Early morning on Monday, October 9, 2017, wildfires burned through Northern California, resulting in 44 fatalities. Author Brian Fies’s firsthand account of this tragic event is an unflinching depiction of his personal experiences, including losing his house and every possession he and his wife had that didn’t fit into the back of their car.
Shares lesser-broadcast hardships as well as how quickly wildfire victims are expected to process a frenzied cycle of emotions ... But a vulnerable Fies doesn’t grieve alone — the careful accounting here culminates in what’s better described as a work of comics journalism than it is autobiography ... Aesthetically reminiscent of Sarah Glidden’s nonfiction works or Josh Neufeld’s reporting on Hurricane Katrina, A Fire Story utilizes the techniques typically practiced by those working in the comics medium — sequential art, word balloons — to present a rich newsworthy story. Fies’ sparsely embellished but expressive figures don monochrome apparel and populate uncomplicated building interiors. He produces explanatory diagrams about fire science and dissects a county’s flawed emergency response program. An integration of digital photos and satellite imagery of Northern California — while discordant at first, clashing with the otherwise clean lines and minimal illustrative style — beckon us in as observers and news consumers.
Quietly devastating ... [a] measured, well-researched account. Despite the pain he and his wife endure sifting through the ashes, Fies goes light on sentimentality, instead focusing on the realities of surviving the crisis and rebuilding literally from the ground up. Moving beyond his own experience, Fies shares the 'fire stories' of other Sonomans, illustrating 'the comfort and horror of realizing you’re not alone.' It’s the small details that give the telling weight: the black puddles of liquefied trash cans; the remains of Christmas decorations; how Fies has to tell his car insurer that he no longer has a license plate because the car melted; the search and rescue teams checking bedsprings for human bones. The clean, simple art, tinted in bright spot colors, gives the material breathing room and makes the characters relatable. Without pleading or preaching, this affecting record guides readers through the experience of enormous loss, then out through the other side.
A vividly journalistic graphic narrative of resilience in the face of tragedy, an account of recent history that seems timely as ever ... The matter-of-fact tone of the reportage makes some of the flights of creative imagination seem more extraordinary ... Yet the stories that dominate the narrative are those of the survivors, who were part of the community and would be part of whatever community would be built to take its place across the charred landscape ... Drawings, words, and a few photos combine to convey the depth of a tragedy that would leave most people dumbstruck.