Kickstarted: Alex de Campi’s ‘Ashes’
I like Kickstarter a lot. It's an efficient way to directly connect with artists while also making sure that a project that interests you gets funded. There are still a few hitches that need to be worked out, but my experience with Kickstarter has been largely positive. I've backed eleven projects across a variety of genres, and the results have been solid, for the most part. Over the coming weeks, I'm going to take a close look at some of them, examining the positive and negative aspects of each campaign. Today, I'm looking at Alex de Campi's ASHES. I've been meaning to get into De Campi's work for ages, and this book was my first target. I didn't expect the twists and turns I'd follow after backing the project, but I learned a lot.
Why this Project?
My main motivation for backing this campaign was the fact that Ashes is Alex de Campi's new comics project. Ashes is actually the first comic I've read that she's written, but I've definitely seen her name here and there over the past few years, whether as an industry pundit or someone working on her own comics. I missed out on Smoke, on account of my not being particularly into Igor Kordey's art, and I've been looking for a good entry point to De Campi's work pretty much ever since.
It sounds strange, but I figured that Ashes would be a pretty good entry point. It's strange because Ashes is a direct sequel to Smoke, a book I didn't read, but I've got no problem with hitting the ground running and picking up a story in progress. I did figure, however, that de Campi would be doing something to catch up new readers, either by recapping past glories, hiding references to the past through clever dialogue, or simply not mentioning anything that we don't need to know.
Part of the reason why I'm so curious about de Campi's work, why I'm actively seeking out a good first book to check out, is because I remember enjoying a lot of her punditry and interviews, even if I didn't agree with her POV. She tended to have well thought-out points of view on the issues she talked about, and that caught my eye. It got my attention enough to make me willing to check out her comics work, and this was long before I totally immersed myself in reading and writing on the comics internet.
De Campi requested $27,000 to finance Ashes, which is intended to be a "250pg bullet ride from the rotting brain of a future London into the psychic heart of America." She did something that a lot of Kickstarters don't do -- she laid out exactly where the money was going to go. A little over half was going to go to Jimmy Broxton, the artist on the book, $9,000 was going to cover printing, and $3,000 to cover certain unavoidable fees of running a Kickstarter. Frank and open. I like that.
De Campi raised $32,455 bucks, thanks in part to a slate of solid interviews. I like this one, where she discusses the influences on each chapter of the book. You don't get to see the chapters, but you do get to see where she's coming from. That's an interesting way to do promo, something we don't see too often in comics marketing. I kicked in fifteen bucks to get the serialized digital versions of the comic. It's delivered exclusively through Comixology with no DRM-free option, which isn't optimal, but works well enough.
The twist, because there is always a twist when you have a plan that has been meticulously and impeccably laid out, came after the campaign ended. A personal disagreement resulted in the dynamic duo splitting up. De Campi ended up firing Broxton, which left the book without an artist. Their conflict is out of the scope of this piece, but you can see Broxton's side here and de Campi's here and decide for yourself who was in the right and who was in the wrong. The conflict does raise interesting questions about ownership and partnership, but those questions aren't anything new and they don't suddenly have easy answers.
The absence of Broxton suddenly turned Ashes from one of the biggest comics Kickstarters into something else entirely. Backers supported the project believing that Broxton and de Campi were going to be a team, and now they weren't. De Campi was between a rock and a hard place, and the backers were, too. The split happened after the backing period ended, which meant all the backers had already paid. On top of that, the estimated delivery dates were pushed back, too.
De Campi's solution was to offer refunds to people who wanted nothing to do with the project and to be as frank and open as possible with the remaining backers about the status of the project. She went on a search for new artists and had to adjust her game plan on the fly. Several times, actually. While the first five issues came out pretty quickly, a couple of the replacement artists are behind schedule, pushing back the digital release of the tail end of the book. But again, de Campi has been good about pointing that out before the backers are caught by surprise. It isn't the best situation, but I don't feel burned. I feel more curious and a little concerned than anything, but at this point, the project's almost done.
The Final Product
I've read five parts of Ashes thus far, the vast majority of the book. It's been an interesting read. We follow Katie and Rupert as they attempt to escape from a vengeful enemy, we see Rupert's past, we meet Rupert's friends, and we find out exactly what that vengeful enemy is. There are a few subplots that take a couple issues to bubble over, but generally, this is a straight-up adventure comic. Katie and Rupert are on the run. We see them run. We see them get into trouble. We see them escape trouble by the skin of their teeth, most of the time at least. And then they run some more. Solid.
I like the story, overall, but I do have some issues with it. A few parts don't ring quite true to me. There's a cabal of old racist white dudes, for instance. These dudes definitely exist in real life, believe me, but they come off cartoonish on the page. It feels like a bit of pointed commentary that's just ever-so-slightly off target, an attempt to show the hypocrisy of a certain type of person that doesn't quite have the follow-through it needs. A certain cigar-chomping bad guy also comes off cartoonishly stereotyped, to the point where I found myself wondering exactly how this person came to power, how he maintained that power, and how he hadn't been bounced out of his organization on his behind, considering how not just morally deficient he is, but gleefully so. There are bad guys like this in real life, I figure, but sometimes these guys are harder to buy in fiction than they are on the news.
Rather than sticking with one artist throughout the book, de Campi's hired several illustrators and given each a chapter to work on. I get the idea, and it makes each chapter feel like a vignette with its own themes and style, but I'm not sure that it's as effective on the page as it is in theory.
I think issue 2, which was fully drawn by Dan McDaid, is the most successful. McDaid has a cool style that seems like it fits very well with the type of story that de Campi's written and the tone she's employing throughout the book. That isn't to say that the other artists are bad, obviously. They aren't. But that issue clicked the hardest with me. It felt like it worked on a level that the other issues don't quite match. Which is impressive, considering that legends like Colleen Doran and Bill Sienkiewicz have been working on Ashes, too.
The mixture of artists makes Ashes feel much more piecemeal than it actually is. The story has a lot of moving parts to keep track of, but it isn't hard to follow at all, I don't think. But due to the new artists on each issue, or different art teams to be more accurate, I kept finding myself going through an adjustment period. "This is what Katie and Rupert look like now." I've been thinking of it like a play put on by several different troupes, but playing in the same theater. It isn't an exact comparison -- it may be more accurate to call it a medley? -- but it's close.
De Campi is lettering the entire book herself, and I want to call special attention to her work on that. Up above is an example of her original lettering, which is in as high a resolution as I've got it. Below this paragraph are two more images that you can click to make bigger with her second, and final, lettering style. The words aren't my focus here so much as how their containers look. Look at the shapes. The second style looks so much better, right? I seriously dig her hand-drawn balloons much more than the traditional word balloons. They fit the story perfectly and make it stand out in a sea of comics begging for attention. It's a little thing, but little things matter a whole lot.
[Click images to enlarge]
Ashes is a mixed bag, but it's nice to see it barreling toward completion. It was undoubtedly a little painful for de Campi, but I think it's still valuable for creators, project founders, and readers. Having followed the project deepened my understanding of what's involved in getting a comic off the ground, from legal issues to ownership to basic communication. De Campi's forthrightness sets a good example for other project founders, as being as open as possible with what you're doing can instill in your backers a sense of trust. And for creators, the Ashes Kickstarter serves as an example of not just how things can go wrong quick, fast, and in a hurry, but also what can go right if you're flexible and ready to think on your feet. I'm looking forward to seeing how the book ends and what happens once its journey is complete and it's on store shelves.