There is a true art to comics storytelling. Don’t let anyone tell you different. And, if you’ve joined me here, you most likely already know. Heck, you can tell when a story has got that crunchy goodness and when it falls short. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading the comics of Brian Fies. He’s the guy who did that webcomic that went viral and ended up inspiring the creation of a Digital Comics category at the Eisner Awards. It was the webcomic, Mom’s Cancer, which won in that category that first year, back in 2005. Comics scholar Scott McCloud was there to hand Brian Fies his award. Recently, Brian’s book, A Fire Story, was released in an updated and expanded edition. Read my review here.
How do you end up creating a comic about your own mother’s cancer? Well, that’s where the power of storytelling comes in. You can tell any story, of course. And there’s something about the nature of comics, the medium’s built-in tendency to organize thought, that can lead both the creator and the reader down some very unexpected and rewarding paths. And, yes, you can even extract a touch of humor from the most challenging situations. Fies did it with his groundbreaking webcomic and he did it again with his more recent, A Fire Story, which has just been released in an updated and extended edition.
I hope you enjoy this interview. It was a pleasure to do. I hardly had to refer to my notes as I had a million things I could talk to Brian about. He even knew, right away, about my favorite pop culture hero, George Clayton Johnson. I focused much of our talk on comparing Mom’s Cancer to A Fire Story. Maybe we’ll need to do another talk that compares his book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? with his upcoming book, The Last Mechanical Monster, due to be released early next year.
It is safe to say, in my opinion, that all auteur cartoonists share the same trait of being compelled to also be journalists: to act as caretakers of a big story and be obligated to gather all the facts, process all the facts, and present the best, most detailed yet concise, version of these facts. Some do it better than others. There are numerous variations and ways of doing this. But, at the end of the day, a real cartoonist is every bit as capable and driven as a real reporter.
If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.
BONUS: We avoided a detour during our conversation and had meant to return to it. So, for all you true believers, this is the bonus content. Brian wanted to share some hard-won process insights. Here is what he later related to me via e-mail:
“My Last Mechanical Monster anecdote is that I’d written the whole story and penciled more than 100 pages when I realized I wasn’t having any fun drawing the story. Every day at the board was a slog. I figured that if I didn’t enjoy writing it, nobody would probably enjoy reading it, either. So I paused, rethought the whole thing, turned those 100-plus pages of penciled drawings over, and started drawing a whole new story on their backs. I thought of it in the context of “wasted time”—in one sense, I wasted many months (maybe a year?) writing and drawing a story that I abandoned. But I had to work through that story to get to a better story I liked.
My lessons from that: you have to trust your process; you can’t be afraid to toss something that isn’t working; and sometimes you have to dig through crap to find gold (or at least less stinky crap.)”
Thank you, Brian! You are a modest and gracious person!