April 15, 2019

The Full Spectrum of a Complicated Situation: Rob Kirby reviews A FIRE STORY by Brian Fies

Just after 1 a.m. on October 9th, 2017, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife Karen woke to a nightmare: the wildfires that had been raging throughout Northern California had reached the vicinity of their home in Santa Rosa, heralded by a power outage, the smell of smoke, and an ominous orange glow in the sky. They grabbed their pets, some clothes, and a few other items, and headed for refuge a few miles away, fully expecting to return very soon. But by late morning they discovered that their house and entire neighborhood had been completely destroyed, incinerated in a literal firestorm. Fies was existentially dumbstruck: “Everything we owned now fit into the back half of a Prius.”  

A die-hard cartoonist, Fies immediately acquired a cheap pad of paper, a permanent marker, a felt-tip pen, and some highlighters, and began writing and drawing comics about the fire. He calls it “bearing witness,” but it becomes clear early on that drawing his experience of this maelstrom was also therapeutic. 

Fies produced 18 pages in four days. He posted them online and they went viral, covered by many major media outlets. He later expanded upon these early pages and the result is A Fire Story — a scary, sobering, and thought-provoking memoir, infused nonetheless with a can-do sense of optimism and hope. 
Though the first 25 pages of A Fire Story give a vivid description of the disaster, the bulk of the story focuses on the aftermath: the steady drip of logistical, financial and emotional trials with which Fies and other survivors are faced - the scramble to locate temporary living quarters and procure basic necessities (“underwear, socks, shoes, bottled water, toothbrush and toothpaste, one light shirt, one heavy shirt”); salvaging, relocating and/or rebuilding; and, above all, coping with the devastating personal and communal sense of loss and grief. We learn that the catastrophe killed 44 people and destroyed about 8,900 structures, including over 6,200 homes, in eight counties. In this unforgiving new reality simply surviving the day-to-day becomes crucial.

Fies acknowledges that he and his family have enough resources to weather the worst material losses and can rebuild their home; expanding the story’s scope beyond his circumstances, he smartly includes 2- and 3-page illustrated oral histories of other victims, some of whom are not as fortunate as he. One elderly woman named Dottie, whose trailer was destroyed, convincingly describes her post-fire housing issues as “hell” (unsurprisingly, the word hell pops up a lot here). These mini-narratives add to the book’s somewhat scrapbook structure, with different chapters addressing various facets of the situation, many filled with almost anthropological detail. With such an encompassing and overwhelming event, this feels like a smart approach. 

In some of the best sequences, Fies describes attempts to salvage items from the ruins of his house and cope with numbingly rote insurance protocols. In one bitterly funny, instantly relatable sequence, he phones a utilities agent to cancel his former home’s electricity and gas accounts. The agency has a list of questions that they are required to ask every customer, and Fies has to reiterate that there are no fences or gates blocking the electric meter (“The entire neighborhood burned to the ground”) and that yes, workers will have clear access to the gas meter (“Unlimited access, but there’s no gas meter there anymore.”). When Fies’ auto-insurance provider asks if the photos Fies has of his “totally totaled” car show the license plate or vehicle I.D. number, Fies, looking completely worn down, tells them, “No, those melted.” It’s all a perfect parody of bureaucratic rigmarole …except that it is real.   

In another section of A Fire Story, Fies vividly describes a process that has become depressingly familiar in the wake of other catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina, where unscrupulous developers see nothing but financial opportunity after a devastating tragedy, often working with politicians to displace lower-income people to build high-priced housing. I would have loved for Fies to have spent more pages on this subject, as it could make for a book in itself (in the meantime I’d recommend Peter Moskowitz’s 2017 non-fiction tome How to Kill a City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood, specifically the section discussing New Orleans). But Fies, ever the optimist, balances tales of these rotten people with examples of the kindness and support he and the community received from many quarters—including thousands of complete strangers—who lent financial and practical help. While Fies is admittedly blessed with the relative privilege to report on the positive as well as the negative, this comes across as a sincere effort to offer the full spectrum of a complicated situation, rather than sugar-coating.  
In between longer chapters Fies sprinkles episodes from his one-page, four-panel comic strip, “A Day in the New Life,” which portrays quotidian moments of old routines and habits brushing up against the post-fire reality. In my favorite installment, Fies heads toward the kitchen of their temporary digs, brightly telling Karen he’s going to make a pitcher of iced tea. Engrossed in reading a newspaper, she replies, “Sounds good.” The next two silent panels show Karen silently reading the paper. In the final panel, Fies returns empty-handed. Fies: “No pitcher.” Karen: “Put it on the list.” These quiet strips act as a nice breather between the more fraught sections, adding a soothing texture of the everyday into the mix, as well as highlighting Fies’ Schulz-like comic timing. 
Fies, who won an Eisner Award for his 2009 graphic novel Mom’s Cancer, has his roots in the comics mainstream and that’s obvious from the get-go. While his bright, cartoony drawings for A Fire Story are polished, allowing readers a smooth trajectory throughout the narrative, his style features little that is idiosyncratic or memorable. For me, his work is professional almost to a fault; I actually quite prefer his original strips (included in their entirety in the Afterword), which by their very in-the-moment nature display a looser, more urgent quality. Despite my preferences, his slick style will likely broaden the appeal of A Fire Story to a larger audience, as his clean lines and bright color palate provide an upbeat spin to grim events (I can only imagine how dark this story might have come across in the hands of a moodier cartoonist, such as Gabby Schultz or James Romberger). I finished the book wishing Fies the best of luck with his rebuilding efforts and admiring not only his storytelling chops but his bravery and fortitude in fashioning a new life from (literal) ashes. 


Rob Kirby is a cartoonist, editor, and writer who lives in Minneapolis. He is the author of Curbside Boys and editor/creator of anthologies such as the Ignatz Award-winning QU33R, the Ignatz-nominated series THREE, What’s Your Sign, Girl? Cartoonists Talk About Their Sun Signs, and The Shirley Jackson Project: Comics About Her Life and Work. He also writes for TCJ.com, Publishers Weekly, and other venues. Rob is currently at work on the graphic memoir Marry Me a Little

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