So let's just say it's probably the most cleverly designed graphic novel of the year. ("Probably" only because the year's just a little more than half over and a superlative would be presumptuous. But in December, it will be accurate.) The book opens vertically to reveal two pamphlets, each attached to one of the covers. Taken together, the pamphlets show a cutaway view of a ten-story apartment building that has caught on fire. In an author's note, Zwirek suggests you read the book horizontally so you can follow the stories of each of the building's inhabitants, starting from the bottom and the source of the fire. But it's also possible to read vertically, to compare characters' responses and see how their actions affect their neighbors.
To further complicate your reading experience, Burning Building Comix is entirely wordless. It's a challenge—in the best possible sense. Who are these people? Why are they behaving like they do?
Zwirek, who lives in Jefferson Park and has a day job in a print shop, began work on Burning Building Comix back in 2007. "The first thing that came to me was the covers," he says. "The idea of the building being on fire hit all at once. There was the challenge of telling the pantomime story. There was something happening, so there was lots of action. Visually, I thought the fire would look really cool, with everyone reacting at the same time."
There is a wide variety of characters in this apartment building: a suicidal atheist, a very pregnant woman about to go into labor, a sleepy old lady and her alert dog, a necromancer, a lonely latchkey kid who uses his time alone in the apartment to get high, an angry drunk couple, a starry-eyed rebound couple, an obese computer programmer who can barely make it out the door, and a fellow with a broken leg who has an existential experience.
"The latchkey kid was the most challenging," says Zwirek. "A lot of it was getting inside the kid's head. The most fun was the top two stories, the couple looking for each other and how they keep missing each other."
A spoiler: nobody dies. "At one point, I thought it would be interesting," Zwirek says, "but the tone of the book is a high-jinxy slapstick feel. I didn't want to impose death onto it."
At first Burning Building Comix appeared as a series of minicomics. As they piled up, Zwirek submitted it to publishers, but had no luck. So he raised money through a Kickstarter campaign to publish it himself.
But then he ran into further problems: he couldn't find a printer in the U.S. or Canada who was willing to bind the book according to his specifications. Finally, he wrote to an alternative comics publisher to ask where it managed to print its books. The publisher sent back a list of recommendations of printers in China.
"I explained what I wanted," says Zwirek, "and they understood. They made a sample copy and got it right exactly."
Burning Building Comix made its debut last September at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. It so happened that it was not the only graphic novel by a Chicago artist about an apartment building that was on display.
"There were tons of comparisons to Chris Ware," Zwirek says, "mostly favorable. I didn't want to look like I was ripping him off. He's a much more accomplished artist than I am. He's a hero of mine."
Zwirek shouldn't worry. Burning Building Comix is getting widespread praise, even outside the comics world: Slate called it "refreshing" and "incredibly fun" and featured Zwirek's illustrations in its monthly book review.
Zwirek, meanwhile, is working on other projects, but mostly waiting for the arrival of his third child, due any day.