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Smoke and Guns
Review by Sean Maher

Smoke and Guns

Kirsten Baldock
Fabio Moon

AiT/Planet Lar
Softcover Original
Publish Date
September 2005
Cover Price
In Smoke and Guns, writer Kirsten Baldock has drawn on her personal experience as a cigarette girl to create an exaggerated world of dive bars and foreign districts in a strange city. The personality of San Francisco looms large – while I don’t know for a fact that Baldock based the story on the city by the bay, its personality and its diverse neighborhoods shine throughout the story.

There are only a few distinctly drawn characters, as this is largely a "one hero against the world" sort of story, but those who are explored are painted with a bold brush; the firebreathing lead Scarlett, her partner-in-arms, get-your-back-in-a-pinch friend Annie, and ballsy cigarette madam Big Peach (my personal favorite) all get defining moments that violently paint their unlikely heroism and guts. It may seem to be asking a lot that we expect those ditzy hotties hocking cigarettes at the bar to be such a gang of badasses (in my limited experience, such women have had an oddly innocent vibe compared to their usual clientele of shameless, ass-grabbing drunkards), but Baldock performs a great balancing act of showing the gross, mundane aspects of their work and the grit it actually requires while drawing back the proverbial curtain and showing a seedy, fantastically action-packed underbelly of the job. That is, while many sections of the book are ridiculously (and entertainingly) action-packed and insane, we still get a sense of what the job is really like, and there's a feeling that what we're reading is an extrapolation of those experiences.

There's also a subtext that paints the city itself as a character, a player in the tale along the lines of the presence that many Batman comics give to Gotham City. More on this in the art section.

Could be I’m drawing conclusions based on Baldock’s text page from The Black Diamond: On Ramp, but more on that in the Bonus Feature section.

The book isn’t perfect. Some of it feels kind of derivative of action movie clichés; we’ve all seen the action hero sliding over the hood of the car while firing a gun in the other direction, and we’ve all seen Clint Eastwood pissing off his superiors (usually in cop movies) by taking too much initiative and taking needless risks that place the whole department (or, in this case, cigarette district) in jeopardy. Transferring those clichés from male cop to female cigarette girl does little to save these elements from being fairly predictable.

But at the same time, those parts aren’t meant to be surprising; they’re meant to be fun. While the book at first glance seems to be a straight ahead sexy action flick, there’s a subtext of tongue-in-cheek self-parody that lies underneath the one-liners, especially in a climactic scene involving Big Peach. It doesn’t compromise the delivery of the action elements, which are delivered with full gusto, but it does remind us as readers not to be taking any of this too seriously.

Artist Fabio Moon’s style here is fantastic. The sexy parts are sleek and attractive, but also, well, kinda funny. It really fits with the tone of the writing in that regard, blending the script seamlessly into the visuals.

Moon’s pages have a smoky noirish quality that should really appeal to fans of David Lapham or Eduardo Risso’s work; the action pops and conveys movement believably.

One sequence especially impressed me, about half-way through the book. Scarlett has found herself alone in a part of town she doesn’t recognize, and the artwork changes gears, becoming over-exposed and empty; the world of the story suddenly feels barren and lonely, and while this sensation is hinted at in the script, the readability of this story element is largely an accomplishment of the layouts.

Bonus Features
There are none in this volume, but if you can track down a copy of The Black Diamond: On Ramp, you’ll find a text page by Baldock detailing the actual events of one of her nights on the job as a cigarette girl. It’s interesting reading and fills in a lot of background for the story.
Final Words

Fans of AiT’s The Couriers series will find a lot to enjoy here, as this book shares some of the same aesthetic approaches – unlikely heroes, balls-to-the-wall action scenes and a winking absurdity to the whole affair. It’s a fun read with some sexy ladies and slick gunplay, and a few laugh-out-loud moments of total silliness.


Sean Maher (email) lives in San Francisco, balancing his love for comics with a full-time job and a full-time course load studying journalism at SFSU. He maintains Sean Maher's Quality Control, a daily blog designed to spread the word of greatness in comics.
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