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Off Season (2019)
Book Reviews

Off Season (2019)

A nuanced look at a deteriorating relationship within the larger context of a deteriorating sense of self-worth.

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Peaceful democratic elections are not Hiroshimas, they are not Tet Offensives, regardless of how their outcomes might affect those giving everything they have over to the process – and still lose. That’s part of this whole deal civilized nations have with democracy. That’s the theory, anyway, and the same could apply to marriage.

Much of James Sturm’s cartooning has focused on historical or educational comics, with a real zeal for a type of Americana (The Golem’s Mighty Swing) that mostly doesn’t exist anymore. With Off Season he presents a contemporary family struggling with age-old issues that just happens to take place before and after one of the more politically interesting moments in our recent history. The subject matter is hardly surprising, given the author lives right in the thick of “Bernie Country” itself, Vermont.

Early press – and indeed its press materials – have pegged Sturm’s Off Season as a story more about the aftermath of a controversial election than what’s actually going on. Its proximity to the Trump/Clinton election will be all some critics need to take cheap shots at America and the shockingly effective system of government that’s worked remarkably well for centuries, as though a single election could ever mark the ruin of democracy itself – or a marriage. A review over at The Guardian, for example, is particularly vacuous. This isn’t that kind of book, thank goodness. Otherwise, it would have been terrible.

But it’s not terrible, not by a long shot. Originally serialized as an online series in Slate.com, Off Season collects the entire sage in one rugged, 200+ page horizontal volume fans of the cartoonist will probably love, though not in equal measure.

The “shit show” election, as it happens, doesn’t really factor into what’s to come, at least not in any real political or ideological sense. Mark is a contractor approaching middle age, sharing two children with his newly estranged wife, Lisa. They began the 2016 election cycle as hardcore Bernie Sanders supporters (they are Vermonters, after all), though Lisa quickly jumped ship when it became obvious Hillary Clinton would become the Democratic nominee. For Mark, Donald Trump and Clinton represented two sides of the same scatological coin. “Trump is a walking sack of bullshit but Hillary is just more of the same old crap.

The breakup of political unity may have signaled the subsequent breakup of their marriage, which hadn’t been on the best of footings even before Bernie was given the boot. Mark will be our sole narrator, an unreliable one at that, with his thoughts and actions only hinting at what’s actually bubbling beneath the surface. We see him working hard to balance his professional and personal lives, working hard but still regularly screwed over by a crooked boss yet still making time for the kids. He also may be prone to violence, at least when all hope seems lost. Things only get worse after learning his mother has cancer, which further drives a wedge between him and Lisa.

Earlier we see him calling to console her after the election results clearly didn’t go her way. In this scene it’s suggested Lisa takes Clinton’s loss far more emotionally hard than the loss of her own marriage, a vulnerability Mark seems aware of – and keeps open for a possible reconciliation.

If we’re going down the road of political metaphors, however, I’m curious if readers will be aware of just how much internecine conflict was brewing within the Democratic party itself throughout the nominee selection process, especially during the contentious primaries. There seems to be enough evidence that suggests forces within the DNC may have conspired to keep Sanders (or any challenger to Clinton) from becoming the party’s 2016 nominee. Within this context, many Bernie supporters felt whatever chance their preferred candidate had was “stolen” from him, not by Trump but devout Clinton supporters and their own party.

Does Mark feel like his marriage has similarly been “stolen” by the election process, one that recruited Lisa (and their children) away from him? Honestly, even the most charitable of pollsters would have put Bernie’s longshot chances at electoral victory at little more than hopeful speculation, even without the alleged shenanigans. How much of Mark’s political awakening, and support for Bernie, was even genuine, and not just another attempt to make the peace with Lisa?

What role Lisa plays in their divided family is questionable, though Mark appears the sole working parent in the relationship, a reality that becomes more crushing as paychecks fail to materialize and debt mounts. He disparages her for not contributing financially (“I don’t have a trust fund”) or bothering to look for a job. In the heat of an argument he brings this up as a sarcastic attack (“I don’t have the luxury of spending all day on Facebook planning the revolution.”), even implying the only reason Lisa doesn’t like the mother of one of his son’s friends is because she voted for someone else.

How much of Mark’s interpretation is true and how much could be projecting is left for us to decide for ourselves, though in truth it’s probably a little of both. Participants in failing marriages will often use their children, or other shared possessions as proxy weapons, leveraging these personal intimacies against one another in the heat of battle. Mark and Lisa could be using the 2016 election as this very wedge, though it’s clear their problems existed long before – and will continue long after – whoever occupies the Oval Office.

While Sturm’s lyrical style may recall James Carver, his illustrations in Off Season recall Mark Kalesniko (Freeway, Mail Order Bride) or the mononymous Jason (On The Camino, I Killed Adolf Hitler), where humans are rendered as dog-like beings in the real world (dog-Trump is both hideous, yet hilarious). As the popularity of comics and graphic novels continues to grow in mainstream culture, especially in more mature reading circles, so will readers just have to accept these animal-like beings as people, and not just as literal metaphors, like in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

It shouldn’t be a hard sell, though. “Using animals as human stand-ins is as old as storytelling,” Sturm is quick to remind his readers. “As an actor it’s liberating to wear the mask.” The same for cartoonists, it seems.

Resist the urge to pigeonhole Off Season as some indictment of post-Trump America and you’ll find a richly textured, nuanced look at a deteriorating relationship within the larger context of a deteriorating sense of self-worth. That the events of this story happen alongside a presidential election shouldn’t give one uncritical leeway to oversimplify or excuse the behavior of educated adults. It’s also a reminder to consider all sides of an argument before rendering an opinion, especially when there’s family involved. Seasons, like sitting Presidents, change, but some things remain the same.

About the Author: Trent McGee