An Incomplete Story About Cleveland’s Drinking Water, conversation with Writer Scott MacGregor and Illustrator Gary Dumm

The cover art for  Fire on the Water  might lead you to believe that it is a simply the account of a 1916 Erie Lake disaster.  This historical fiction graphic novel is that and much, much more.  As Dumm put it, the story is a “historical review of things that are only partially known,” and also “extrapolation from what is known.” The event central to the story is a terrible, tragic (and quite preventable) disaster in one of the underwater tunnels being built to reach better/cleaner water further out from Cleveland, under Lake Erie. Yet, the book begins with one of the main subtexts of the book, the extreme racial prejudice towards incredible black inventor Robert Beltran (based on Garrett A. Morgan). In real life, Morgan invented the first tri-color stoplight and what became the gas mask used in World War I, yet was never allowed to put his name on his own inventions, as did other inventors such as Thomas Edison, despite fighting for recognition the rest of his life. History reveals that he has largely been written out of the Lake Erie disaster story, despite his critical, literally life saving role with the use of a fire helmet he had created and his own rescue efforts down in the tunnels.  

Although MacGregor and Dumm, both originally from Cleveland, agree that the central disaster story is largely unknown and/or unrealized by those living in Cleveland, both learned as children about the black inventor of the traffic light and gas mask.  Thus, the racism and prejudice subtext was “never, not for moment, not part of the story.” Prejudice and ill treatment of immigrants, particularly the taking advantage of them and their usual dire circumstances is also a theme of Fire on the Water.  MacGregor’s great-grandfather was one of these Irish immigrants working in the tunnels, and like many of them, he was injured, and later died far too young. Workers’ rights and safety is one of the more obvious themes in the book since the main disaster event was caused by incredibly unsafe working conditions.  Also included are the very real fears of the workers’ families – “they didn’t know if they would see their loved one again every time they left” for work.  The explosion and fire at the heart of this story was not the first such in the history of these tunnels or even in many of the workers’ lives. Yet, the inquest of the July 24, 1916 incident was shut down by the mayor on the very first day, and “that’s when information stopped – truths and facts were never released, even to this day.” That action by the mayor is the primary reason so much is unknown about what really happened in the tunnels or why, or even by whom. MacGregor commented that “facts were buried, burned, and thrown in the lake – probably literally… After analyzing the story the best I could, I drew a few conclusions of my own such as corruption behind the whole thing.”  Because there were so many blanks to fill in, they chose a fiction format.  

A fair amount of criticism was received about Morgan’s name not being used specifically, that the “crime against him” was only furthered by using a fictional name for the character.  However, MacGregor explained that “the truth is, the dialogue is invented, some of it is theorized. I was not comfortable attaching a real name to that story. I put words in the character’s mouth.” All the book’s character names are fictional, but the “central characters in place in relation to the plot” are all based on actual people. The drawing of all the characters was a challenge for Dumm and while he had illustrated graphic novels before, he had not done so with a “closed environment” with so many characters.  “My biggest concern was in trying to differentiate the various tunnel workers so they don’t look the same.” His techniques including facial hair, caps, etc. – anything that would help make them different from each other.
Fire on the Water  includes some “fantasy” or spiritual aspects.  This came not from personal or third person accounts, but from the recognition and understanding that this was a “very religious time period” especially for Irish and Italian immigrants.  MacGregor continued to explain that “things we forget besides the accident is how religious people were then; it was not so secular as it is now in certain sectors of our communities.” He wondered what the men were thinking about or seeing in the moments before they died.  They would have believed in angles, so “I gave them angels in their last moments of death.” He further pointed to this as a benefit of graphic novels versus prose – some things can be drawn in rather than written out in words and are more effective. Discussing the illustration of angels, Dumm stated that “brought up as a good Catholic boy, I got to see all kinds of pictures of angels in catechism or holy pictures.  Later on I got more interested in art from all time periods – I’ve seen a lot of pictures of angels.” His drawing of the angels are “an amalgam” of all of that if not “perhaps a simplification.” 

The end of Fire on the Water circles back to Beltran, but concludes on yet another subtext of the story – environmentalism.  MacGregor commented “nobody thought about stopping pollution, it was not even in the mindset – the arrogance of dumping all that horrible yuck [industrial waste and raw sewage] into the water.  Instead of cleaning up the environment which is good for everyone, they moved the tunnels out further.  To me that was human ignorance at its zenith.” He pointed out that burying or working around a large problem (“leave it for future generations”) is a much more common response than addressing a difficult issue. Throughout, despite intending very clear social messages, Dumm and MacGregor did not want to “preach.”  They wanted to “tell a story and hope the reader picks up on what we are trying to say.” In short, while a graphic novel may indeed be a comic book, that in no way precludes nuance or complexity or ability to effectively, even subtly, hammer home multiple social messages. 

Interestingly, the book started as only a chapter in a different book MacGregor had been working on. “The more I dove in, I thought ‘hey, this is a book not just a story,’ and I focussed that.”  Fire on the Water  was released approximately 10 years after Dumm suggested that MacGregor needed a story to work on in his down time, and Dumm encouraged him to pick up one of the stories they had batted around over the 30 years they had known each other.  The work was “incredibly labor intensive” with various rewrites and editing – even the cutting of 40 fully illustrated pages.  Their work was interrupted by Dumm’s diagnosis and treatment for stage four throat cancer.  Stating that he is “lucky to be alive,” he found that working on the last quarter of the book was a “great impetus for getting my sea legs back…it got me back into the habit of drawing or inking every day, as soon as I was physically able to do it.  It was a great help in my healing.” 

The duo originally competed for and were awarded a Cuyahoga County grant to craft the book.  However, when no publisher was interested in picking it up, they published it independently with a different title.  Receiving many good reviews from important sources, they asked their agent to try again; this time, a publisher picked it up.  A new title,  Fire on the Water , was selected from the list of possible titles the pair had originally created.  Both lamented one story bit that was cut in the 40 pages – The Lake Erie Monster (though she does make an appearance on page 189). The writing process they described could be considered symbiotic in that MacGregor’s writing (sometimes with included “panel directions”) drove Dumm’s drawings, but Dumm’s drawing also directed some of MacGregor’s writing.  Both wholeheartedly described their work as a “true collaboration.” Unfortunately, this book was released in May 2020 which “couldn’t have been a worse time.” Many events were canceled and thus sales were more difficult.  However, they are aware of their book being in many public libraries which they partially attribute to a good review in the  Library Journal . 

Covid also affected them independently. Dumm missed interacting with other people, engaging and meeting new people. MacGregor described struggling “to stay motivated.” His creativity is boosted by interacting with others.  However, he was able to write “over 100 pages” of a new story based on his grandfather’s World War II memoir – he served in the 10th Armored Division and thus fought in many major European front battles. It is planned to be an illustrated book. 

When asked what they wish they had known as teenagers that they know now, both were introspective and insightful.  They agreed that it was perhaps a good thing that they did not know just how much work and struggle is involved to be successful at their creative endeavors.  They were not sure they would have continued if they’d known.  Yet, both also agreed creative types simply have to create.

As children and as teenagers, both men wanted creative careers. At the age of 5, Dumm observed his mother drawing while talking on the phone and he loved her drawings.  He thought to himself “if she can do that why can’t I?” by the time he was 15 he was “halfway decent.”  His favorite artist is Max Ernst “who can do almost anything – drawings, collages, paintings, sculpture, and even a little poetry.” MacGregor was “always writing stories or jokes.” MacGregor, who had a 40 year career in the medical field, also described a 10 year period in his life where he “tried to stop writing and being a creative” and that “I almost went out of my mind.” However, he did take up photography and has a photograph taken in Ireland that is at the Cleveland Museum Art although it is not currently on display.