Writer: Charlie Stickney
Illustrator: Conor Hughes
Publisher: Scout Comics
WHAT IS IT?
An action-packed mystery and modern fantasy-ish/romance with some Nordic-inspired horror elements.
I'd list some popular media that'd set you straight as to what to expect but, honestly, even that might give too much away.
Just trust me when I say that it takes elements from all the genres mentioned above and makes them work.
WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Aleck is leaving White Ash, the town he was born in, the town he’s lived in for over 19 years.
He's getting out of dodge, going to college. There's a sense of adventure there. Though grounded in real-world mundanity, it's better than sticking around and working the mines, like his father. Like nearly all the men he knows.
Unfortunately, he's stuck, unable to leave. At least, temporarily. But in this short amount of time where he's waiting to leave, he stumbles upon a mysterious, beautiful, and possibly dangerous woman and some family secrets he was never meant to know.
But will that be enough to keep him around? And is sticking around really the best, safest idea? These are questions that he's going to have to find out the hard way.
You can kind of get a sense of the book through teasers you've read, and the cover. You get that this is the story of a small town. You see a woman on the cover with a bow, but you also see a car and a Pittsburgh Steelers ballcap. Plus, the creepy face awash in red alludes to the violence within. All in all, it's an incredibly intriguing and well-designed cover!
When comics give thought to design, it shows. The design work on the inside cover has some really attractive pattern work, and I appreciated the use of fingerprints for an aged/worn look around the corners.
The comic opens cinematically, stylishly, with action before the title and credits. And that action DEFINITELY hooks you and makes you want to read more.
White Ash is a modern thriller with just the right amount of horror and fantasy, action and romance. The mystery and danger capture your attention early on, but it's this alloy of genres that keeps you interested throughout.
Personally, I love our main characters. Aleck represents us short men – something you don't often see in a medium where even Wolverine gets drawn at an average height. He might be extremely muscular, unlike many of us, but he just seems very...well, normal! Down-to-earth. And Lillian is clever and rich and badass and strangely knows what death smells like, so we'll just call that "mysterious" and say that makes her even more attractive!
Stickney and Hughes seem to get Coal Country. You see it in what the townspeople wear. What they do. How they talk to one another. You feel like you're right there, in Pennsylvania, and you may not even realize it.
Conor Hughes has fun with naming local establishments, giving them themes. It reminds me of when I visited Helen, Georgia, which went over-the-top, old-school Bavarian style with its culture and architecture – the town of White Ash has a similar feel.
Hughes also works in some fantastic jokes and foreshadowing in small ways, like the woman reading The Stand in the beginning of the book, and a certain T-shirt and handmade sign later on...(props to writer Charles Stickney if these were his gags written into the script).
Stickney also enjoys being clever in the comic; there are fake advertisements within that are a lot of fun, a gag with a golem, and attention to banter and dialogue that makes reading slower scenes as much of a joy as the action-packed ones. But this wit does make me wonder if the town's name is supposed to be a play on "Snow White" in some way.
Hughes pays as much attention and thought to people as he does to the architecture of buildings and the environment. He's able to capture so much emotion in faces, which is handy, because it helps bring the world and characters to life – especially characters like Lillian, who seem to evolve through a flurry of emotion in any given scene. There's a touch of Westernized manga influence here that I appreciate, and you can see it in the shifting between realistic and comical character reactions, or the reliance on things like drawing hearts to show affection. It's not overdone – it's just right.
Hughes also isn't afraid of using double-page spread or splash pages to great effect. It's done sparingly, but that only makes them more impressive.
At risk of making this a Conor Hughes Appreciation Post, I have to say that Fin Cramb's colors are insidiously well-done. There's so much going on with the line art and story, you don't realize how Cramb uses a limited palette in each page, or how he uses warm and cool colors in contrasting panels, or how he elevates the tension or danger through red-hot colors that stray from his more grounded-in-reality palette. Cramb often uses a bright and vibrant palette which helps lighten the tone of the book and make it feel more playful. However, he's not afraid to use moodier palettes, as beautifully showcased in the book's stunning epilogue.
I don't want it to seem like I'm putting down all the lettering in the section below – in fact, a lot of it was very much enjoyable, particularly in the use of sound effects. The fonts and style given to many of them felt rooted in an almost Americana feeling, which really works for the old, small-town vibe of White Ash. They're cartoonish, but not in a Looney Toons way – just a little big and jaunty. Elsewhere, a “Clang” use the arc of a swinging element as a “c,” incorporating the effect into the art without completely customizing and hand drawing the sound effect. Often, sound effects flow off the page, giving the sense of big, loud sounds coming from far away or all around them. A typeface used for signing looks at least based in actual handwriting. Later in the volume, during a monologue of sorts, balloons are used well, confidently leading the reader through and around restaurant patrons.
While the end of the volume definitely gives us closure and ends the arc well, there are still plenty of questions to be answered – the perfect way to lead us into a second volume.
WHAT DOESN'T WORK?
This is NOT a kids' book! There's a surprising amount of gore and violence, even some alluded violence toward kids, and a lot of sexuality (though not nudity) within.
Speaking of sexuality, there's a lot of Male Gaze directed toward female characters in White Ash, to the point where it feels about as gratuitous as a Mass Effect camera angle. And, while we get a little of that directed at our male hero, Aleck, there definitely seems to be an imbalance toward hetero male wish fulfillment. If that's not your thing, you may find yourself struggling through a few scenes.
NOTE: Many of these issues are likely to be addressed before the book is officially printed, but there are some small issues with the original, Kickstarted version of the book. While the story sticks together well and feels cohesive and the art style doesn't change, you might get the sense that the creative team is finding their footing in early issues – more in the craft of making a comic than in relaying the story to us. This sticks out the most in the lettering (no letterer is listed on the credits page). The typeface chosen for the book is tall and tight which can make reading on smaller devices a little challenging. Some yellow lettering fades into a yellow background. "Dam" gets misspelled. Caption boxes have text that isn’t centered. Air in balloons changes constantly. Large balloons could be made into two smaller ones. That being said, it does a good job of leading the eye, even in unconventional directions across the page, so it's not "broken." I just think a professional letterer could have helped this great comic be even greater. However, a lot of the smaller kinks get smoothed out as the editors get brought on in later issues.
WHY SHOULD I READ IT?
White Ash is the best damn coal mining, fantasy, horror, forbidden romance comic you'll ever read.
That might be a joke, but it reveals a truth: White Ash is breathtakingly unique – a feat that's difficult to accomplish in the fantasy genre. That, alone, is worth the sticker price. Something new that doesn't feel like you've seen it before.
But also, White Ash is violent and sexy as hell, but also has great moments of humor and sweetness. It's a truly impressive comic that has something for everyone, and it'd make for one hell of a TV series.
This is premium indie comics, friends, and I think you'll have a lot of fun reading it.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
If you like the writing:
The Game by Charlie Stickney & Conor Hughes
Royal City by Jeff Lemire
Long Ago & Far Away by Chris Mancini & Fernando Pinto
If you like the art:
Flavor by Joseph Keatinge & Wook Jin Clark
Angelic by Simon Spurrier & Caspar Wijngaard
Death or Glory, Vol. 1 by Rick Remender & Bengal
ABOUT THE CREATORS
Charlie Stickney – Writer
Multitalented: Also works as a producer and an editor who's worked various fields of the entertainment industry for close to twenty years!
New Face: Though he has a wealth of experience in entertainment, he's still fairly new in the comics industry
Conor Hughes – Illustrator
He was part of a team of graphic designers at the United Nations
Award Winner: Won the Mark Millar new talent showcase for rising stars in the comic industry
Fin Cramb – Colorist
Outlander: Hails from Scotland
Brenda Arson – Editor, issue #3
I can't find much on her, but a woman named Brenda Arson can be found on IMDB.com, so maybe Stickney knew her from his years in entertainment and brought her in to consult?
Heather Antos – Editor, issue #4
Hosts #SignalBoostSunday on Twitter, helping budding creators get the attention they need, using her large audience
Is massively knowledgable and respected in the comics community
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