The gentle word-play in the title of James Sturm’s new graphic novel, Off Season, reflects both on the characters he was writing about and the national mood. Leached of color and warmth, Sturm’s panels chronicle a troubled moment in a marriage amid the tumult of the 2016 election.
In almost every respect, something is off, and that also reflects how the author was feeling.
“I use comics to make sense of my world,” Sturm said in an interview at the Hartland home he shares with his wife, the printmaker Rachel Gross, and their two daughters, the eldest of whom is away at college.
The story Sturm tells in Off Season, about a builder named Mark, his estranged wife, Lisa, their two young children and the world they inhabit, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Upper Valley, has many origins, some of them personal. The thread that runs through it is the hard work of repairing relationships.
Off Season was released this week, and there will be a reception for Sturm at 4 p.m. Thursday at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction. Sturm, 53, is the school’s cofounder and director. He also is the author of several previous graphic novels about weighty subjects, including The Golem’s Mighty Swing, about a barnstorming Jewish baseball team, and Market Day, which was set in the Eastern European Pale of settlement.
During a 2015 residency at the MacDowell Colony, Sturm drew what he called “a little sketch of a divorced dog on a beach.” From there he started drawing vignettes on index cards of characters with canine facial features and putting them into those plastic, dollar-store photo albums, a device for juxtaposing the panels.
Then came the race for the White House.
“I had been working on the book for a year before I realized that this election season was where I was going to set the book,” Sturm said. To capture the setting, he started walking around Upper Valley locations and taking pictures with his phone.
“It felt suddenly like the mission of this book was to pay attention,” he said.
Starting in late September 2016, the story appeared in serial form in the online magazine Slate. This led to a couple of late nights for Sturm, who took on the role of deadline cartoonist, drawing a strip set during one of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. He had drawn panels about the election day itself, but then had to revise them. He joked that those panels were printed a little lighter, “because the ink was diluted with my tears.” The book substantially expands on the serialized version of the story.
In Off Season, the election result has a profound effect on Lisa, who campaigned for Clinton and who is prone to depression. It doesn’t help that Mark’s brother and parents are Trump fans.
Mark bears some spiritual wounds, from his foundered marriage, from his disappointment over the election (he backed Bernie Sanders) and from mistreatment at the hands of a boss who fails to pay him, leaving Mark short of funds to care for his kids and pay his bills.
Mark’s travails at work get at one of the personal aspects of the book. “I had my own little off season,” Sturm said.
After Sturm and his family bought their house in Hartland, they hired a contractor to renovate it. The contractor accepted payment, but didn’t complete all the work, and Sturm was forced to examine his legal options, to no avail.
“When you get ripped off like that, there’s so much a feeling of anger and shame,” he said. It took a toll on his relationships with his family. He felt closed off, his outlook darkened by mistrust.
Making Off Season was Sturm’s way of sorting out his feelings. “I was one of those kids where life was too confusing and intense,” he said. He “retreated to comics to make sense” of his experiences, placing them in the “neat little boxes” of the sequential frames. He started puzzling over it in the summer of 2015, and by the time he got to the MacDowell Colony that fall it had more or less taken over his work, pushing aside another book he had been working on.
The story isn’t autobiographical, however. When the strip began appearing in Slate, Sturm said he received more than one email from old friends inquiring after the health of his marriage. Off Season is a work of fiction, he said.
The relationship between Mark and Lisa is alchemical in origin, and the story’s elements work in the same way, fusing together in a way that’s beyond easy explanation. There’s a broken relationship that’s worth repairing, and a broken political system that’s worth repairing, too, and it’s going to take the same kind of effort to make those repairs. Reaching across those divides is hard work, Sturm said.
Though the book is out now, the reception, slated for Valentine’s Day, is fortuitous in its emphasis on love.
“When you step back,” Sturm said, “the most important thing is the relationships in our lives.”