By Ryan Bedsaul
Fies, Brian. A Fire Story. Abrams ComicArts, 2019.
“On Monday, my house disappeared,” so begins Brian Fies’s A Fire Story, a graphic memoir that recounts the year Fies and his wife, Deborah, experienced after a wildfire claimed their home along with close to 8,900 others in October of 2017. By some strange coincidence, I nearly experienced my own fire story while reading Fies’s book when the heater in my rental burned up an unusual amount of dust and set off the fire alarms. As I stood outside the house watching smoke billow out the front windows, fire truck sirens blaring in the distance, I thought of everything I might lose, everything I forgot to save. But, thankfully, it was only the dust that burned. As soon as the firefighters gave the all clear, I headed back inside and returned to Fies’s book, looking for some consolation. What I found was more complex than that.
A Fire Story began as a web comic, written in the immediate aftermath of the fire, which Fies posted to Twitter for his followers. From there, it went viral, reaching a more general audience before it was picked up by several news outlets including CNN and the Washington Post. Later, it was developed into a short animated film that won a regional Emmy Award, before it became the graphic memoir.
In accounting for the webcomic’s initial popularity, we should consider the public’s perverse attraction to stories about disaster. Certainly, other titles like Uninhabitable Earth, The Sixth Extinction, and The End of Nature – while illuminating the dramatic consequences of unchecked global warming – have played into that appetite for destruction by imagining futures marked by climate disaster. Yet what is notable about Fies’s memoir is that, while it begins with the disaster the webcomic set out to document, the real substance of the work picks up where those first panels left off through a subsequent recounting of all the sad and unsexy details that dominated his and Deborah’s life after the disaster. Two driving narrative threads emerge from this recounting, the first focusing on Fies’s tedious dealings with local utility companies, insurance providers, FEMA, the national guard, their local police force, and so on, and the second portraying his family’s emotional reckoning with the loss of their home.
That first thread of Fies’s text – the sudden displacement into bureaucratic arrangements – is often marked by rigid interactions with representatives of the state. Fies complicates this picture though by revealing the well-intentioned people behind said interactions. Take for example a sequence in which the frustrating behavior of a postal worker barking orders in one panel is reconsidered in the next when his significant other stops by to drop off lunch. “Thanks, babe! I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” he says, as Fies narrates, “Suddenly he was one of us, handling a crisis he was never prepared for as best he could” (Fies 62). Thus, rather than ending on a note of frustration, Fies opts to take the pressure off the individual bureaucrat, reminding readers of the humanity that exists within a flawed system. It makes for a tender moment in the otherwise banal administrative environment, which feels unsual for a genre better known for reducing humanity to a faceless, hysterical mass.
The second thread is the more devastating of the two and manifests mostly as epiphanies of loss peppered throughout the graphic memoir. Whether at dinner, laying in bed, or driving to work, Fies and his wife find themselves suddenly recalling other lost objects, ranging from home video footage of their daughters to precious collectibles to silly seasonal décor. The story is interrupted in places with lists of items that have been liquefied, fused together, or burned to ash in the fire, and other lists of objects Fies and his wife rescued during the evacuation, some of which no longer have any use, like their house and mail keys, lending them a strange kind of nostalgia. While digging through the remains of their foundation to salvage whatever remains they can, Fies narrates: “Well-meaning people say, ‘It’s just stuff.’ But it was our stuff. Stuff we created. Stuff we treasured. Stuff from our ancestors we wanted our descendants to have. Stuff is a marker of time and memory. It’s roots” (Fies 126). In these passages, Fies reminds readers of not just the fundamental loss of a house and its possessions, but the specific manifestations of that loss for Fies, which, in total, composed his specific meaning of the word “home.”
Both of the narrative threads, mentioned above, point to a strength of the piece: Fies’s knack for pithy, emotional storytelling. Yet, that last quote about “roots” is also emblematic of some of the book’s weaknesses. For example, as readers of the webcomic might notice, “It’s roots” is an edit; in the initial comic, Fies ended the same passage with, “It’s home,” a sentiment that doesn’t hit quite as hard as, “It’s roots.” I’d attribute that later, more dramatic choice of words to the time that elapsed between Fies’s initial web comic publication and his re-rendering of that moment for the graphic memoir.
In general, it seems the short distance between the events that informed the book and Fies’s recounting of them means the audience inevitably misses out on the sharper language that comes with allowing a story to sit and evolve in the writer’s mind over time. In this sense, the book is more like personal journalism than memoir. Fies has not quite reached a satisfying distance from the loss and still appears to be caught up in his experience of it, like a journalist reporting from the field, which results in a somewhat unsatisfying narrative progression. By the end of the book, even as Fies has reached a milestone in beginning the reconstruction of his home, one gets the sense that his story isn’t really over and that he could continue it for another year or so, reporting on the rebuilding of the home he and his wife lost along with the various obstacles and emotions that emerge throughout that process. Perhaps this explains why Fies recently released an “Updated and Expanded” paperback edition.
Other formal issues emerge as a result of this aim to report the events in near-real time. For example, as a viewing of the short film adaptation reveals, there is a sense that Fies’s panels were drawn quickly rather than carefully, over time. The simplicity of his sharpie drawings, paired with the scribbled highlighter coloring, gives off an impression of something drafted in media res. While this might provide a sense of immediacy to the text, in line with Fies’s lived experience of the disaster, it also, unfortunately, means most of the panels are rendered rather blandly. Sometimes this leads to confusion, like on pages where illustrations of his wife and daughters are differentiated by nothing more than a haircut or an eye wrinkle. Other times his drawings are simply redundant, like when Fies mimics photographs of the fire’s detritus, which are more compelling in their grotesqueness than their cartoon counterparts.
The notion that much of the memoir was produced to hit the presses as soon as possible comes through most prominently in the two-page spreads dedicated to other fire stories. These are featured every twenty pages or so and are often rendered solely through big blocks of text – like the profile of a media consultant who stuck around to fight the fire with his garden hose for as long as possible (Fies 35-37). Overall, I found these profiles detracted from the momentum of Fies’s own story and, while each one thoughtfully alluded to the broader impact of the fire on other victims’ lives, they ultimately felt unnecessary given the autobiographical portions of the book that already pointed to those larger societal issues in Fies’s reflective narration. I am thinking of a moment when Fies observes how the fire, “sliced through strata of class like a scalpel,” calling it, “an equal opportunity annihilator,” while also noting how coordinated responses to the fire managed to not only reinforce, but also exacerbate pre-existing inequalities in the affected areas (Fies 57). Later, Fies reveals the real sinister presences of the book to be the business men and women who come in to make a profit off the disaster. Often this means driving up housing prices in the real estate market thanks to the new scarcity of options – thus driving the poor victims of the disaster out of town – or promoting cookie-cutter developments to displaced residents with limited options. In these observations Fies points to the real systemic problems that the story seems most interested in confronting rather than the experiences of survivors that prove similar to the narrator’s.
Ultimately, Fies and his wife decide to turn their noses up at these profiteers and decide instead to rebuild in the exact place where the fire took their home. It is one decision that Fies does not grapple with beyond noting their good fortune in having the means to rebuild their home. The many other neighbors who could not afford to rebuild were stuck with cookie-cutter developments or uprooting to new places. As a reader, I wondered how compromised Fies’s decision to rebuild was compared to the situations of his neighbors, but I attributed that missed opportunity for deeper reflection to the book’s quick, reportorial, feel.
Given the need for immediate action on climate change, one can hardly blame Fies and Abrams ComicArts for wanting to publish the story as soon as possible. Clearly that is a major motivation behind the memoir: to use Fies’s experience as a precautionary tale for a broader, climate-concerned audience. It is via that personal narrative, that Fies points to the bigger issues he and his wife experienced, ranging from capitalist greed to bureaucratic ineptness. Anyone with an interest in the intersections of government, capitalism, literature, and the environment, would certainly benefit from studying Fies’s text.
Unfortunately, with each year of planetary warming, stories like Fies’s become more common. Thus, his memoir provides an opportunity to contemplate not only the world we want to live in when disaster becomes the norm, but also the world we want to live in today: a world that takes care of climate refugees and seeks to preserve the values of home, or a world that only promises security from climate disaster for a privileged few. As Fies says near the end of his memoir, “Ideas like ‘family,’ ‘community,’ ‘tradition,’ and ‘home’ mean more to me than they did before” (Fies 141). Whether facing fires, floods, hurricanes, droughts, or tsunamis, we would be wise to start protecting these ideas from the systems that continue to undermine them. Otherwise we’ll soon be innundated with new memoirs about natural disasters and the survivors left in their wake: their stories reiterating the problems of the society responding to them.