Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A true story of wildfire devastation and starting over makes Brian Fies’ graphic memoir a must-read

A Fire Story (Abrams ComicArts) is a perfect storm of a book, an individual graphic memoir that tells the larger story of a community, a comic that is the result of both long years of work and a viral internet sensation, a literal perfect storm of weather and human behavior that resulted in one of the most devastating wildfires of all time. In the days after his home burned to the ground in October 2017, Brian Fies used office supplies and cheap paper to capture the moment, creating 20 pages that packed a lot of raw emotion into a compact, tight comic. To say it had legs online would be an understatement; those 20 pages got covered by news organizations on TV, the radio, and newspapers all over the world. PBS station KQED produced an animated version that’s been seen by 3 million people.

But 20 pages wasn’t nearly enough to tell the complete story of what happened. A new graphic novel allows for more space to show the whole picture, including Fies rebuilding his life after the fire. The urgency in that first iteration of the comic are still there, refined and reshaped for the early parts of the book. The book is cleaner and more polished than those first rushed pages, which Fies himself caveated as “not to his usual standards” when it was first put online. But thanks to the fact that it is largely grayscale with bright swaths of color, it retains much of the tone that the first version had, featuring saturated reds, yellows, and oranges with streaks similar to the highlighters Fies used initially. The book continues on to tell the story of what happened next as Fies and his wife traveled to visit their grown daughters, navigated insurance and federal resources and contractors, and ultimately began a new chapter of their lives.

To say that A Fire Story grapples with grief and trauma would be an oversimplification. The book also struggles with joy and a sense of belonging as Fies oscillates between anger, sorrow, relief, and gratitude. Fies gives himself space and permission for all of these things, investigating his own reactions and emotions in a way that is at once refreshing and recognizable. His experience making Mom’s Cancer a decade before armed him with some of the tools he would need for A Fire Story, and readers have grown more familiar with graphic memoirs as a concept, with books like Blankets and Fun Home and even this month’s Kid Gloves helping to increase the genre’s popularity. Like a lot of graphic memoirs, Fies keeps his art relatively simple, focusing on shapes and the impressions of things rather than packing in detail that might distract readers from the story he’s telling.

The people he draws are real people, and this is where A Fire Story shines. His choice to include first-hand accounts of friends and neighbors is an interesting one. For the most part, these interviews are not illustrated or accompanied by pictures other than a portrait of the person Fies spoke with, forcing readers to remember the very real and very human cost of the fires. For as much time as Fies dedicates to physical place and his sense of being uprooted and displaced, the heart of A Fire Story lies in the people that he puts on the pages. There are moments of genuine humor tucked between stories of loss and frustration, in addition to some reporting from Fies that gives a full context of the fires and how they spread (though it feels like it’s missing some background about the root cause of the blaze). It’s a heartfelt, emotional read that has just as much historical and social worth as it does personal value, and a reminder of the best and worst parts of what people can be.