"A Fire Story," by Brian Fies (Harry N. Abrams)
One troubling night in October 2017, Brian Fies, a longtime Northern California resident, could see the orange glow emanating from one town over. He and his wife packed their belongings in a car and fled. Within several hours, their house — and their neighborhood — was gone. Their land — and their lives — was up in smoke.
Over the following days, Fies scrounged up enough pens and paper to create a “fire story” webcomic that quickly went viral. The Eisner-winning cartoonist’s starkly artful comic was one of the first vivid eyewitness accounts of the 2017 California wildfires, which left 44 people dead and displaced thousands. Fies expands on that comic elegantly in “A Fire Story,” a full-length graphic novel that shifts between his own tragedy and the larger picture of how the blaze devastated his Santa Rosa community. Breakout stories spotlighting some of his neighbors deepen the book’s emotional tug. (The same fire destroyed the house of a fellow cartoonist: the late “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz.)
Fies weighs just what “home” and “tradition” really mean when your life has been leveled; piecing together his story reflects the act of reconstructing his existence. Fies previously mined real life for his acclaimed graphic novel “Mom’s Cancer.” In “Fire Story,” the veteran cartoonist again displays a gift for pacing. Subtly and gradually, “Fire Story” lures the reader into his trauma, till one feels as keenly vulnerable as its victims.
"Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos," by Lucy Knisley (Macmillan/First Second)
In her recent graphic novel “Something New,” Lucy Knisley winningly illuminated the wedding-industrial complex. Now, with “Kid Gloves,” the cartoonist has created a memoir about the journey toward motherhood that feels even more poignant, as painful experiences are interspersed with moments of humorous and tender truth.
Knisley is among several prominent writers who this year have shared their stories of miscarriage, including about how family and friends respond. (Knisley chalks up her mother’s “terrible ramblings” after one miscarriage to “her single-minded desire to be a grandmother.”) Knisley writes movingly of loss and healing — while also finding the humor in misconceptions about birth control and bodily functions.
Part memoirist, part journalist, Knisley maintains an exquisite dance between the personally idiosyncratic and the medically relevant. From ultrasound visits to epidural shots, Knisley builds expertly to a dramatic labor — even enlisting her husband to recall one episode she has no memory of. That scene’s visual effect is rendered without color, lending it a power distinct from all the bright, “clean-line” art. Readers can hope that Knisley — also the author of the charming “Relish” — will follow up this brilliant work with memoirs about early parenthood and beyond.
"Short & Skinny," by Mark Tatulli (Little, Brown)
Tatulli is best known for his syndicated comic strips, including the popular “Lio,” his dialogue-free comic of kid-friendly horrors. But with “Short & Skinny,” Tatulli delves directly into his own junior-high years as an undersized student constantly trying to navigate school bullies.
Fortunately young Mark is not short on friends or hobbies, including cartooning and beginner filmmaking, freshly inspired by a new 1977 film, “Star Wars” (long before we began numbering them). Mark spends the school year trying to bulk up, through a series of mail-order scams he finds in “crazy ads in my comic books.” And when not hopelessly seeking muscle, he tries to muster up enough courage to go up to the girl he can’t stop thinking about.
“Short & Skinny” is long on charm and winning vulnerability. With its warm tones and well-paced chapters, this graphic novel of middle-school self-discovery deserves to be discovered by many grade-school readers.
"I Was Their American Dream," by Malaka Gharib (Clarkson Potter)
Malaka Gharib, a Washington-based NPR journalist who co-founded last month’s D.C. Art Book Fair, has long drawn her own comics, but “American Dream” marks her graphic-novel debut. Here she shares her journey of discovering who she is. When people ask, “What are you?” her “short” answer takes more than 50 words.
In “Dream,” we learn that her Muslim father resides in his native Egypt and that her mother’s family emigrated from the Philippines. Gharib was raised by the latter in Southern California, growing up Catholic and multilingual while continuously fascinated by white-dominated pop culture. Gharib, who founded the food zine the Runcible Spoon, finds sensory richness in describing her passion for “big clouds of fluffy rice” and “that salty, crispy rectangle of Spam.” Such fare provides familiar comfort as she wrestles with her young sense of self in different settings, including Syracuse University, where “everyone was mostly white,” and her entry-level job in D.C., where she initially “tried to repress all signs of my brownness.”
Gharib strikes an adroit balance between her internal questions and external realities, which are appealingly presented through such breakout charts as “Microaggressions Bingo” and “Pyramid of Acceptable Jobs,” according to her family. And she presents her mostly linear story in a flat, loose-line style that nods to the kinetic art of the New Yorker’s Roz Chast. Some of “Dream’s” most appealing scenes involve her travel abroad — so much so that a fan of this debut might wish that Gharib has an illustrated travelogue in her future.