They say “it never rains, but it pours.” Whatever your take on the bleak truism, it does seem to be the case that when one thing goes tits-up, a bunch of other stuff in life follows suit. To stretch the metaphor a bit further, James Sturm’s new graphic novel, Off Season, is one you’ll need an umbrella for.
Sturm’s compelling story tells of a couple’s separation in the shadow of the 2016 U.S. elections. We see a father adapting to life as a single man, navigating kiddie tantrums, having memories of a relationship once so joyful gone sour, dealing with a presidential nightmare, and working for people who have a habit of dodging actually paying anyone.
Although the story is very much backdropped by the characters’ shock and disbelief at Trump’s election, Sturm actually started writing the story the year before. “It was just a story about a couple trying to find their way back to each other,” says Sturm. “Then, when the election stuff started happening, given who my characters were and where they lived, I couldn’t help but address the politics stuff. It was on everybody’s mind, and not just in a ‘Hey did you see Game of Thrones?’ way—families were fighting about it, people were angry.”
Off Season was initially released in serialized form on Slate, before the strips were collated in the book, released this month from Drawn and Quarterly. “It was when I started serializing the story that I began responding to the election very directly,” says Sturm.
What’s so beautiful about the book is how real the relationships and interactions feel; as a reader, the sense of sadness at a relationship breakdown is palpable, and the way the kids grumble and fight and feign not-tiredness feels incredibly true to life. Sturm has two daughters (though they’re a lot older than the pups of Off Season), and certain gestures and games we see in the comic draw directly from their creator’s family and friends.
While the tale is one of love, loss, money worries, political worries, and ideas around masculinity, something that’s very much worth noting is that all the characters are dogs. It feels absurd at first, but soon you don’t even notice. “At first, they were dogs because it was easier to draw,” says Sturm. “Seriously, though, it felt liberating. When I was first doodling things out, I didn’t have to design characters and be specific. It was a placeholder, but then it seemed like the right decision to leave them as dogs.
“It’s also about that idea of how we wear masks—either for play or protection—and putting the dog heads on the characters allowed me to approach heavy material more playfully. It did protect me from some of the harder stuff I was delving into, and made everything a bit weirder and sillier. This political season is so weird that it becomes normal and you take it for granted. It’s like that with the dogs, too.”
While Sturm himself does not have a canine head (he proves as much over Skype), he does concede that certain aspects of the story are pretty personal. While Off Season’s protagonist often carries out work that avoidant contractors don’t pay him for, its writer, too, was a victim of fraud. “The word ‘con’ is embedded in the word ‘contractor’,” Sturm points out. “I was the victim of somebody who took advantage of trust and preyed on people’s empathy and didn’t think twice about taking people’s money. That’s a very Trumpian quality. Somehow that experience helped me understand the situation a little better when Trump came on the scene.
“With the fraud there was a lot of anger and a lot of shame, and I realized it was affecting the most important relationships in my life. That scared the hell out of me, and working on the comic was a way to sort through it and give myself some feeling of control over a situation I didn’t have control over. But I am careful to note that the work is fiction.”