Early in the morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. Brian Fies’s book, A Fire Story (Abrams ComicArts), is his honest, unflinching depiction of his personal experiences, including losing his house and every possession he and his wife Karen could not fit into the back of their car. In the days that followed, as the fires continued to burn through the area, he posted an initial version of A Fire Story online and it immediately went viral. The video segment KQED produced about his comic went on to win a Northern California Area Emmy Award. He has expanded his original webcomic into a full length graphic novel that goes deeper into environmental insights and the fire stories of his neighbors and others in his community. A Fire Story is an honest account of the wildfires that left homes destroyed, families broken, and a community determined to rebuild.
I was able to catch up with Brian Fies at his reading at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, part of his book tour. This interview is the result of a subsequent email exchange.
Brian, thanks for doing this interview. You have built a very interesting portfolio of comics and graphic novels. You’re searching for answers and you’re compelled to express yourself through comics in order to explain big themes whether it’s history and technology (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow) or personal challenges (Mom’s Cancer). When you were creating that webcomic about your first impressions of the Northern California fires, did you already intuit the making of your next graphic novel?
Thanks for your gracious thoughts on my work, I appreciate it! I can’t claim any grand strategy—as my wife Karen and I fled our house that night, I wasn’t thinking, “Ah ha, I’ve found my next book!”—but I knew I was an eyewitness to an extraordinary event and felt like I had to tell people about it. To bear witness. My first job out of college was as a newspaper reporter, and I felt that journalism gene kick into gear. Even as I walked back into my neighborhood the next morning to see what had happened to my house, before I even knew it was gone, I was taking photos and making mental notes that I knew I’d need later. The next day, I bought shoes and art supplies, and started writing and drawing.
As I worked on the webcomic, I was certainly aware it might become my next graphic novel. I’d been down a similar path with Mom’s Cancer: live through something terrible, find something interesting to say about it, put it online because that was fast and cheap, and see if anybody cared enough to read it. If nobody had read either webcomic, that would have been the end of both of them, and I would have been satisfied with that. I got my story out into the world; what the world did with it was out of my hands. In the case of A Fire Story, within a few days it went viral. Around 700,000 people read the webcomic on my blog. News and other media picked it up. San Francisco PBS station KQED made it into an animated short-film that was seen by 3 million people and won an Emmy Award. None of that was guaranteed or planned, but when it happens, the odds are good it’ll be a book if you want it to be. I thought about it and decided I was up for it.
Keep in mind, the whole time this was not the most important thing going on in my life! My family lost our home. Our neighborhood of about 200 houses looked like a nuclear bomb had hit it. People died. Thousands in our community were suddenly homeless and jobless, and we had no idea what to do. We had to figure out a lot, fast. My little comic strip, and the hullabaloo that soon came with it, wasn’t top priority. We were busy.
Share with us what sort of person becomes a cartoonist. I think everyone can potentially draw and write but there’s a certain personality that remains persistent and follows through with work year after year. I think it’s a combination of passions: a desire to report, to draw, and even perform. What do you think of that, and how it ties in with your new book, A FIRE STORY? Heck, I’ll also throw in: Did you always want to be a cartoonist and was it just a matter of time?
There may be as many motives for cartooning as there are cartoonists. I loved making comics from childhood. As a teen and early adult I tried very hard to make a living at it—which at the time meant becoming a syndicated newspaper cartoonist or drawing comic books. I got some nibbles but, like most people in most creative arts, I failed. I went on to have a family and a couple of different careers I enjoyed, but always kept cartooning. I sold some freelance work. I illustrated a light bulb catalog once; they come in an amazing variety of shapes and sizes. But my real career in comics didn’t begin until my mother was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer and I decided the comics medium was the best way to tell our family’s story. In that sense, maybe it was just a matter of time. When the opportunity came, I had sufficient skills to do it.
Most cartoonists I know are shy. More introverted than not, though I know some on the other end of the spectrum who are hyper-outgoing. I think one of the attractions of cartooning, certainly for me, is that one person can do it all themselves. It’s not collaborative, like animation or filmmaking usually are. I’m the god of the little world I create on the page. Even my handwriting communicates a mood or feeling. For better or worse, and sometimes it goes really wrong, you’re getting one person’s singular creative vision. It also has incredibly low barriers to entry. For the price of paper and a pen, you too can be a professional cartoonist!
It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that cartooning doesn’t strictly require being a good artist. I mean, it helps, but making pretty drawings is one of the least important parts of it. Comics are about storytelling. Not making one breathtaking picture, but making a dozen, a hundred, a thousand pictures that move through time and space, and guide a reader through ideas, characters, plot, and emotions. A comic drawn in stick figures could make you weep or cheer if its storytelling were compelling enough. That said, the better an artist you are, the more tools you’ll have in your storytelling tool box.
The other thing I’ve come to believe is super important is authenticity. Readers can tell when you’re faking it or jerking them around. If you tell a story from the heart—one that really means something to you, one that only you can tell because your entire life went into making it—somebody will respond. A comic about a routine planet-devouring laser-mounted space dragon, or a group of wizards and goblins who bumble through Lord of the Rings-like adventures, will probably bore me. Anybody could do that. But if your true passion in life is collecting bottle caps, and you can draw a comic about bottle caps that makes me care about them as much as you do, I’ll be your fan for life.
There’s a wonderful nugget you brought up during your reading about kids from families that survived the fires in Nothern California. You point out that in your webcomic you have children requesting bedtime “fire stories.” What a great way to come around to the title of your book. I’m assuming that’s where the title comes from. Any story behind it—or was that title a natural fit and you ran with it?
Yeah, that nugget came from some people I know who lost their home, and whose grandchildren insisted on reading A Fire Story every night for weeks because that’s how they understood and processed what had happened to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. And Grandma would even read the naughty words because, while kids shouldn’t say those words, sometimes they’re the right words to say.
I gave the title much less thought than you’d expect. Again, Mom’s Cancer was instructive for me. It’s simple, direct, memorable, tells you what the story’s going to be about. Same with A Fire Story: it does what it says on the label.
You have said that this graphic novel has changed you. You’ve got a different perspective. For now, of course, it’s a time of healing and rebuilding. My heart goes out to you. As you did in your reading, I think the best place to end here is with that one page that sums things up so well where it’s you and Karen simply wanting to go home. It’s also a time to get the word out on A FIRE STORY. That said, this is a long way around to simply asking what do you hope folks will get out of your book?
Thanks so much. As I describe in the book’s end notes, I’ve gotten two kinds of feedback to the webcomic and graphic novel that mean the most to me. People who went through it with us tell me I got it right. And people who didn’t go through it tell me it helped them understand what it was like.
I hope A Fire Story stands as a work of respectable, responsible journalism that gives a full picture of what living through a disaster is like for an individual, a family, a community. It doesn’t have to be a fire. I think a hurricane survivor and I would have a lot to talk about. In an even larger sense, I think A Fire Story has something to say about any family or community in any type of crisis. These experiences and our reactions to them are nearly universal. We all have more in common than we think. So A Fire Story is my story, but I hope folks might see that it’s their story, too.