Many of you may recall a webcomic recounting the horrible 2017 wildfires through Northern California. Except for a smattering of bare essentials, cartoonist Brian Fies and his wife, Karen, lost everything in the fires. Mr. Fies chose to set his recollections down as soon as possible and posted them as a webcomic. His on-the-spot reportage struck a chord and it led San Francisco PBS TV station KQED to adapt A Fire Story into a five-minute animation, which was subsequently picked up by NPR. That animation went on to win an Emmy Award in 2018. Now, in 2019, that 18-page webcomic has been refined and transformed into a 154-page full color graphic novel, published by Abrams ComicArts, that includes an entire community of people.
Graphic novels, I can tell you from firsthand experience, are a glorious beast to tame with their myriad of details to tackle. So, it is quite remarkable and commendable that Fies stuck it out and built a full length graphic novel upon a small scale webcomic. The reader will immediately sense the urgency of a determined storyteller within these pages. Fies is not only telling his story but involving thousands upon thousands of individuals affected by this disaster. In honest words and pictures, Fies shares his loss: “I used to have five redwood trees in my front yard. I saw a refrigerator and the rough shape of a car I used to have in my garage. I didn’t recognize anything else. A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot heap of dead, smoking ash.” And Fies shares the loss of others, like Dottie, an 81-year-old woman displaced from her mobile home: “My niece called me. She said, ‘Auntie, if you’re on any kind of medication, grab your medications and come up to my house.’ She didn’t say ‘fire,’ she just said, ‘Get up to my house.’ I could tell by the tone of her voice to listen to her.”
Fie’s artwork has a nice clean, crisp and spare quality to it which lines up well with the urgency of the narrative. Fies still prefers to draw by hand and that added human touch is apparent. The same can be said for the coloring, direct and resourceful with just the right amount of flourish. In fact, the coloring might be made with markers, or at least it has that look to it. So, you get the best of both worlds: hand-drawn ink on paper artwork married to digital components. When Fies chose to document this disaster in real time, he managed to cobble together a purchase of some basic art supplies and it worked out just fine. Someone told him that he must have been compelled to “bear witness” and that is exactly what Fies did in the best way he could, through comics. That need to bear witness is palpable on every page.
A Fire Story is a 154-page hardcover, in full color available as of March 5th. For more details and how to purchase, visit Abrams ComicArts.