I didn’t expect to enjoy WHITE ASH #1 as much as I did. From the cover, it looks like any other typical boy-meets-girl tale: the razor-sharp female warrior leads the bumbling guy on a journey of self-discovery. But that’s not the case. At least not technically speaking.

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The standard press cover. Image courtesy of Charles Stickney and Conor Hughes.

To say WHITE ASH #1 is typical in any way would be a disservice to the characters, story, and art the creative team put together. It’s an indie comic — Charlie Stickney, the writer, Kickstarted it with Conor Hughes providing illustrations and Fin Cramb coloring. WHITE ASH #1 is a strange alchemical concoction, somehow making high fantasy work in a western Pennsylvania coal town. If you think the male protagonist is short just because of bad genetic luck, think again. If you think his 16-year-old female counterpart likes archery and vintage teen memorabilia “just because” — maybe not. And then there’s the whole thing with the main villain eating people.

I won’t say much about the specifics of the story, as I’d rather you discover them for yourself. The story hinges on a reexamination of these tropes. Yet if you like fantasy, I doubt you’ll be disappointed. Though you may see some of these revelations coming from a mile away, the male protagonist doesn’t. That’s the fun of WHITE ASH #1.

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The Plot Provides Exposition in a Well-Paced, Natural Way

After a foreboding introduction, the comic introduces us to Aleck Zwerg, the protagonist of the series. Aleck is heading off to Carnegie Mellon, beyond happy to be shaking the dust of White Ash off his feet. After a tense farewell with his father, he goes to the house of Thane Alden, owner of the coal mine. Before he can collect the rest of his paycheck from his hedge clipping job, he meets Thane’s daughter, Lillian. As the muscular hero is shirtless at the time, it’s a playfully awkward situation for them both.

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The “playfully awkward” situation. Image courtesy of Charles Stickney and Conor Hughes.

An explosion at the mine interrupts their time together as they both rush to the scene of first responders on site. There, Aleck learns that his father was in the explosion with a fate uncertain. Before this, though, a strange happenstance tickles his brain, one that he pursues as he teams up with Lillian to uncover what really caused the disaster.

The plot of WHITE ASH #1 is not overly complicated, and this is to its credit. WHITE ASH #1 handles exposition through the eyes of the characters. Aleck talks about White Ash because he’s glad to explain why he’s getting out. Thane is a jerk because he short shrifts Aleck’s last paycheck. Things are not as they seem because the comic outright shows the aberrations.

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The cumulative effect of this plot is that WHITE ASH #1 clips along fast for its 55-page length. I want to read the next issue because I genuinely care. That means I was empathizing with the characters. That is not always an easy thing to do.

Relationships Humanize the Characters of the Comic

In the span of reading WHITE ASH #1, I both laughed out loud and shuddered with stress. This empathy came from a clear understanding of the emotional triggers of each character. That clear understanding came from showing those triggers through interactions with other people of the White Ash community.

My laughter came from the chemistry between characters. The obvious reference is the chemistry between Aleck and Lillian, but it’s not just them. We see Aleck and his father share a genuine hug. Aleck and his Uncle Orman also gush familial camaraderie. When Aleck and his long-term co-worker, Katlyn, hold hands in the hospital, it doesn’t feel forced at all. It’s genuine solidarity.

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My dread came from knowing what would hurt Aleck the most. There is a scene between Aleck’s dad and a strange newcomer to White Ash. At the moment of reading, my chest was tight, something I don’t often experience in comics. I think this happened because I knew the stakes. The story introduces an uneasy relationship between Aleck and his father. I couldn’t think of something worse for Aleck than the process of reconciliation getting cut short.

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Aleck shares a tense moment with his father before leaving for college. Image courtesy of Charles Stickney and Conor Hughes.

These moments came from a clear understanding of human relationships and bold plot choices. The writing is the spirit behind the success of the story’s ethos, but its physical form ultimately comes from the art. This was another strong point of the comic.

The Art and Colors Flesh Out the Story as Much as the Script

The team of Conor Hughes and Fin Cramb bring WHITE ASH #1 to life. Though that saying is self-evident, what I mean is that plot and characterization would have been weaker without their art.

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Hughes’ art does as much to tell the story as Stickney’s script. His layouts are clear and focus on what’s important to tell the story. His depictions of the characters are excellent at showing what they’re thinking when there aren’t words to fill in. The combination of these effects gives WHITE ASH #1 the traits of a great comic.

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An example of Hughes’ layout. Notice how “short” is emphasized with character blocking. Image courtesy of Charles Stickney and Conor Hughes.

And Fin Cramb’s colors shouldn’t be neglected either in his ability to set mood and tone. White Ash proper, where Aleck lives, is sufficiently gray. The mines are predominately beige but become red when danger is afoot. Lillian’s room is a weird shade of green, giving it an otherworldly feel. Cramb gives depth to the characters, both physically and emotionally. You can’t draw a character’s blush — you have to color it.

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Notice how Cramb changes the predominant colors of the mine shots. Image courtesy of Charles Stickney and Conor Hughes.

The art is the vessel that carries this story, both in the events of the plot and in the emotions of the characters.

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Final Thoughts on WHITE ASH #1

I’ll be succinct: I can’t wait until Chapter 2 comes out. If you read this story, I hope you feel the same way. As advertised, this release will be on February 12, 2018.

For now, you can pick up WHITE ASH #1 via the “Buy It Here” link on the Kickstarter page. Be fast — print copies will be shipping soon.

WHITE ASH #1 by Charles Stickney, Conor Hughes, and Fin Cramb
WHITE ASH #1 delivers a solid beginning to what promises to be a fun and thrilling series. The story follows 19-year-old Aleck on the day he’s finally able to leave White Ash, his hometown, for college. An accident at the mine keeps him home until he can figure out who may have caused it. Expect well-written characters with complex relationships. Expect art that tells the story just as well as the script. All in all, you won’t be disappointed by this story of “fantastic” happenings in West Pennsylvania.
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