cover image Fire on the Water

Fire on the Water

Scott MacGregor and Gary Dumm. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4116-6

Little-known passages in the history of Cleveland in the 1900s inspire this earnest fictionalized tale of life and death among the “sandhogs”—immigrant workers who dig tunnels to bring clean water to the city. The account is rife with relevant themes—ecological disaster (typhus outbreaks are common due to Lake Erie’s fetid waters), anti-immigration sentiments, and racism among them. Some characters are based on real life figures, including Benjamin Beltran, inspired by inventor Garrett Morgan—whose fire-fighting creation the “smoke helmet” is laughed at because he’s African-American. Another thread follows Rodger Clarke, the Irish foreman on Crib #5, one of the tunneling projects made potentially fatal by subterranean gas pockets near the work site. Their paths intertwine—along with various others, including the corrupt mayor and project supervisors, and struggling sandhogs—in a conflagration known as “1916 Waterworks Disaster” that sees Beltran’s invention put to dramatic use. MacGregor and artist Dumm (American Splendor) are both native Clevelanders, bringing shared passion for their local history. But the effort is somewhat undermined by Dumm’s occasionally plodding art style, with stiff and overly similar character art, and by MacGregor’s overreliance on patois and accents. Well-meaning if not sparkling in execution, this nonetheless presents a plucky tale of survival and heroism. [em](May) [/em]