Tuesday, August 24, 2021

A Fire Story Teaching Guide

I'm excited and proud to announce that Pop Culture Classroom has created a Teaching Guide for A Fire Story that I think is excellent.

The guide is a six-page (free!) PDF meant for teachers who want to teach the book to students. It sums up settings, characters and key themes, and suggests research, discussion questions and essay ideas for the students. The guide also connects A Fire Story to Common Core standards for grades 11 and 12, and finally provides a list of books, games, and online information related to the topic.

I had a chance to review a draft of the guide and was blown away by how carefully and perceptively they'd read my book. I think I made three minor suggestions, all of which were incorporated. And it's challenging! There are questions like "Why do you think the author did this?" and "Why do you think the author didn't address that?" that I wish I knew the answers to!  

Nothing would be more gratifying than to see A Fire Story taught in schools. (I think it's a fine book for high schoolers; there's one naughty word that probably disqualifies it for younger students.) This guide makes that much more likely. Thanks to Pop Culture Classroom for doing such a terrific job!

Monday, July 26, 2021

Drawing for Dollars: Supporting the Cartoon Art Museum

In a parallel universe, I'm at San Diego Comic-Con right now drawing sketches to raise money for the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Since I'm in the plague universe, I and many other cartoonists are doing the same thing at home (as we did last year). Here's how it works: you pay CAM $10 or $20 for a drawing by your favorite artist, and we'll do it and mail it to you.

My dance card filled up surprisingly quickly, so I'm sold out. The nice thing about doing these at home is that I can take my time and find proper references, unlike at the San Diego Convention Center where people are standing there waiting, the wifi is lousy, and I'm desperately trying to recall what Chewbacca's face really looks like (a dog/gorilla?). Got some strange requests this time but enjoyed them all! Four of the five paid a bit more for color, but since I had the watercolors out I just tarted up all of them. I will inscribe them as requested before mailing.

Thanks to everybody who commissioned a piece from me to support a good cause!

Request: "Tom Strong--battle worn, flying his jetpack please." The Tom Strong character is cool, kind of an old-school throwback "science hero" type, in the mold of my own Cap Crater. I couldn't find any reference of him flying a jetpack, but he often scoots around in a backpack-helicopter thing, so I went with that.

Request: "The Atom Indigo Lantern (DC Comics character)." My knowledge of The Atom begins and ends with the SuperFriends era of TV cartoons, but apparently Ray Palmer's been through some stuff since then, including a whole "microscopic barbarian king" and "sort of like a Green Lantern except purple" phase. Interesting career choices. I like drawing the fiddly bits.

Request: "Marvel Superhero." I emailed the customer to ask if he had a particular favorite, and he replied that he liked Hawkeye. Gather around, kids, while I show you what Hawkeye looked like in the comics before Jeremy Renner played him in the movies. I've always loved the character myself and have doodled him for decades. I was pretty proud that I thought of him shooting a bullseye through the "O" in "Cartoon."

Request: "John Carter, Warlord of Mars please, with alien dino ride." The challenge here is that John Carter is a pulp hero who's had a lot of different interpretations over the years. Specifying "Warlord of Mars" led me to the comic book with that subtitle, so I modeled mine after that version. Gave a lot of thought to what a Martian dinosaur might look like: red skin for camouflage, wide webbed feet for running over fine sand. The orange peak in the background is pure fancy--Mars has none of those--but it reads as "alien planet" so works for me.

Request: "The two garbagemen (Dick Miller and Robert Picardo) from 'The Burbs,'" which is a 1989 Tom Hanks movie. My first thought: what a weird request. Then I found a couple of clips of these guys online and saw the appeal. They're only on screen for a minute or two, but were a very funny comic duo, kind of a Laurel and Hardy. I think it's my favorite.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Fire Story Interview: Counterpunch

Here's a new Fire Story interview with John Hawkins for Counterpunch.org, conducted by e-mail a few days ago. He asked some questions no one has asked me before, and the conversation expanded a bit beyond the book. I think it's a good one!

An excerpt:

Q: A Fire Story does an excellent job of describing what people lose in the fire — material and systems and relationships. Can you elaborate on this? And how has the fire altered your understanding of life? The bigger picture…

Fies: Well-meaning people say, “You and your family survived, everything you lost was just stuff.” People who mean less well sometimes say, “I wish I’d have a fire to clean out all my stuff!” I want to punch them all in the nose. I write about this in the book: “stuff” isn’t just material possessions, it’s memories and history and roots.

The fact is, I don’t miss 95 percent of the stuff I lost. The catch is that the other 5 percent breaks my heart. We left a car in the garage that melted into a puddle that I haven’t spent even a minute thinking about, but I will always miss the first sonogram showing that my wife was going to have twins.

Monday, June 28, 2021

"Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do."


It's been one of those days.

Trying to update my Adobe Creative Suite this morning, I somehow managed to crash and burn my computer, then sweep up those ashes, put them in an envelope, and mail them to Iceland, where they were burned again in an active volcano. 

In my long history of swearing at computers, Windows System Restore has about a 50% chance of working. After two hours of clicking, clanking, and chugging ones and zeros, it looks like today's my lucky day. My computer is experiencing the deja vu of reliving last Thursday while I'm back in operation. Adobe Creative Suite can wait to be updated another day.

Yeah, I had everything backed up. I'm kinda a stickler about that the past few years. It still would have been a heartbreaking pain. I did not need this reminder that too much of my life and work lives on these stupid boxes, nor how fragile and ephemeral it all is. But I got that reminder today, and I am happy to share it with you.

Friday, May 28, 2021

Comics Chat!

Henry Chamberlain, the proprietor of Comics Grinder, has interviewed some of the biggest names in comics for his podcast. Until yesterday, when he interviewed me. We talked for almost half an hour about how I came to be a cartoonist and touched on all my books, with a focus on comparing/contrasting "Mom's Cancer" with "A Fire Story." I think he's one of the more knowledgeable and thoughtful people in the comics press, and I enjoyed our conversation a lot!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Bookplates! Getchyer Bookplates!

With "A Fire Story" officially out in paperback (updated and expanded!) it's an apt time to again mention that, in lieu of signing books in person, which still feels dicey, I'm happy to mail a free signed bookplate to anyone who asks. For those unfamiliar, a bookplate is a sticker (custom designed and signed-for-real by me!) that you stick in your book, and blammo! Signed book.

I don't need proof you actually bought the book. First, my readers would never lie to me. Second, my autograph is worthless, so you can't flip it on eBay. We're on the honor system.

Just email your address and any inscription you'd like to brianfies@gmail.com and I'll pop one in the post. And thanks!

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Release Day!

Today is the official release date of "A Fire Story" in paperback, updated and expanded, just like it says on the cover! I can't promise that if you walk into your local heroic independent bookseller they'll have them stacked to the ceiling, but it sure would be nice if you went in and asked. If you already bought the hardcover and wonder if you really need another one, I understand. Just give me a call and I'll read you the new stuff over a cup of cocoa. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

The Return of the Last Mechanical Monster

COMING THIS FALL: 192 pages of full-color Eisner-Award-nominated action and adventure! Plus a robot paper doll you can cut out and glue together yourself! It's THE LAST MECHANICAL MONSTER, in hardcover, from Abrams ComicArts!

I began working on LMM about 10 years ago, after Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? was published. After Mom's Cancer and World of Tomorrow I wanted to do something fun and fictional. This is the project on which I spent about a year writing and penciling more than 100 pages before realizing it wasn't the story I really wanted to tell. I turned all those sheets of paper over and began drawing a new version on their backs. I never regretted that "wasted" time because I figured I had to go through that to find the right story I DID want to tell.

At the time, publishers weren't interested. That's fine! I serialized it as a black-and-white webcomic, and it was nominated for Eisner Awards in 2014 and 2015. GoComics.com later picked it up, and after Editor Charlie and I did A Fire Story it came full-circle back to Abrams ComicArts, where it has found a very happy home.

This is the cover, which was just finalized a few days ago. Charlie and I are doing final edits now (Oxford commas, bah!). We'll put it to bed in a couple of weeks, then it's off to the printer and into your heroic local independent bookstores in September.

My fourth book. I really love this story and hope you will, too.

Monday, March 15, 2021

The Moment Between "Before" and "After"

Today is my daughters' birthday. Usually I make a joke about the Ides of March and post a cute photo of them as babies cuddling with each other or asleep on my chest. Thought I'd go in a different direction this time.

This is the very first photo I ever took of both of them together, moments after their births. There would follow hundreds of other photos of them together, but this was the first. You can see their little bald heads; they eventually grew hair. They were a few weeks premature and weighed about 5 pounds. As I recall, each had her own dedicated nurse. They were basically healthy but spent a couple of days in neonatal incubators. Karen needed more recovery time than they did. A few decades earlier, probably none of them would have survived the pregnancy.

There are very few moments that abruptly cleave a lifetime into "before" and "after." This is my happiest one. Happy Birthday, Chiquitas!


HERE'S a story: we took the girls out to a nice restaurant for their birthday tonight, our county having recently opened to very limited indoor dining. Karen looks across the room at one of the four other parties in the place. "Do we know her?" I take a peek. "She looks familiar." A few minutes later she hails us, and we compare notes. Turns out she was our Lamaze coach before the girls were born, and her birthday is the same as theirs.

"I remember that you had twins!" she said.

"Well, here they are!" I said.

"Small world" doesn't begin to cover the incredible chain of circumstances that brought a woman who helped prepare us to bring our daughters into the world to that place at that time on this night. She seemed delighted to see how her work turned out. If I could've given her a long hug I would have.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Apartment

In my never-ending effort to fill my cultural gaps (we all have them), last night I watched for the first time Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It's a 1960 Oscar-winner, often listed as one of the best films of all time. I can see why.

Lemmon plays a low-level insurance executive who works his way up in the company by loaning his apartment to his sleazy superiors for their extramarital affairs. This leaves him locked out of his own apartment a lot, and with neighbors who are both impressed and disgusted by all the action they they think he's getting. MacLaine plays an elevator operator with bad taste in men, including Lemmon's married boss.

These are surprisingly mature themes. Not that people in 1960 didn't have affairs, but to see them portrayed so openly and casually on screen is a mild jolt. Nearly every man but Lemmon is a cad, and even he's an accomplice. MacLaine makes it clear that she's a "good girl" who's been around the block a few times. 

The movie's also a white-hot critique of mid-Century corporate culture, a pretty common theme of the time. Lemmon works at a desk in a grid of hundreds of identical people sitting at identical desks on an office floor that vanishes into infinity. They enter and exit elevators summoned and dispatched by stern women with clickers, like orca trainers at Sea World. In a few years, all those people's tasks will be taken over by computers, and it's easy to conclude the computers did them a favor.

Lemmon is terrific. I'm more used to old Jack Lemmon, whose quirks and mannerisms I didn't always enjoy, but young Jack Lemmon was a rubbery coiled spring who could make putting a kettle on the stove interesting. And MacLaine . . . sigh. She's impossibly beautiful as well as a complete, complex character in her own right. Two terrific performances. Add the avuncular Fred MacMurray and Ray Walston playing against type as disgusting jerks, and you've got yourself a movie.

I kept an eye on old tech. I am not a scholar on the history of electric blankets, paper towels or instant coffee, but was surprised that Lemmon's tiny apartment had all three. He also had a nifty tabletop television remote that looked to be hardwired to the TV, an old fridge with the compressor on top, and a match-lit gas stove. I read that Wilder deliberately designed the apartment with a realistically cramped layout and well-worn furnishings, some borrowed from his own home. It feels lived in. The film is an unintentional time capsule of its era.

I also kept an eye on details that play differently today than they would have then. Sexism, obviously. Men are execs and women are secretaries. MacClaine's entire job is to stand in the elevator and push buttons for people, and she has to laugh off handsy men pinching her butt as a condition of employment. Also racism. The only black person I can recall seeing is a shoe-shine man; the only Asian is a restaurant piano player whose album is titled "Rickshaw Boy."

I don't think drinking and drunks, which the movie is loaded with, are as funny as they used to be. The office Christmas party is a drunken bacchanal of unbridled lechery. And I was really struck by The Apartment's attitude toward suicide, which isn't exactly played for laughs but more lightly than felt right to me. MacClaine tries to kill herself with sleeping pills, after which Lemmon confesses to her that he once tried to shoot himself. Like it's just something folks do when they break up. Near the end of the film we hear a loud bang and wonder if Lemmon has finally done himself in, and the "joke" is that he only popped a bottle of champagne. Kind of cringe-inducing, I thought.

I quibble (understanding that my quibbles could be someone else's deal-breakers). The Apartment is a sophisticated film that expects its audience to keep up. Great dialog. There are a lot of small grace notes. I caught one bit where, early in the movie, a drunk Lemmon says "three" to MacLaine and holds up four fingers, and much later MacLaine does the same to him. It tells you these characters are on the same wavelength without actually saying so. They don't make a big deal out of it, both moments pass quickly, but if you catch it it's terrific. 

Recommended for its sharp writing and brilliant performances. May want to avoid it if its 60-year-old attitudes toward infidelity, sexism, racism, alcoholism, or suicide would make it hard to enjoy.

Monday, January 18, 2021

And the Livin' is Easy

 It's 80F (27C) with clear blue skies in northern California this afternoon. A perfect day!

That's a problem. It's the middle of winter. It should be 20 degrees colder and raining. We're breaking high-temperature records that have stood for 150 years. Average rainfall to date is 18 inches; we've had 6. If it doesn't rain hard in February and March, we're in for another drought and a kindling-dry fire season next fall. Worldwide, 2020 was one of the hottest years ever (graph from NASA's GISS Surface Temperature Analysis).

The expanded edition of "A Fire Story," coming out in a couple of months, hits the point that it's a book about living in a climate-changing world. I didn't really say that in the original book but the time since has made it clear to me, and convinced me that I shouldn't be coy about saying so. 

Today is beautiful. Karen and I had a picnic. I never would have expected Armageddon to be so . . . pleasant.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Bum Bum Bum Bum

Just as trees must fall in a forest, traditions must carry on, even if there's nobody there to hear or see them. As I have every Christmas Eve for at least 15 years, I'm happy and proud to wish you all the best and a better 2021 with a rousing carol from my favorite cartoonist, Walt Kelly, and his characters from the great comic strip "Pogo." 

This year you get a bonus celebration: a beautiful piece by "Polly and Her Pals" cartoonist Cliff Sterrett, who tops my list of "Best Unfairly Forgotten Cartoonists in History." He really was terrific, and this page captures some of his anarchic whimsy.

Take care, everybody. See you on the other side.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

To Do

Cleaning up my studio today, I found a pad at the bottom of a pile of paper that was my "To Do" list on October 9, 2017, the day my house and a few thousand others burned down. I've advised survivors of subsequent fires that the best way to get your head straight is make a list, check items off of it, and make another list tomorrow. Repeat. That's how you get through the days with purpose.

This was mine. It's eclectic. The fundamentals: Find a place to stay (not yet checked off). Clothes and shoes. Dog food. Stop the mail so it doesn't get delivered to a melted mailbox. 

"Death binder" is what we called the file with our will and estate planning, which we needed to reconstruct. The "Tom" name blurred at the bottom is the financial guy who handles our retirement accounts. I figured he needed to know. (He didn't really.)

Pink tabs on the side mark pages with info on FEMA and the Small Business Administration, which offered low-interest loans to fire victims.

The one that really jumps out at me is "Girl Scout meeting." Why the heck were we worried about that?! I asked Karen, who has stayed involved with Scouting looong after our daughters aged out, and she pointed out that the fire was on a Monday: meeting night. She wanted me to make sure everyone knew she wouldn't be there. 

You want to know what goes through someone's mind when their house disappears? This is it.