Burning Down The House [Small Press]
[Originally Published @ Poopsheet Foundation]
BURNING BUILDING COMIX by Jeff Zwirek
I first became of aware of Zwirek’s work on a 2009 project he edited about Chicago gangsters entitled Pinstriped Bloodbath (which was in fact the very first comic I reviewed at Poopsheet Foundation), so it was great to see the result of this successful Kickstarter campaign come to fruition. Burning Building Comix is probably the most innovative comic you’ll see this year from a construction and storytelling standpoint. The hardcover folds open to reveal two interior booklets, for a total of 10 rows of panels. These rows function as “stories” in two different ways. They’re meant to represent both the actual physical stories of the building, and they also each contain a different story featuring varied building occupants. It’s an interactive experiment that asks the audience to alter their typical reading behavior. You start at the very bottom of these unfolded pages, work your way across, then up to the next row, across again, and repeat, until you’ve reached the top of the building and have raced the fire up the structure as it attempts to engulf the building.
This unique approach creates a dynamic where Zwirek can tinker with many different aspects of sequential storytelling. It allows him to play with the passage of time and control the reader’s eye movement across the page, and to have activities within the rows of panels intersect from floor to floor, such as two people from different stories meeting at a party, or a dog barking which is heard between the floors/rows. In addition to Zwirek pushing the boundaries of a traditional comic book narrative, he also challenges himself to tell this story sans dialogue. It forces him to create an aesthetically expressive cast of characters with pantomime actions, pictorial speech balloons that symbolize ideas, and to lace the backgrounds of the panels with some visual clues. Zwirek perhaps pushes the suspension of disbelief a tiny bit too hard at times. For example, I find it hard to believe that someone could “unhang” themselves or that an average run-of-the-mill dog might be able to use his water bowl to attempt to drown out an incipient stage fire, but that would otherwise hamper some of the humor, and it’s admittedly being very nitpicky regarding an otherwise stellar work.
Either because I’m just contrarian by nature or an absolute idiot, well, maybe it’s really because I was inspired to experiment as a reader, as this creator was inspired to experiment with storytelling, that I also read the book a second and third time. During these reads, I purposely did not follow the intended instructions, and this yielded some interesting results. As an aside, I did this for Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile, for whatever that’s worth. Instead of following the “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, I also read that book straight through in order to catch pages I might have missed. With Burning Building, I read it from the top down, from left to right one time, and this was interesting because it was the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do, causing you to move against the fire, and not with it. This means that it appeared as if the incantation guy actually started the fire with his spell(!). I then read it a final time, reading the first panel of every story, then moving onto the second in unison, so I read from top left down, reading in columns, and moving forward with all stories at once incrementally. The dynamics fell out of linear sequence at times, the pace intensified with fire seemingly occurring on multiple floors at once, but it was just as interesting. Things like the dog barking fell in line just fine.
Burning Building Comix is worth the price of admission for the sheer craft of bookmaking and the innovative approach to storytelling alone, but it’s not a solitary gimmick that the book relies on by any means. The stories themselves are actually very telling and enjoyable with regard to human nature, particularly if you consider that the building itself represents life, and each player is merely a different aspect of self. It’s compelling to see how people from different walks of life, different ages, genders, and personalities, all react differently to the prospect of being consumed by fire, or just being consumed by their own issues. Grade A+.