SMOKE by Gregory Benton
Some cultures don’t fear death and stigmatize those nearing it like the West and El Norte do — and some communities are more reconciled to danger than the comfortable classes around them. There is an order to the Earth, brutal and unfair, and Gregory Benton’s SMOKE makes us imagine there is an order to the universe, benign and wise.
A tale that seems to double back on itself, like a clock that sometimes won’t move ahead, SMOKE is a graphic mandala of time creeping forward and for some running out. Its migrant farm workers circle the days unchanging, but with life’s end always one sweltering day or flash fire or mechanical hazard away. Existence is a flame that drives us but our lives are the puff at its end, and where it goes is the dead’s, and the artist’s, job to track.
The more words I use to describe SMOKE, the less this article will be worth it to a story told all in pictures; Benton’s narrative connects in the direct, sensory way that experience floods you as a kid, with a logic and knowledge beyond the contracted understanding of adult explanation and rules. Suffice it to say that the story involves children who are in danger or forever lost, and the worlds that both they and those left behind find around them, within the blades of grass and tiny corners we grownups overlook, and within their dreams — and maybe worlds beyond the living one but just as actual.
The naive honesty of Benton’s cartooning style — no-doubt carefully cultivated — and the intricacy with which he envisions a garden of thick vegetation or a byzantine hell-palace of crisscrossing warehouse beams, is phenomenal, as is his fantasy palette of fiery and elysian other realms, and his grasp of cultural detail and extension of Day of the Dead and other memorial motifs.
The imaginary-friend/pet-dragon feeling of a certain major canine character we see on the cover (and who readers will recognize from Benton’s previous masterful myth about states of being, B+F) is vivid, but this is a bedtime story some don’t come back from, and one meant to give us strength even as it sadly soothes. Among the best things I’ve read this decade (without a single word), SMOKE shows titanic, intimate care for people’s honestly observed and deeply felt difficulties, their rare and treasured rewards, and the cyclical nature of mortality — giving a vision not only of a pasture waiting for everyone, but a proper place existing for each of us, on one side of eternity or the other, in a universe too vast to be cruel.