A Conversation With Scott MacGregor And Gary Dumm

(The following is a discussion with Lakewood author, Scott MacGregor and Cleveland artist, Gary Dumm, the creators of a new graphic novel, “Fire On The Water." A Cleveland story, the graphic novel is about the sacrifices and lives lost building Cleveland's water delivery infrastructure-specifically the deadly creation of man-made water tunnels underneath Lake Erie. Scott and Gary discuss what the book is about and the creative processes that went into making it. "Fire On The Water" is available everywhere. Please consider buying a copy from your nearest independent bookseller. They need the business!!) 

Scott: The experience of writing this story began with the recollection of childhood memories. Cleveland is an Eastside/Westside kind of town and I grew up on the West side. We’d pile into the car on special occasions and drive to the Eastside to visit my grandmother or some other relation. I was always on the lookout on the way over to see certain landmarks that I loved seeing; like the Terminal Tower and the huge, animated Dairymen's Milk Bottle sign that sat on the Westinghouse curve. Going to and coming back from the East Side, I’d always looked out in the Lake and I saw this little structure out there. It was some little round thing that looked like a boat but was really a “Lake Crib” where all of our water came from. After I’d learned that my great grandfather had once worked on it, I’d felt very proud. 

Gary: The story on Fire On the Water inspired me to take on this really huge project. I’d worked on "American Splendor" with Harvey Pekar for a number of years, but this was inspiring to me…the idea of simple ordinary men, unsung heroes, who were trying to do a job just to feed their families. 

Scott: Cleveland is one of those Great American cities that grew up during the second industrial revolution personalized by self-made tycoons. The smoke belching industries that they created had polluted the air and water around Cleveland with impunity. By the late 1880s the mayor of Cleveland had declared the Cuyahoga River to be an “open sewer” and it was contaminated with all sorts of matter that used to clump together in the middle of the River and catch fire. Not just once, either. The river has actually caught fire over a dozen times since the 1860s.  

Gary: The more things change the more they seem to stay the same. Those workers over 100 years ago descended into the tunnels wearing “wet rags” or bandanas across their faces to protect them from the pockets of natural gas. Now we have to do the same or similar against the coronavirus.  

Scott: By 1916, effective pollution protections were decades away and Cleveland’s industries along the River and elsewhere were not about to stop polluting. Instead municipal visionaries decided to extend by several miles existing East and West side water tunnels underneath Lake Erie and far enough away to avoid direct contamination from the raw sewage flowing down the Cuyahoga River. It’s the building of those tunnels and the cost in human life it took to build them that is the central to the story of “Fire On The Water.” 

Gary: Some say there's something in the water but there's a strong connection to this city for me and for Scott. We think that Cleveland is central to our creative abilities and the source of our creativity. 

Scott: I’d been recuperating from surgery when Gary rang me up and suggested that I use the downtime to outline one of my many story ideas and then propose it to Cuyahoga Arts and Culture who were awarding competitive grants to local artists in the region. I took Gary’s suggestion and ultimately was awarded the Creative Fellowship grant. That money was used entirely to finance the creation of the graphic novel. 

Gary: After about 3 1/2 years of working on our graphic novel, I was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer. I went through surgery and treatment and with the help of my wife Laura came out OK on the other side but, I felt old and weak, and was minus my voicebox, one jugular vein and a thyroid gland that was fried from radiation. Still, I was very much anxious to get back to work ASAP and so I did and finished the book. Life’s an adventure, isn’t it? 

Scott: The book also features a fictionalized account of the African-American inventor and Cleveland hero, the late Garrett Morgan and his historic night in the #5 Crib tunnel. The compelling story of Morgan’s fateful night on the crib and the intertwining stories of the tunnel workers is what inspired me to write, “Fire On the Water” and, I think the same inspiration rubbed off on Gary Dumm because, he did it one hell of a job drawing it.  

Gary: Doing this book taught me really what was possible. I’d worked on graphic novels before with Harvey Pekar and in association with Paul Buhle. and some of them were definitely a lesson in perseverance. Fire On the Water took it to an even higher level and again I'm happy that we were able to persevere, get the book finished, found an agent, found a publisher for it (AbramsComicArts) and now the book is getting out into the world…yes indeed!   

Scott: The graphic novel is 278 pages long and includes an addendum about Garrett Morgan, his life, and what really happened on the hot July night in 1916 when he and his brother Frank sailed out to the crib #5 platform to save lives. All of Gary Dumm’s artwork has been painstakingly colorized in grayscale which gives added visual depth to a story that takes you deep into the tunnels under Lake Erie with those desperate men struggling to make a buck performing work so dangerous, there's a constant risk that they won't survive the day. 

Gary: Still, I'd like to think that those who did survive found this place called Cleveland a good place to live and work. This city sits alongside a Great Lake and it is our most precious natural resource - so let's not take it for granted! 

Volume 16, Issue 10, Posted 8:02 PM, 05.19.2020