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Interview: Álvaro Ortiz Talks Revisiting ‘Ashes’ For Translation & How Travel Influences His Art

Ortiz talks travel, the Pixies, and more

'Ashes' next to creator Álvaro Ortiz.

On March 1, we featured an exclusive preview of the award-winning graphic novelist Álvaro Ortiz’s Ashes. Originally published a decade ago, the story features a handful of characters who are loosely connected, but their fates converge when a trio set out on a road trip to fulfill the last will and testament of a recently-passed friend. While I just provided a very mundane description, the book is anything but. There are secrets, an insistent monkey, a pair of deadly travelers who look like ZZ top, and—honestly … I’ve said too much. You just have to read it yourself. Also, prepare to never be able to guess what is happening next.

Why would we share a preview of a story published a decade ago? Well, Top Shelf Productions just translated Ashes into English! Originally published in Spain, Ortiz’s work has only been only accessible to the hundreds of millions of Spanish readers. Now, thanks to the work of Eva Ibarzaba (the translator), Ortiz’s is now available to more of us! Ashes is the first of his works to be translated into English.

In addition to connecting with TMS for a preview, Top Shelf Productions connected me with Ortiz for an email interview. We discussed the book’s influences and what it’s like to return to older art.

'Ashes' by Álvaro Ortiz.
(Top Shelf Productions)

Alyssa Shotwell (TMS): Your story reads almost like a film, even with balancing both over-the-top and very realistic characters. And yet, this works so perfectly for the page—like the mischievous monkey. What are some of your artistic influences in film and other forms of art?

Álvaro Ortiz: Hello! I’m glad you think it works! For film influences, I think the two most obvious in Ashes are the Cohen Brothers‘ films and Wes Anderson‘s films. But the comic starts with a quote from the Pixies because music was also a huge influence for me when making Ashes and for the rest of my comics. And then a million other things influence me: graphic design, illustration, visiting museums and exhibitions, comics, and novels. In Ashes, there is also a lot of influence from a certain novel by Paul Auster ;)

TMS: From what I’ve read, Ashes was initially published about ten years ago in Spanish. Most artists would be stressed out to visit a project from one year ago, let alone a decade ago. What was it like coming back to this work? 

Ortiz: Well, I’m lucky to still have a lot of affection for Ashes. It was the first comic (and maybe the only one, now that I think about it) that I was able to work on full-time for almost a year and a half and put a lot of effort into it to make it look as good as possible. Now I’ve learned to draw a little better (not too much better), I see some clumsy panels, but hey, it is what it is, and it doesn’t give me any stress. And, during these ten years in Spain as well as in other countries, it has continued to be reissued and read, so I have always kept it very much in mind.

TMS: This story is about many things, but a through line is this returning to how people respond to cremation and the idea of a body turned to ash. This includes many mini-stories from around the world. What prompted your interest in the subject? Why explore this almost macabre, solemn, and almost medical (matter-of-fact) subject in an adventurous travel story?

Ortiz: I am very interested in stories within stories and in addition to the monkey pages, I wanted to include these cremation mini-stories as if it were an encyclopedia … Break the general plot and take the opportunity to tell a bunch of crazy stories. There are many different “parts” to the book and it was the element that I most enjoyed doing.

TMS: Speaking of travel, I understand that you’ve traveled across (at least) three continents and created an illustrative travel journal documenting your time. How did your time abroad influence your work?

Ortiz: Yes, when I travel, I make drawings in notebooks documenting what I see. I have already been to four continents, and traveling is one of the things that most influences my work. Oftentimes, these trips are the trigger for some of my comics. Specifically, the last one that I have published La pequeña genia y la partida de shatranj [The Little Genius and The Departure of Shatranj] arose after spending a few days in Cairo in Egypt, taking walks through its markets, and making drawings in my notebook. I also have other comics that have come out after visiting cities like Naples or Hong Kong.

Two cats in Murderabilia by Alvaro Ortiz.

TMS: For our readers that know Spanish, too—which book would you recommend them to check out next from your back catalog?

Ortiz: If you liked Ashes and you know Spanish, perhaps the one that is most similar is Murderabilia but in recent years, I have done quite different things like El murciélago sale a por birras, which is a parody of a certain superhero, or the one I mentioned before, La pequeña genia y la partida de shatranj, which is the first comic I had done for children.

TMS: Is there anything else you want our audience to know?

Ortiz: Thank you for your interest, I hope Ashes reaches as many readers as possible there, that they enjoy it, and that soon you will be able to read some of my other comics in English. 

I’m sending hugs to you all :)

Now published, pick up Ashes on Bookshop or at your local comic book store.

(Featured image: Ferran Cornellà, Top Shelf Productions)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time watching movies, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Balder's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO.