Exploring Real Heroes' Struggles in Firefighter Drama ASHES

 

The lives and heroics of firefighters has been told in several mediums with numerous movies and TV programs dedicated to them. However in the world of comics, adventures showcasing these deeds are few and far between, especially if they're not tied to the superheroics of their surrounding world, i.e. Gotham Central. Writer Mario Candelaria and artist Karl Slominksi are here to give those brave men and women a voice with their Kickstarter project Ashes, which has just a few days left, and just hit their initial goal.

Centering around Brooklyn firefighter Matt Terwillegar who suffers a fatal injury while on the job and his crew who help him move on with his life. It's a story of friendship, courage, dedication to the saving of lives, and the hope that each new day will be better than the previous one. It's garnered praise from some of the industry's finest independent creators such as Van Jansen and Dean Haspiel.

Newsarama talked with both Candelaria and Slominski about Ashes, the process going into it, as well why they think it's an important story to tell.

Newsarama: We've seen movies and tv programs about police officers,  firefighters and even EMTs, so what makes Ashes different than any primetime drama of the genre?  

 

Mario Candelaria: That is a very good question. While the film and television productions often do a very good job portraying the essence of firefighters I've found them stretched thin trying to give each central character time to shine while also covering a case from start to end all in the allotted 44 minutes per episode. Rescue Me is the only series that comes to mind that I feel really put an emphasis on the growth and interactions between characters over the thrill of being on a call, but I guess that is why it aired on FX and not on Fox proper.

Ashes is kind of like what Chicago Fire would be if (SPOILER) Andrew Darden had survived his accident in the pilot and the series focused on how he struggled with moving forward with his new life status instead of how the rest of the crew react to it. Shows like that always show someone either dying or coming out more or less fine and this is the tale of someone who had that big, glorious climactic moment and lived to deal with the aftermath.

Nrama: So including a foray into comic book writing, you're also a stand up comedian? How does that play into your storytelling abilities? 

 

Candelaria: I like to think of writing for the stage and for the panels as something completely separate like an on off switch but in reality they both stem from the same place, and I don't mean vodka. I look to my friends for inspiration for both. As alien as this sounds I like to absorb the way that two or more of us talk, sort of like study in banter, while sitting at a table in a bar somewhere with a bigger group of old pals and taking the spotlight reminiscing an embarrassing story thats been told a million times and really emphasizing on the little details as accents helps craft my stand-up. Also it's a great way to build tolerance of drunken hecklers who always have a little something extra to add.

While Ashes does have some lighthearted dialog between the crew throughout the book, I really like to focus more on the dramatic side of things when I'm writing fiction and I feel like comedy is just a little something on the side, like a creative comàre.

Comedy is a lot like comic books in that there are people who thrive at telling really awesome short bursts like Nikki Glaser and Frank Miller but there are also people who excel at playing the long game like Paul F. Tompkins and Jonathan Hickman.

Nrama: Aside from the possible printing costs being lower, what made you guys want to go black and white?  

 

Candelaria: Honestly the printing cost did not even factor into the decision to do black and white. Saving money is a bonus perk but Karl's coloring, or lack thereof, really adds to the drama within the panels. I'm a sucker for black and white comics such as You Have Killed Me or Capote in Kansas and when we were creating this I leaned heavily on making something that would appeal to the consumer in me.

Karl Slominski: Personally, I feel like a book is defined by how its presented; it's not just the content, rather the sum of its parts. When you pick up something on a spinner rack- you know you're getting your monthly dosage of rip-roaring technicolor razzle-dazzle, or maybe something on gritty newsprint that clings to the smell of a fallout shelter basement screams hard-boiled. Some stories just make a harder impact in black and white- there's an immediacy and poignancy in each line that elevates the story. Ashes isn't a fluff piece- it's real people, over-coming real harsh realities; the narrative should serve that, not handicap it.

Nrama: Karl, tell us a bit about the process with you being a one-man art team.

Slominksi: I'm sure it's not too dissimilar from anyone else's process (which is a terribly pretentious word); I generally read Mario's script, pick out key shots, and throw together a rough layout right on the actual page. More often than not, I'm really just going straight to ink over my roughs. I try to avoid distractions in the studio, it's best to just make comics for as long as you can in any given day and stop the second it feels like work. Sometimes I think the smartest thing about drafting page after page is realizing when you're running on fumes and taking the opportunity to regroup- otherwise your work starts to become hackneyed and forced. But I'm a hypocrite in this regard, because I'll often lose track of the real world and just keep going until I wake up at the desk with ink splattered all over my face. 

 

Nrama: Mario, tell us a little bit about your characters here.

Candelaria: Matt Terwillegar is your run-of-the-mill kind of guy. Even though we do not explore this part of his past I like to imagine that he was an average student in high school, that he was more interested in chasing girls and doing the minimum required as he counted down the days before he could start his training. When the story starts he is living in the basement apartment of his parent's Park Slope brownstone and comes upstairs for all of his meals and laundry. He likes the way his life is going and has no intention of changing.

Lopez is the friend who is always there with a joke and a smile no matter how bad things seem. He's also the friend who eats all of your food whenever he comes over. They came up together in every step of life and Lopez is regarded like a son in the Terwillegar household to such a degree that Mrs Terwillegar regularly puts leftovers in a Tupperware for Matt to give to Lopez so he'll have a home cooked lunch during his shifts.

The relationship between the two is something that I really wanted to touch on. In the preview the dialog between the two seemed a little crass, but growing up in Brooklyn that is how my friends and I spoke to one another. It wasn't really racist or mean but we busted each other's balls every chance we got and no topics or character traits were off limit and being able to take your licks as well as you can give is a real test of ones character.

Terwillegar's parents are a representation of the internal conflict of family versus duty that Matt himself faces throughout the book. His father is his ultimate role model. He worked hard and put in his years and rose high enough in the ranks that he now takes the A train to Jay Street rather than working in a firehouse. That is all that Matt has strived for since birth, so when his injury derails the only life trajectory that he has known it is heartbreaking to see his parents take opposite sides in how he should move forward. 

 

Nrama: Why do you feel this story is important to tell?

Candelaria: It takes the traditional story of a firefighter who is already regarded as a hero and adds a whole other level of struggle and perseverance that is seldom seen in other mediums. This is an exploration of what happens next after someone survives going out in a blaze of glory. That's why I think it's an important story to tell.

Nrama: Karl, how would you define your style? Not just in character design, but in page layouts and composition, too?

Slominksi: There's a brilliant saying that you'll hear from the veteran comic artists that says, "Style is just an excuse for bad drawing". I think there's a lot of truth about the industry itself in that sentiment- there's such a confining desire for this cookie-cutter "house style" in mainstream comics that really does a disservice to expanding readership. There are so many brilliant artists that just DRAW for the sake of telling a story and I identify with that punk rock/DIY attitude as a creator that DOESN'T draw that way. I work at a relatively frantic pace, generally spending the most time on page layouts at its basic form- paying close attention to how Panel 1 will lead the eye to Panel 2 and selecting the most opportune POV for the given shots. I hardly spend any time penciling, which is a comics travesty by mainstream industry standards I'm sure, but more often than not my pre-ink pages just look like sloppy placeholders that bear a minor semblance to actual people and places. 

There's a confidence that comes from drawing straight to ink with brush and quill that makes the work REALLY pop- there's no second-guessing, there's no excuses- it's just RAW. I like my work to feel almost tangible and lived-in, it makes the story seem grounded and honest. They say you draw the world as you see it- so until I see the world differently, I'll keep drawing it that way. 

 

Nrama: Karl, what made you want to join Mario on the project?

Slominksi: Mario's one of the few writer's whose panache for stylish evening wear rivals mine (and I don't step out in anything less than a suit and tie most nights). As a writer, he's got this rare honesty that comes from his dialogue that seamlessly grounds his characters; he cares about the world he creates in his scripts and it shows in how they interact within that world. These aren't caped crusaders delivering monologues pontificating justice through gritted-teeth like we've read a dozen times- these are Brooklyn firefighters. We're talking REAL Brooklyn firefighters- they've seen it all, they've done it all and they've lived to scoff at the story and do it all over again.  Mario has a natural ability to capture that dyed-in-the-wool, roughneck grit without ever seeming artificial or disingenuous. I've been fortunate enough to work with a few writers that truly care about making comics and I'm proud to be working on this project with him for that very reason.

Nrama: Mario, how would you compare Ashes to your previous works?

Candelaria: I am very green with my comics résumé so there isn't much to currently out there compare Ashes to at the moment but I have matured when writing Ashes, that is for sure. I've been working for about six years now trying to come up with projects and looking for artists to work with and a number of books are finally starting to see light in one way or another.

I have a book about an Italian American teenage legacy hero who fights a resurrected Mussolini currently in production that I wrote in 2007-2008. This was my first real attempt at writing comic books and I really tried to go over the top with the superhero genre, but when I read The Alcoholic by Jonothan Ames and Dean Haspiel I saw a new world of comic books that really clicked with me. I sought Dean out and with his help I began developing a collection themed short stories of varying styles with a number of amazing artists that I called The Reception (currently available monthly at TripCity.net).

The Reception is like the predecessor to Ashes, kind of like the mixtape that comes out before an EP. I learned a lot while writing Ashes and have rolled that knowledge over to my next project that I am developing; a short story about two former lovers who have a chance encounter at a train station ten years after the fact that I hope to debut at SDCC titled "Épilogue". 

 

Nrama: How has the response been so far for Ashes?

Candelaria: The response has been great so far! I am very happy that people are digging the story and also reaching out to Karl and I with words of encouragement and wishing luck with the funding. I was very nervous before putting the pages on Kickstarter because I was worried about how a comic from two new creators would go over so I was relieved to see the feedback we have so far.

I haven't seen anything negative, but a few people mentioning that the superb Alex de Campi also released a book titled "Ashes". Negative is too strong of a word, it was more like concern, but it was something I set out to rectify immediately. Very early on in the campaign when the conflict was pointed out by "Sam and Lilah" writer Jim Dougan I immediately contacted Alex and we both had a small correspondence where I offered to change the name of my book. She basically said that she was fine with my using the title and that her publisher was releasing "Her Ashes" in a dual book titled Smoke/Ashes I believe, releasing both of her stories in one. She also mentioned that she had also used a title for one of her comics that was already taken by another creator so she understood what I was going through. If I ever see her at a convention bar I hope to buy her a round as a token of my appreciation. 

 

Nrama: What do you hope readers gain from something like Ashes and furthermore, what have you gained as creators?

Candelaria: My biggest hope for this book is that readers will see a different portrayal of firefighters and the struggles that they have to go through outside of the fire.

I've always priding myself on treating artists I work with like partners where we both put ideas into the pot and see what comes out but working with Karl is like finding that one thing that compliments what I have to offer to make something new. He is the peanut butter to my jelly. I feel that that is an essential part of any creative group and it really shows in the work and it is the standard that I am holding artists to for future projects.

Slominksi: I'd like to have people see it, not only as some comic book about firefighters, but as a true testament to how resilient we are as people. The themes in Ashes are universal and play a big part of how we define ourselves as people in our best & worst moments; strong-willed and resilient. The whole Kickstarter campaign, while one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my professional career, has really fed the flames (no pun intended) of my passion for sequential arts and pushing myself further as a storyteller. Ashes will sincerely be one of the most personable endeavors I've had the pleasure to be a part of and seeing the amount of support for smaller press comics in an industry overwrought with so many tired ideas has been REALLY exciting. I can't wait for you guys to see what we've done!

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