As I’ve been following ND Stevenson for years through his tumblr, I am very familiar with his yearly reports. At the end of each year he would lay himself bare before his audience, emotionally unfurling himself through his sequential art to his readers. Some entries were longer than others, some were more terse than others, while some were heartbreakingly earnest and honest.
While it’s one thing to read them in real-time — year after year with the distance of hundreds of days in-between — it’s another thing to read them one-after-another in a single collection. Said collection? THE FIRE NEVER GOES OUT: A MEMOIR IN PICTURES.
I won’t mince words here: I’m old. In all likelihood, I’ve already tripped over the halfway point of my life. However, this memoir covering the adventures of a late teen to twenty-something creator endlessly resonates more and more every time I read it.
With THE FIRE NEVER GOES OUT (FIRE from here on out), Stevenson details the trials, tribulations, and difficulties of discovering and reckoning with one’s self. We watch as he goes from girly churchgoer to an Eisner award-winner for a techno-fantasy about a shapeshifting gremlin of a girl, embracing their queerness, showing weakness and vulnerability, and ultimately finding their place in society and settling into willful tranquility.
It’s an epic graphic work, one that speaks just as much with panels as it does with the space left between them. (If you aren’t aware, that’s traditionally known as a ‘gutter’, but with Stevenson it’s more like troughs.) Nakedly honest and unflinching, it’s a memoir like no other; introspection peppered with grand achievements the likes of which he — or few of us — ever imagine.
Again, I’m far older than Stevenson, but his message of opening up to people, to finding your crowd, to reckon with who you are and what you want is ageless. Stevenson skirts the issue of therapy — he does briefly discuss being bipolar early on in the memoir, and he closes noting that he finally entered therapy and reluctantly embraced meds — but, as with Julia Wertz’s IMPOSSIBLE PEOPLE, both come to the same conclusion that standing with others helps the most. That facet is something I’ve come to embrace over the past few years that I’ve been in therapy.
If you’ve previously read my words, it probably comes as no surprise that this blog — to use the outmoded term — is often my own sort of memoir. Several years ago I had a number of interactions where I realized the friends around me had no fucking clue who I really was. They had no idea of my past history, no clue about my inner life, no knowledge about any of the weird shit I’ve endured, and especially didn’t realize just how severely fucked up I am.
I realized I had buried most of my past. It was something not to be seen. Every once in a while I’d let loose with it — a piece I wrote for my now-defunct games criticism site that went viral was overtly self-reflective. Offhand remarks to friends that often resulted in shocked looks. However, those have been exceptions. This site has been a way to passively address that, to tell my own story, albeit in a way that I hope doesn’t feel like it’s an exercise in self-indulgence or nosedives into ‘too much information’.
There’s so much in FIRE that I can’t help but relate to. From an obsessive, myopic approach to work, to burnout, to feeling broken, to guilt and debilitating depression and wild upswings, to fully and completely reckon with one’s self; there’s a lot of harsh realities laid bare here. I am still somewhat shocked that publisher HarperCollins read his tumblr and thought: “Yes, this is a viable piece of entertainment content” because it feels so intimate. It is so very much of a certain over-sharing internet age that to put it into print almost feels sacrilegious, but I’m very happy they did so.
I first read FIRE as a collected work in 2020, right before I dove into some pretty intense therapy. (Fun fact: it’s only become more intense!) Upon rereading it three years later, I was shocked to read how many terms he used that mirrored my own, both with my partner as well as my mental health professionals. He uses terms that encompass feelings of guilt, of responsibility, of exhaustion, of frustration, of self-loathing.
FIRE isn’t a fictional work; it doesn’t wrap itself up into a nice, neat bow. It is a portrait of a life lived, a life learned, a life changed by experience and self-reflection and self-examination.
Upon my reread, I’ve found that his journey resonates louder than before. This isn’t a pandemic thing; it’s simply a matter of coming to terms with who the fuck you are and how you want to present yourself and endure the outside world.
I realize I’m privileged enough to live in a part of Chicago that doesn’t think twice about someone who paints themself up. No one here gives two shits about your gender identity or your pronouns; most folks just roll with it. I reside in a land of ostracized people; an area of living misfit toys.
In-between my initial read of FIRE and my reread I was diagnosed as bipolar, as well as suffering from acute anxiety and PTSD and dissociative disorder. Additionally, I came out as pansexual to a few folks. (I guess a few more folks now, if you’re reading this. Yes, I’m trying to come to terms with this.) Do I realize that pansexual is the lowest rung on the ladder of queerness? Yes, yes I do. Do I care? No, no I do not. (That is a lie. I actually do care, but I’m trying my damnedest to not.) Does it externally affect anything about me, considering I’m a white male-presenting monogamous person married to a woman? No, it does not. However, like with Stevenson, it does require a lot of internal re-centering and a lot of recalibration and reflection. As a consequence, I’ve physically leaned a lot into what makes me “me”.
We’re all just beings, living on the fumes of whatever societal and artistic and physical means we can. We want and want and want. We want to be heard, we want to be embraced, we want to be seen for who we are, but often settle for being seen for who we think others want us to be.
I’m happy that Stevenson figured that out earlier in their life than I did, but I’m also happy that I finally made some sort of peace with myself. The fire never goes out but, as Stevenson notes with hopefulness: You can “control your fire so that it warms instead of destroys.” I thank him for instilling that comfort.
You can — and should — get your own copy via Bookshop.
I’d like to call your attention to The New Yorker review of FIRE, which I discovered after penning the final draft of this post. We’re very much on the same page, although Stephanie Burt is far more eloquent and exacting and less navel-gazing than myself.
Lastly, Tasha Robinson’s write-up for Polygon is well worth reading, as she dials in on a lot of what resonates about his work.