Mark, the narrator of James Sturm’s Off Season, wouldn’t classify himself as elite, liberal or otherwise. He’s a builder in Vermont, going through a personal crisis just as the presidential campaign enters the home stretch. “It’s hard to believe it was only three months ago that Lisa and I were together and both for Bernie,” he notes in the first chapter, which originally appeared on Slate in September 2016, with Election Day on the horizon. Separation from his wife means getting his own apartment, which means selling his truck, which means working for contractors like Mick, perpetually late with the check and with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on his BMW station wagon.
The class conflict is palpable. With Sanders out of the running, Mark isn’t sure whom to support. His wife knocks on doors for Clinton, but their marital split (she’s “got the house, the rich parents, and plenty of time”) sours his view of the candidate. (Hillary’s campaign slogan, “Stronger Together,” gives the chapter its ironic title.) “Not that I’d vote for Trump,” he tells himself. “But at least he’s his own man.” When their young daughter, Suzie, tells him he has to choose, he just says: “I did pick someone.” End of conversation.
Divided into 13 emotionally stunning chapters, its gorgeous blue-gray ink washes evoking the New England winter, “Off Season” is a revelation. Sturm’s earlier graphic novels, The Golem’s Mighty Swing (2001) and Market Day (2010), are set safely in the past. Off Season is the more vital work, a seamless contemporary take on economic despair, political confusion and the challenges of parenting. Mark’s dislike of Clinton would make his story a nonstarter for Alex and Michael, but he lives in a reality that they barely graze as they zip around the country taking selfies. “Would anything have changed anything?” Mark wonders, reflecting on missteps in his marriage; the words resonate, seeming to encompass the country as a whole.
Off Season includes chapters that weren’t in the original online serialization, as well as smaller adjustments. The most telling tweak is to the last frame of a six-panel chapter entitled “It’s Not Over.” Mark is leaving a message for Lisa the day after the election, sincerely upset for her. In its original form, each of the last four panels carries one sentence: “I hope you’re all right. Call me, O.K.? I love you. It’s going to be all right.” The book version cuts the last one. Instead, Sturm gives us a panel of silence, Mark with the phone to his ear.
The visual aspect of comics makes them particularly well suited to capturing our digital lives. If Instagram is the inane god Alex and Michael propitiate in “Amongst the Liberal Elite,” Facebook is a sort of demonic secret sharer in Off Season, drawing out our worst impulses. A child care issue, post-inauguration, escalates in Mark criticizing Lisa: “I don’t have the luxury of spending all day on Facebook planning the revolution.” Later Mark falls into a dark text spiral while trying to get hold of well-heeled Mick for an overdue check (“What’s going on??” “Any day now”); he blows up when he sees Mick’s status update: “Flew out to Vineyard for a steak dinner and the Avett Brothers with my buddy Ron. 3rd row!” In one cruelly believable panel, Sturm identifies a tech-driven source of populist rage.
In the book’s single glimpse of Trump — a frame from a televised debate — he’s depicted as a literal pig. The grotesque drawing is all the more shocking because it reminds the reader (some 50 pages in) that Sturm has drawn all the characters in Off Season as animals — dogs, specifically. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that Americans appear as dogs in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.) At one point, Mark recalls listening to a theater troupe describe how “using animals as stand-ins is as old as storytelling … As an actor, it’s liberating to wear the mask.” The reader, too, falls under a spell: The soulful faces of Sturm’s nonhuman, all-too-human characters ask us to withhold judgment, hear out the other sides of the story.