Getting Through It All in James Sturm’s Off Season

November 2016 was a turning point in more ways than one.  Even now, over two years after the last Presidential election, things just don’t seem the same as they were before then.  Depending on your position along the political spectrum, that’s either a good or a bad thing but you have to admit that election displayed something about the American character.  Cartoonist James Sturm has often used history as the basis of his comics but his latest book Off Season explores how that November altered a family of Bernie Sanders supporters. Trump’s election wasn’t the cause of the changes but a catalyst of it, opening the door to the doubts and insecurities that can pick away at the bonds of marriage.

Maybe it’s not even fair to blame the troubles of Mark and Lisa’s marriage on Trump.  Maybe the problems really began when Bernie Sanders lost the primary election to Hillary.  At least that’s when Mark lost some of the political enthusiams that he had. It’s not that he suddenly became a Trump supporter but that he just didn’t have the energy or drive to really support Clinton. He became apathetic to the whole process even as Lisa dug in more to the process and that’s really when their separation began and they started arguing over who had care of the kids when. The loss in the elections began a general slide into depression and troubles for Mark.  Off Season tracks the time from late summer until just after the holidays of 2016, as Mark tries to figure out how to be a husband again to his wife and whether he should even try to be that.

With the election still a very vivid memory for many of us, Sturm uses our own reactions to it to create tension between Mark and everyone else in his life, whether it’s his wife, his boss, his parents, or even his kids.  While not an outright political story, Off Season allows us to recognize that politics can shape our own emotional wellness more than we may like to admit. Politics can act as an expression of our lives as Mark can’t help but relate the political events happening in the country to the breakdown of family happening around him.  While it would be easy to try to draw a direct connection between them, Sturm carefully constructs his story so that everything is happening concurrently and not in a cause-and-effect manner. Mark’s life is going through these troubles while Trump is becoming the President, not because Trump is becoming the President.

Told using anthropomorphic characters, dogs and puppies, Sturm universalizes his story.  His simple cartooning of Mark, Lisa, and their family makes the book so much more compelling because it doesn’t separate the you who is reading this book from the you who is going through these events with these people. If the characters looked like normal people, it could be easy to throw up guardrails between them and the reader where the reader could write these experiences off one way or another.  Without the identification tools of human faces, Sturm turns this story about a couples struggle into the collective story of all of our struggles. It also gives Sturm the ability to convey a lot of emotion with only a few marks on the page.

This universality of characters creates a universality in the story.  We may not personally be going through these kind of events as Mark and Lisa are but we have to recognize the emotional turmoil of Sturm’s story. The emotional core, the pain and wear that is at its heart, is an expression of a communal lethargy that many people have felt in the air since mid-2016 but as Sturm explores Mark and Lisa’s history together, he shows the challenges of their relationship going all the way back to when they first met.  The wonderful thing is that Sturm doesn’t give up on this family but he also doesn’t make it easy for them, or for us as the readers who are going through this right alongside with them.

But as we struggle through this relationship, from our perspective we’ve got to ask is this the life that Mark and Lisa are supposed to have?  Are they true “soulmates” or is this a relationship more of proximity than love? It’s sad to even have to ask that question when children are part of the family but it’s a valid question as Sturm shows that Mark and Lisa may truly love themselves but there may be parts of them that are just incompatible, such as Mark’s anger or Lisa’s uncertainty.  

Sturm breaks down the story into very regulated beats- two panel per page. Using this rigid panel structure, he explores the chaos in Mark and Lisa’s life through an unmoved point of view.  Sturm layers the story with the days, weeks and months of this family. Everything happens at a seemingly constant pace on the page but the cartoonist is replicating the march of the passage of time here.  The next moment or day is always going to happen because the next panel will always be there like clockwork. The panel becomes the ticking of a clock. And with that constant beating of time, Mark and Lisa both hope for something to be better in the next panel.  And so does the reader.

As an exploration of the fragile state of our own emotional well being, Off Season offers a glimpse into how delicate it may actually be, where something like a primary election can send you spinning off into a truly destructive depression.  That delicateness is always there, waiting for an excuse to crack and break. As the large, social movements impact the personal experience, Sturm’s book should be a reminder to all of us about the need to take care of ourselves even as we think our world is falling apart around us.  

Off Season

Written and Drawn by James Sturm

Published by Drawn & Quarterly