Building a Better Comic Book

When Rodolphe Töpffer drew the first comics in 1837, he couldn’t possibly have imagined where the genre would go. It’s comparable to the Wright Brothers trying to picture stealth bombers while standing on the sands south of Kitty Hawk. Stealthily, comics have grown into one of the most fascinating forms of expression available—an alchemical mix of literature and visual art that achieves effects neither can produce alone. Jeff Zwirek’s Burning Building Comix explodes onto the scene with the latest comic pyrotechnics playing with the concepts of narrative and time itself. Stealthily simple but conceptually complex, Burning Building Comix  puts Jeff Zwirek among the best and brightest architects building a better comic book.


Don’t judge Burning Building Comix by its cover, because it’s not until you open the book that you realize you’re in for a different comics experience. What looks like a horizontally oriented 6¼  by 12¼ inch book unfolds and stretches when opened into a 6¼  by 24½ inch tower of power. Zwirek takes full advantage of his unconventional format to create a visual and storytelling matrix striking in its originality.

The premise itself is simple—a 10-story building is burning down. Each story of the building’s a separate story featuring a character trying to survive. Zwirek asks you to start reading from the ground up. As you work your way up the towering inferno, the individual stories interact in your head, igniting new connections and imaginative possibilities. Zwirek achieves all this with a clean, concise visual style (shown above) and a total lack of dialogue. (Word bubbles appear with the context implying what’s said, but you’re left free to fill in the blanks.) On this framework, Zwirek hangs a varied cast of characters fighting the flames: a sleepy old woman and her frantic pooch, a pregnant wife going into labor, an obese shut-in, a pretentious film fan, a suicidal atheist, a resentful latchkey kid, a pentagram-drawing and video game-playing paganist, an abusive drunken couple, and a couple that find each other on the rebound and on different floors. Each story works horizontally, but from the first reading and even more from repeated readings, they work vertically, too. The visual and narrative parallels and contrasts Zwirek builds into his building show a great sophistication in storytelling.

Zwirek thanks, among others, cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, author of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice (which I reviewed here). Burning Building Comix puts modern cartooning philosophy into practice in the best and most effective way. Zwirek doesn’t tell you his philosophy of comic creation, he shows you and makes you think the philosophy out for yourself. Alan Moore and Dave GibbonsWatchmen remains the standard for manipulating space and time, but if Watchmen is a grand, epic cathedral of storytelling, Burning Building Comix is a small, beautiful chapel. If you’re looking for the future of comics and where artists can take the medium, Jeff Zwirek’s Burning Building Comix will light your way.

[Image: Interior pages from Jeff Zwirek’s Burning Building Comix.]

[Many thanks to Jeff Zwirek for providing the image above and a review copy of Burning Building Comix, which is distributed by Top Shelf Comix.]

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.