James Sturm’s affecting new comic book has already been compared by at least one reviewer to the work of Raymond Carver and it’s not hard to see why. Off Season combines a blue-collar setting with a prose style so pared down, it comes almost as a surprise to feel a lump suddenly rising in your throat as you turn its pages. In the future, doubtless many dozens of regular novels will be written against the backdrop of Trump and all the bewilderments his name conjures; some may even manage to make sense of things that at this point seem utterly confounding. All the same, I expect very few of them to reach the places this graphic novel does, so succinctly and with such seeming ease.
Set in New England in the months just before and just after the 2016 presidential election, Off Season’s subject is estrangement, political and emotional. When the book opens, Mark, who works as a builder, has recently separated from his wife, Lisa, an activist for Hillary Clinton. He’s not for Trump, but since Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s leftist rival, dropped out of the race to be the Democratic candidate, he finds all the excitement has left the race. When Lisa and his small daughter, Suzie, bully him about who he should vote for – a failure to vote for Hillary is, they say, simply a vote for Trump – resistance rises inside him, like a fist. His clients will not, or cannot, pay him on time. His relationship with his wife is increasingly acrimonious. His mother is sick with cancer. His children are apt to play their struggling parents off against one another. What does a woman like Clinton know of these problems? Nothing at all, in his view.
Sturm, a co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, whose work has appeared on the cover of the New Yorker, has many gifts, but perhaps greatest among them is his ability to capture the sudden crosscurrents that come with any intimate relationship. Mark loves Lisa still, but he cannot always access this; it is buried under so much hurt and resentment, like a house beneath deep snow. Will he be able to dig it out? And if he does, will its recovery somehow inoculate them against whatever political and economic horrors lie ahead? These are the questions Off Season asks, but doesn’t necessarily answer.
I cherish many things about this book, from the way it deals so delicately with the (often toxic) issue of masculinity in Trump’s America to the many shades of blue-grey in which it is drawn (every scene, whether in a diner or the offices of a marriage counsellor, comes with a hint of darkness). Above all, I find it so very pleasing that Mark, Lisa and everyone in it is a dog, albeit dogs that walk on their hind legs and drive SUVs. There is a sweetness here – trace it back to Charles Schulz – that both mitigates against the story’s existential sadness and deepens it, somehow. It democratises Sturm’s characters and, in doing so, reminds the reader at every turn that the US is growing ever less fair almost by the minute.