a character from The Hildebrandt Brothers. He appeared in issue #5, painted into the panels by the Hildebrandts. He appeared in a sequence set during a period when time stopped, to fight Ash and deliver cryptic thoughts. Then he ran off, time picked back up again, and everyone went back to the business of pretending like that sequence never existed.

No, wait, the worst example was the 22 Brides. Based on a all-girl rock group of the time, they became a Bad Girl Gang who took over a subway in issue #3 by shooting the conductor dead. Then they were captured off-panel by another new character, Gabriel, who gave them to Ash to be prosecuted. They were interrogated in another issue and then disappeared. They got their own two-issue mini-series penciled by Humberto Ramos. Fabian Nicieza wrote it, so there's some chance of character development or, hell, just plain character definition in there. I haven't read it, so I can't tell you. In the pages of "Ash," though, we were never given a reason for their existence, why they took over that subway train, how they were detained, or whatever happened to them afterwards, not that we were ever given a reason to care. They show up for a page to be menacing, get captured by someone who isn't the protagonist of the series, and then disappear.

This is another fine example of the lead character's inactivity in much of the series. He stumbles through issues, replaced by the Ash persona, who sees a lot of action but not much difficulty. When a gang of shoulder-padded big-gun-toting guys comes after him in issue #3, Ash blows through them on his motorcycle and flies off without a bead of sweat. When the human persona of Ashley has a timing issue with his soon-to-be-girlfriend, he gets off the hook easily when she calls to cancel on him, due to a work conflict. Every time Ashley is backed into a corner, he doesn't do anything and he gets out of trouble.

It's all a bit boring.

Is one referencing the other? You make the call!

At the heart of the whole series is how Ashley becomes Ash and what the relationship between the two is. A repeated montage sequence shows us Ashley getting lost in a house fire, flashing back to a baby "inspired by" that Nirvana cover (minus the genitalia), seeing a white-faced lunatic known as The Actor who is in no way related to The Joker but looks a lot like him, and hearing his father's voice.

We learn in issue #4 that Ashley inadvertently started the house fire that killed his father. Pretty heavy stuff, right? A shocking revelation. A character-defining moment. The source of great angst. It's dropped immediately, never to return in the fist batch of issues. It is later picked up by the follow-up mini-series, "Cinder & Smoke," written by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn with art by Humberto Ramos.

Then there's what I refer to as the Key West sub-plot. In an on-going series of one page drop-ins, a street tough who approaches a homeless man with the intent to beat him up succumbs to a massive explosion. Then, a friend of the homeless man cries over his loss. Then, someone takes a taxi to Miami. The end. According to the Event Comics Wikipedia page, Quesada and Palmiotti plotted out their original vision for this series in Key West. Was this fruitless subplot an allegory that I didn't pick up on? Or was there a grand plan for it to slowly bleed into the main plot in a future issue?

In another sub-plot, a group of prisoners sit cross-legged in their cells, quietly. This scares some of the prison guards. The end. They're never heard from again.

Chris Claremont might have made that kind of storytelling work, but here it looks like a bunch of dropped balls.

They seem to have realized this after six issues, because they finally told Ash's origin in "Ash Zero." It's convoluted and took a hybrid illustrated prose/sequential narrative style to spit it all out, but it fits all the pieces we've seen into one history to properly define a backstory with. During the house fire that Ashley nearly died it, he crawled into a device meant to resuscitate dying troops in a future battlefield that was occupied by a time travelling alien or something. The process wasn't perfect, and so Ashley morphed into Ash and -- I can't explain it.

That was followed up by a two issue "Ash" series subtitled "The Fire Within" that had a solid and focused story in it. It cleaned up more of the series mythology and contained a lot of the trademark storytelling bits you'd expect from Quesada and Palmiotti. It's basically two issues of Ash fighting Adam, his "father" from the future who wants to recruit Ash to his cause. They have a fight in the park, and the entertaining bits are all the things that happen around him, from the dweeby mob guys making out in a nearby car to the squirrel who does his best to avoid getting killed.

Nasty head bumps can excuse any number of plot machinations.

The real chestnut of the story, though, is the way it changed Ash. After this series, Ashley is no longer trapped silently inside of Ash. Now, he's in control of Ash. How did that happen, you might ask? He took a blow to the head. It drove out the alien. I swear, it's like something out of a bad 1960s sit-com, or 80s Saturday morning show. I was worried he'd get hit in the head a second time and lose that control. The plot point lands with such a thud that I laughed out loud. You can't win them all, I guess.

"Ash" as a series shows a learning curve from two relatively young creators. It wasn't prone to all the wildest excesses of the time, but did share a lot of the same difficulties. The art was the selling point, and the story felt like a lot of things being thrown together to show off a lot of new concepts and cool stuff, instead of telling a story. Then, the story grew stronger as the art weakened. The part of the series that made it unique -- a firefights superhero and lots of firefighters filling out the issue -- is the part that should have been developed more. A more streamlined origin story to ground the character a bit more might have been useful, too. Casting a firefighter in the role of superhero works, but the lack of focus shown in the first six issues sunk it, creatively. There's lots of material in that firehouse to be mined, but it didn't happen here.

Dreamworks had the option to make a movie at one point, but that lapsed. There hasn't been a new printing of the series since the original trade paperback with the first five issues, I don't think. Nor is it available as a digital download today. It's only a matter of time, I suppose, before someone thinks of it and makes a play. (I put my money on Dynamic Forces.)

If all else fails, maybe Ash can join "Damage Control" at Marvel...

DESKTOP PUBLISHING, 90s STYLE

When desktop publishing first started in the 80s, the excesses of the bold new world were obvious and frequent. Newsletters using a dozen different fonts became commonplace. When computer coloring hit comics, people pushed the new technology beyond the limits of good taste, giving us everything in a gradient or a default Photoshop setting. We can see some of that at work in "Ash."

Inside Front Cover Credits: It got this bad. Yes, it did:

Because credit pages needed more color! And background images! And fonts!

I'm afraid my scan doesn't do it the service it deserves. That’s from "Ash" #3. Bring your own sunglasses.

Logo: I like the design of the "Ash" logo, with the three dramatic letters stretching and squashing inside of a triangle. You don't see too many designs like that these days, nor too many titles with only three letters in them, I guess. It's cool and it has character. The triangular shape helps it stand out.

If flames aren't enough, add a reflective metallic sheen.

It does, however, fall prey to the curse of 90s color design. The steel reflective sheen it has on the first issue screams "Photoshop," and that only gets worse in subsequent issues where flames are added to the triangle. For added fake 3D-ness, a bezel shows up around the edges.

The publisher's name is given a place of prominence of that first issue, too. Given its size and its horizontal girth, you would be forgiven for accidentally thinking the title of this book was "Event" when first looking at it. There's a star field pattern in there, too. I bet that was a standard Photoshop fill technique at the time, too. All it's missing is a lens flare, but those wouldn't have been easy in 1994.

Letters Column Legibility: Much like the aforementioned desktop publishing problems, "Ash" fell prey to being far too busy in its overall design. Fonts are splattered all over the place, given seemingly random sizes and clashing styles. The backgrounds made it only worse. Like the story in the book, it got better with time, but it started with crumpled burnt paper under black text. By the end of the first series, they simplified to plain black text on a gradiant red/orange/yellow gradient. It was most readable in the middle with the lighter color, but still manageable on the darker edges.

"Ash" #5 had a particularly awful design. It might just be the least legible letters column of all time.

The letters column in issue #2, titled "Afterburn", printed letters from those who picked up the issue at the local comic shop. (A short letters column in the first issue was based off a black and white preview copy they sent around.) Letters seeing print here came from Steven Grant, Erik Larsen, Joey Marchese, Jack C. Harris, and yours truly. A roll call of letter writers at the end name checks Trent Kaniuga.

Kim "Howard" Johnson is credited in the book as the "Marketing and Promotions" guy. He also answered fan mail. I have two postcards signed by him sent in response to my early letters. Here's the first one, which I publish today as a humblebrag:

The handwriting at the bottom says, "Thanks for a great, insightful letter. I guess we're an official comic now that we're getting LOC from you!"

That was a nice ego boost.

Random Fun Fact: After "Cinder and Smoke," Quesada and Palmiotti returned for two final issues, scripted by James Robinson. That series had an assistant editor by a name that might be familiar to you today: Justin Gray.

The Internet of 1996: "Event Comics is wired and ready for the 21st century with our very own Web site."

That website is dead today. You can see it at the Wayback Machine, going back to 1999, though the sub pages aren't there. Warning: Your modern eyes will bleed. Hey, kids, that was webdesign at the time. You're just lucky there weren't any blink tags on the page.

The "CGI" at the front meant it was likely programmed in Perl in some way. (There doesn't seem to be any on-the-fly elements to the page, so I don't know why it wasn't just a static HTML page.) "~event" was the user name. My home page at the time was "~augie" on my home account and "~adebliec" on my school account. (There was an eight character limit on user names back then.) "index.html" meant the .htaccess file hadn't been updated to automatically redirect traffic to that default page. I think the Apache web server had that functionality in it back then, but maybe not. I'm also assuming it was an Apache web server, which isn't necessarily a given.

Times certainly have changed now, to the point where you don't want to pick a name unless you have a good domain and Twitter handle for it.

BUT, WAIT, THERE'S MORE!

It'll have to wait for next week. I've prattled on long enough here. We'll talk about the spirit of independents seen in this book as well as the pin-ups, the wraparound covers, and maybe even some lettering.

"Ash" is a book with lots of potential. I’m looking forward to reading the "Cinder & Smoke" mini-series next, just to see how the series might work in the hands of a more experienced writer than either Palmiotti or Quesada were at that point. It's a little frustrating to see a unique high concept from the comics of the mid-1990s get lost in the execution. As someone who loves computers, though, and who grew up reading comics in that time period, taking a look back and seeing the trends and styles of the technological times is a lot of fun.

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TAGS:  pipeline, event comics, ash, joe quesada, jimmy palmiotti

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