The Fire of Youth:

Rachael Smith’s I am Fire

Rachael Smith is an exemplary cartoonist.  After her first book, The Way We Write, it was easy to see she was talented, but Rachael Smith is becoming a creator to watch.

In a world of comics where continuity is king, it’s lovely to read a full, complete story.  Not just that, but one that is damn funny. (The funny, done-in-one story is something Smith is becoming an expert in.)  I am Fire is book that shares more with a show like Community and manga than it does Spider-Man or Batman.  Not to say there is no danger — there is.  After all, it says “fire” in the title, something that pays off hilariously (and disastrously) throughout the book.

We start off meeting disaffected 13-year-old Jenny.  Spoiled, obstinate, and moody; Jenny is everything you would expect from a teenager.  Similarly is young Chris, who is as moody as Jenny but far more stoic…until he starts lighting everything on fire.  Not that he is gleeful in his mayhem, but it is definitely a highlight of his day if the gleam in his eye is an indicator.

The story is simple enough:  Jenny works at a department store during the summer for work experience.  Chris is sent to Remember About Fire, a small fire safety inspecting company, so he can learn about fire and its dangers.  While it is a coming-of-age tale, it does move beyond that.  There are several laugh-out-loud scenes, such as when Chris the pyro is made to stand in the stairwell, holding up a sign that says ‘I am Fire’, during the test fire drill.  Smith moves her characters into place deftly with just enough lightheartedness to draw the reader in.  Comedy isn’t the only trade Smith is working in.

The key to I am Fire is relationships.  Be it the impending romance of Chris and Jenny (though it plays out far more hilariously than I was expecting), to the bromance between Ben and Claude.  But it’s the relationships, even the ones from the past, that play out long-form here: the consequences of fighting brothers leading to the fire itself in the mall; the friendship between Jenny and Joan that helps to change Jenny from disaffected youth to slightly snippy teenager.

The coming-of-age story is one that can fail easily if the art isn’t compelling or interesting.  Smith is no slouch in the art department though.  Smith’s art is not of the realism camp.  There is no darkness here. Even when dealing with a budding pyro, Smith keeps the panels and characters light and fun.  Smith frames the panels in such a way that invites the reader to move effortlessly through the pages.  On page 10, as we see Chris burn his way through his first day at R.A.F., Smith portrays a story in each panel (the fact that the place didn’t burn down between panels shows that Chris would ignite things and Bryan was putting them out).  These are the types of pages that not only show us who Chris is, but it allows the reader to move the characters between panels in their imagination.

This is a book I can’t recommend enough.  It’s clever and funny, and it has depth. There is a lot to love about I am Fire beyond the panels and comedy.  In an already overcrowded landscape of huge pecs, costumes, and misery, it’s great to find a comic that is conveys the fun of youth (even when making mistakes, it was still fun) that some might remember.

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Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at

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