In September 2016, Slate magazine began publishing Off Season, a comic series by James Sturm set against the real-time events of the US presidential election, or, as protagonist Mark calls it, the “shit show”.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world (literally — the characters are all canine, albeit canines that wear clothes and walk on two hind legs) and Mark is sick of it. Still reeling from Bernie Sanders’ loss in the Democratic primary, he is disillusioned with what’s left: Donald “sack of bullshit” Trump or Hillary “more of the same old crap” Clinton.
As readers in 2019, we know the outcome of that one. Developed into a graphic novel with seven additional strips, Off Season is put to the test: will its attempt to capture the atmosphere of late 2016 still resonate three years later?
The short answer is yes, partly because Sturm is clever with the politics. Across his simple illustrations, although references are overt (Hillary placards on a lawn, a “Make America Great Again” baseball cap), political events do not take centre stage. Instead they provide the tense backdrop to a study of a lonely everyman, frustrated not only with politics, but also with love and life.
Newly separated from his wife Lisa, Mark lives cheque to cheque, juggling joint custody of their two children with his job as a builder for a shyster contractor who has “two kids in private school, $200 Ray-Bans, and he still can’t pay on time”. While Lisa’s “got the house, the rich parents, and plenty of time to volunteer for ol’ crooked Hillary”, Mark is left with bitterness and anger.
His narration quickly becomes peppered with swearing and negativity, whether about his job (“not my problem”), his politically inquisitive young daughter (“oh shit, here we go again”) or his own parents (“always better to leave too soon than stay too long”). Unable to express himself otherwise, he explodes in a physical outburst that feels terrifyingly inevitable. Introducing Culture Call, a new FT culture podcast Join us for a transatlantic conversation as co-hosts Gris (in London) and Lilah (in New York) interview the people who are shifting culture today — across books, art, music, online and on screen. They will also bring you behind the scenes of FT Life & Arts journalism Listen and subscribe here
Mark’s blue-collar dissatisfaction has much to say about contemporary America — but where Off Season excels is in its representation of the achingly sad breakdown of a couple and an extended family. Sturm handles Mark’s narration with painful precision; rarely able to articulate feelings other than anger, when he does, Mark’s spartan thoughts are doubly effective: “Maybe two people liking something for different reasons is only a fight that hasn’t happened yet.” At times Sturm is less delicate — five panels of Mark upturning his house in search of his phone feel like a thin excuse to illustrate the squalor of his lifestyle. But the majority of Off Season rings true with natural (and depressing) ease. How can any relationship be repaired, any olive branch offered, when, as Mark says, “something hard inside prevents me from doing so”?
The unadorned style of Sturm’s drawing contributes to the book’s emotional tug, focusing our attention on the characters rather than the world around them. Perhaps the reason for Off Season’s canine characters is a simple one. There is, after all, nothing more upsetting than a sad-looking pup.