Like many artists, James Sturm saw his work shift after the 2016 presidential election — though for him, the change was particularly literal and swift.
In the fall leading to the election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the cartoonist had been creating a kind of real-time comic strip, published weekly on Slate, that followed the dissipation of a marriage while its blue-voting dog-headed characters were experiencing the same election season. On election night, Sturm had his latest strip finished ahead of time.
“Like many Americans, I was pretty confident in a Clinton win, based on the polls,” Sturm says. “So I did that strip. I had it all done by early evening, and then realized with horror that I couldn’t use it.”
Panels that showed Mark — a father of two who had recently split up with his Clinton-volunteering wife, Lisa — calling his former partner to congratulate her were redrawn into ones depicting instead a bleak voice message offering condolences. In the strip’s final panel, Mark, after a silence, offers an “I love you,” a terse message that is perhaps a show of comfort in light of the results, but also a desperate way of holding onto a fading companionship.
That parallel between personal and national politics runs through Sturm’s comics — awash in a somber blue-gray and populated by anthropomorphic dogs — in his affecting new graphic novel, “Off Season” (Drawn and Quarterly; 216 pages; $24.95), a collection of these weekly strips. Sturm, though, began working on the series a year earlier, focusing solely on the relationship between his protagonists.
“I see it more as a love story and about a couple that’s really trying to cross a divide and return to one another,” Sturm says. “Then, of course, the 2016 (election) season really showed how great a divide there is in this country. So it seemed like those things on top of one another made sense.”
Yet, it’s the knowledge of what happens after, the shock and devastation of the next morning, that permeates the wistful pall covering the book’s 13 chapters.
“I was just coming off my own difficult year. I had been preyed on by a con man myself, a contractor. I had kind of woken up and realized, ‘What the hell just happened?’ I wasn’t paying attention,” Sturm says. A similar character, a contractor conning Mark, appears in the book.
“And then, when the country woke up: ‘Wait, what just happened?’ Now a con man is in the White House. It was a little familiar.”
Sturm has never considered himself to be a political cartoonist, but politics suddenly seemed to infuse everything. His characters seemed to take on heightened, political resonance — the contractor as a Trumpian figure, the class differences, and bitterness in turn, between Mark and Lisa.
Now, 2½ years removed from that moment, the topical politics may read somewhat differently, as shock may have grown into a new normal, Sturm acknowledges.
“Originally the dog’s heads were kind of just meant to be almost like placeholders until I figured out how to represent the characters,” Sturm says. “And the longer I worked with the dogs, the more normal they seemed. Anything, after a while, just kind of feels normal.”
Yet, the heart of the book, the humanism of the relationships and their aura of palpable hopelessness and also of lingering hope, rings with a gut-wrenching consistency.
“It’s very much about a time and place,” Sturm says, “very much infused with this kind of midlife melancholy — the challenges of being in life’s rush hour where you’re dealing with kids, dealing with aging parents. You’re dealing with economic pressures. How do you hold that together? Even in the best of circumstances, that’s really hard.”
But Sturm expresses a kind of tempered optimism in the face of these harsh realities, for his characters and for the nation.
“I feel like both characters have this immense connection, deep connection and share a life together, especially after raising kids together. I don’t think it’s over,” he says. “And then just as a country too, we all live in this geographically defined land on top of one another. We have a stake in how it comes out.”