IN 2016 James Sturm was working on a serialised comic strip entitled Off Season during the US election campaign. His story was about a canine couple who had separated and their ongoing strained relationship. But the politics of the time couldn’t help but seep in. Now gathered together as a graphic novel, Off Season, is a wintry domestic drama set against an economic downturn and snow. Lots of snow. The result is a punchy, beautifully crafted story that suggests a country in an anxious place.
Here, James Sturm tells us about the book’s origins, Trump’s America and drawing funny animals.
Tell us about Off Season. How did the serialised nature of it change how you worked on it?
I was working on the book almost a year before the 2016 US election season. The story was about a couple whose marriage was imploding and they were trying to find a way back to one another. Since it was set in the present day, once the election and Trump started commanding everyone’s attention it soon became apparent that I had to incorporate this into the story in some way. I soon discovered that the story of this couple and election were deeply connected. Serialising the story helped me focus my attention onto what was happening at any given moment. In some ways it felt like I was creating a documentary.
To some degree, it’s a book about male anger and disconnection. Do you think that had a lot to do with Trump’s success?
I was exploring this territory in the book before Trump came along. The year prior to the elections I had been burned by a conman. Like Trump, lying was second nature to him. Sadly, there are a lot of Trumps out there. But Trump the presidential candidate was working his con on an astonishingly grand scale.
Is America on the verge of change? Have these last couple of years been the last roar of a dying beast?
Certainly, America is on the decline. I think it’s been changing for a lot longer than the last few years and Trump’s election woke a lot of folks up to that fact.
What did it feel like working on the night of the election when it was becoming clear that he was going to win?
That night was awful. Working on the comic that night made it a little less so. It gave me something to focus my attention on, a distraction from the fear and anguish that was going to be ever present for the foreseeable future.
Why funny animals?
They are animals, but they aren’t so funny. Honestly, it was an intuitive decision. It felt right. It allowed the process of making the book to move forward unimpeded. At some point the animal heads underscored the idea that however weird things get they eventually can seem quite normal.
How maddening is snow to draw?
Ha. It is tedious. But Photoshop does make it easier.
What was your own worst off season break?
The year prior to when Off Season takes place. Being taken in by a conman and having to deal with my own anger and shame was hard. I hated seeing how it impacted the relationships that were most important to me.
What is your own history with comics? What did you grow up reading? Who do you read now?
I’ve loved comics as long as I can remember. My first comics love was Peanuts. As I got a little older it was Marvel super heroes. When I went to college in the mid-1980s I discovered the underground comics of the 1960s. There are so many great comics being created now that it’s almost impossible to keep up. Eleanor Davis and Lauren Weinstein are two favourites. Tillie Walden, Melissa Mendes, Glynnis Fawkes, Summer Pierre and Chuck Forsman are all great. I could easily list dozens more. It’s a good time to be reading comics.
Why do you still love comics?
Comics make me a less cruel person. Reading other people’s comics makes me more empathetic. Making my own forces me to be patient and try to understand myself and the world better. This is a golden age of comics. More comics are being made now by a more diverse group of people than ever before. And when I read a great cartoonist’s work it feels so intimate. It’s not just the writing or the drawings, it’s the alchemy of the two, the sum greater than the parts.