Firebug is about myths, magic, family, doubt -- it’s, well, about a lot of things. It’s about a group of idealists, devotees of the Goddess of the Fiery Mountain, trying to change the world for the better and discovering that making history is messy. It’s about balancing love, ego, ambition, kindness and necessity. And it’s about creating a unique, recent-history fantasy world that centers blackness, one built on elements of writer and penciller Johnnie Christmas' years of mulling over creation and destruction myths from all over the world.
This beautiful new Image Comics graphic novel from Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain, with letters by Ariana Maher, is hard to boil down into a tidy handful of themes. In speaking to Christmas and Bonvillain, they had just as much trouble fitting the comic for an elevator pitch that both summed it up and advertised its most interesting qualities. That’s because Firebug is expansive. At 120-odd pages it’s not a tome and the narrative itself is fairly tight, but the comic feels rich with mythology, history and ideas.
Christmas describes the kernel of Firebug to be the fickleness of life, how “it’s like living at the foot of a volcano. And what if that volcano had agency? What if it didn’t like you? What if there’s something you could do to find favor in the eyes of this volcano? Those are the themes that lead to what is now Firebug.” It takes place in a world where the supernatural is real, and nature goddesses have a direct hand in our lives. The Goddess of the Fiery Mountain, who creates and destroys land, even as she creates and destroys herself, has been worshipped since the start of recorded history.
But over time, people got tired of her changeable ways, and moved away from her mountain home. Far away they founded their new capital and a new Cult of the Goddess, in which a high priestess would speak for her. In the years since, the mountain, and the Goddess, have gone quiet. Young rebels, Keegan, Griffon, and Adria set out the fight the Cult, and free the living Goddess who they’ve imprisoned -- even while they work out their new and bitter love triangle.
Firebug asks readers to contend with questions of identity and heritage, safety and justice, without sacrificing its fast-moving adventure plot. It’s not a coming-of-age story, though Keegan, who has a destiny, and Adria, who stumbles into one, both spend a lot of time in Firebug learning to understand themselves and their place in the world. Instead, it hints at something more mythic or epic, with characters undergoing personal journeys metonymic to the great social and godly forces arrayed against each other. Keegan and Adria are in conflict from their first meeting, and I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you that division continues, and that it feeds into and reflects an even greater conflict within the world of Firebug. Because of this double focus on character and plot, and because of Christmas and Bonvillain’s light-handed approach to the material, Firebug is a comic that could appeal to young and adult readers alike.
When I asked Christmas who he anticipated would read the book, he told me that he didn’t know -- but he hoped, everyone.
“I’m very curious to see who is the audience for Firebug. Who am I gonna run into? On every project I’m always surprised by who approaches [me about it], which is wonderful.”
If I tell you that Firebug is almost 10 years in the making, you’ll get the wrong idea -- it’s been almost 10 years of the idea working itself in notes, outlines, and sometimes in the back of Christmas’ head, but only a couple of years of scripting, pencilling, and coloring.
“The first notes I found for it were from 2011,” Christmas told me. (“WOW,” was naturally my response.) “It would emerge as one thing and I then I would forget about it for months. When it popped back up again it would be something slightly different in each incarnation. It’s been with me for a while.”
Firebug made its debut in the now-defunct Image Comics anthology, Island, in May 2016. Christmas and Bonvillain had intended to serialize it, but the magazine was cancelled before a second chapter could be published. After taking some time to rethink what Firebug needed to be, and how it needed to change for the graphic novel format, Christmas and Bonvillain resumed work on the project. “There was a whole lot of Firebug that had to be chopped; rewritten and redrawn. Which I think ultimately made it a better story.”
The thrust of Firebug is significantly but not essentially changed from what we were first saw in Island. Christmas said that subplots were changed or eliminated, and new characters and themes insisted on their inclusion. The difference between Island’s Firebug and its final version is marked -- it moves faster, feels more accessible, and leaves less unsaid. That’s not a result of Christmas having had more time to work on it: the graphic novel isn’t the perfected form of the idea, it’s a different take on it.
The Firebug of Island is what he meant it to be and the Firebug that stands on its own is what he meant it to be, too. The difference is the format and the company. Island provided Christmas with an opportunity to finally bring Firebug to life, and to work alongside other comics creators he admires, anticipating and responding to their work. “Originally it was a bit more experimental; more like a poem. The story was going to be like three episodes that [functioned as] windows into the life of this character.”
Turning Firebug into a graphic novel, with a more linear narrative, required a slightly different set of skills and a different approach to the material. It required thinking about a very different potential audience. Cutting, for example, any profanity or violence he didn’t think the story required. “If it didn’t need it, why keep it?” The intent wasn’t to target younger readers specifically, but to ensure that he didn’t alienate them, or anyone else, unnecessarily. “Whoever shows up to the party, I’m glad they’re there and I hope they’re having a good time.” The result is a fully fleshed out new world that only Christmas could have built, and only Bonvillain could have decorated.
"At first the writing was a bit more... loose, but as I got further along I started writing scripts for myself as though I was writing for someone else," Christmas said. "I would leave some areas open to go more Marvel Method, for lack of a better term. So it was like heavy structure in some parts and then it would open up when scenes were a bit more emotional, or free flowing, just so I wouldn’t get in my own way, art-wise.”