“It’s Still A Raw Nerve”: An Interview with James Sturm

James Sturm’s new graphic novel, Off Season, is out this month from Drawn & Quarterly. It’s about a couple’s slow-grinding separation amidst the 2016 election. Mark, a New England home-builder with two children, struggles to adjust as his professional and personal life change dramatically. And every character is a dog, or at least a human with a dog head.

 Off Season is Sturm’s newest graphic novel for adults since 2010’s Market Day, set in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. In the 1990s, Sturm helped found The Stranger and began drawing the historical fiction graphic novels that would eventually come to make up James Sturm’s America. He has also co-created an educational series of comics for children, Adventures in Cartooning. He taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design before leaving to co-found the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT, where he lives with his wife Rachel and two daughters. I studied at CCS and he was my professor.

JOSH KRAMER: What are the origins of the project and how did it get going?

JAMES STURM: Sure. In the summer of 2015, almost a year into a renovation of my home, I woke up and realized that I was being conned by my contractor. That was difficult. I was angry and ashamed and underwater financially.

As a cartoonist, this is how I process the world. Things get overwhelming. As a kid, I would retreat into the comics and try to make sense of my world. I was cartooning about that and I was also documenting it at the same time, because I thought I’d have to take him to court.

I was doing a lot of that in my sketchbook and then October, November, I went to the McDowell Colony. I was going to work on another book, and that material that I had started, in reaction to what happened, through whatever alchemy, it became a fictional piece.

Then in 2016 the election season happened. And given who my characters were, I couldn’t not address the election, because that’s what everybody was talking about. Then I realized, oh, it’s not so different, the whole country kinda suddenly woke up and were like, “oh my God, we weren’t paying attention and we’ve been conned.” So there were all these parallels between the political situation and the story that I was writing and it just slowly came together.

Around 2016, I started serializing pieces of it on Slate and that was really interesting because these characters felt really real to me, and suddenly now I’m having them respond in real time to the events of the day. So that kept things exciting in a way. It almost felt like I was following these characters in a documentary.

What was the lag time between drawing the chapters and having them go up?

Sometimes I would finish and they’d go up in an hour. The night of the debate, I did an all-nighter on that. I remember NPR posted the transcript of the debate at two in the morning, three in the morning, and I tried to get all that right. I tried to time it with the ball game that was happening at the exact same time to make sure that was right. I did an all-nighter, and I’m in my fifties, and that’s a young cartoonist’s game. It kind of wrecked me for a few days.

I knew I was going to do a strip the day after the election. I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna finish this one early, assuming all the polls are correct.” And you know, I was up very late again, changing the strip. It was in some ways good, it was something to focus on. Not a pleasant evening for many of us.

Did you read the comments on the Slate version?

I read some of them, for sure. I don’t remember them being particularly kind. [laughs] The feedback that I got the most, that was in some ways flattering, was that I had several old friends, people who have known me over the years, and know [my wife] Rachel, email me making sure about my marriage, wondering if I was OK. Flattering in the sense that it felt real enough on some level that they thought it was autobiographical.

Charles Schultz is kind of the patron saint of this kind of melancholy and malaise. Is there some Snoopy or Charlie Brown in some of the characters?

Of course, yeah. Snoopy’s doghouse is on the cover of the book. But it’s a big doghouse. Grown up Peanuts. You said it well, that strip is suffused with melancholy. This is a book about a very dark time for the country and specifically for this couple and I wanted to pay attention to that. I didn’t want to shy away from that. We talked about my own whatever with the contractor, and there’s certainly that. And I have so many friends who are getting divorces and separating. It seems like there’s not a month that goes by where I’m not getting word that one or two of my friends are going splittsville. It’s really a bit of an awful mess.

I like the way that in the production of “Animal Farm” you plant the line, “using animals as stand-ins is as old as storytelling." But this book would have worked fine with real people, so why do dogs?

I think it would work really differently if it were human faces. I think when I started it — I often start things in the sketchbook — you just play around. You put on a mask for two reasons, to play and to protect yourself. In my sketchbook, it’s “what should this character look like?” There’s all these different choices. You drop a mask on it, this dog mask, and it’s suddenly very liberating.

I just actually read a review where somebody said that it at once made these characters more sympathetic and more opaque. [laughs] So on one hand, it allowed me to play around and kind go into this fraught subject matter and it protected me from it in a way, because there’s something absurd about these dog heads. So it protected me from the subject matter too.

And there are a lot — there’s pig masks, there’s spraying insulation in a mask at one point. The more I worked on it, as a placeholder, I realized, oh, I’m getting used to this. It seems normal now. That corresponded to what was happening politically too. There’s this feeling, like this crazy political thing is starting to feel normal, which is frightening in and of itself. It just seemed to make sense on a lot of levels, but initially it was an intuitive decision.

Is your first book where you used washes all the way through?

I don’t think I’ve done a book of washes before, no. It was a way to not stare at the computer a little bit more. I thought it gave the book a little more texture, felt a little more human than just doing a photoshop layer, flat color.

I didn’t really have a plan in mind on how the book was going to be laid out, I just started doing it on index cards and just writing to help me come up for air. I put the index cards in a four by six photo album I buy at a 99 cent store. So I have these little booklets. And I was like, oh OK, here’s a little vignette. Then I made another one and I made another one. And I was like, well, something’s starting to happen here, and I kinda kept going. It kinda built.

It’s a big change from Market Day and your other books, which have a lot of thought put into the page design.

Yeah, I felt like I was getting a little overwhelmed by a whole page of comics. There’s just so many parts. All I could focus on was one panel at a time. That’s where I was in my life, in a way. I just couldn’t handle anything more than one panel at a time.

Even when I was doing those other books, sometimes I would almost tape paper around that one panel and ink that one panel and I couldn’t see anything else, just as a way to focus. You get a page and you can just get overwhelmed from it, and this was just a way of focusing my attention that allowed me to move forward with the material.

This was a new process for me that I really liked. It was a way of working I really liked. It’s also, you do a draft of 100 pages, and you do a second draft and then you ink. That just felt like such drudgery. Just doing one little vignette — that could stand on its own from beginning to end — at a time, that would maybe take me a month or two months or whatever it was. It was like one little feather in your cap. Obviously publishing some of it along the way was heartening.

You made changes from the Slate version to the finished version, right?

Oh yeah, there were lots of changes, lots of changes. But still. This is actually the first book that I used a computer font. Never used that before. That’s a concession to age, restraints of time. But the other thing that I found out using a computer font is that it made me a better writer. It made the writing so much more fluid. I never worried about whether I should change something or not because I have to go back and change something. So I was constantly revising the writing up until it was printed.

You read a lot of prose fiction. Were you thinking of any specific novels while working on this? It kind of reminded me of Franzen and Updike.

Since I finished Off Season I just reread Rabbit, Run and it was very powerful. I read it years ago and it really hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s a sneaky book. It goes along and goes along and then BAM! It packs a little bit of a wallop. I haven’t read Franzen since The Corrections and I remember liking that. I love books like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. He wrote this book about this couple that go on this mythical journey in the years following King Arthur’s death. Their relationship is very much tested. That really resonated with me.

But these are all things that I read while the die was cast with my book. I love people like Richard Ford and his Frank Bascombe trilogy, especially the first two books, Sportswriter and Independence Day, where you’re really inside a male character’s head. There’s something kind of funny and wry with the observations. Those cut deep for me.

This is kind of a different mode for you to work in. So many of your books are set in the past, in America or Eastern Europe. How did it feel to be working in a contemporary setting?

I liked it. I liked that it reengaged me to my surroundings. That car that Mark drove, I’ve sold it since then, but it was my car at the time. That house that he’s doing construction on is basically my house. The snowstorm, the streets, those are all Upper Valley. The tire place, etc. I really enjoyed that.

I remember, within a week or two of the election, talking to the cartoonist Summer Pierre and both of us expressing a visceral need to just draw things in front of us. That was that big question after the election: why weren’t we paying attention? And it was my big question, after being conned. This need to just kinda ground yourself, as opposed to all the online stuff, and even doing historial stuff, you are pulling resources offline and looking in archives.

How do you feel going into the next presidential election cycle? How would the characters be feeling?

Oh my gosh. Nervous. Hopeful, but also cynical. Maybe the Democrats elect someone they think can beat Trump, more of a mainstream candidate. I mean, there is some serious work to be done in this country. Healthcare, social justice, name the whole list. I know we fixate on Trump but he is a symptom not a cause. Definitely a catalyst for horror, but I’m probably more like Lisa in the amount of podcasts and NPR she listens to. I don’t think Mark is as politically engaged. I don’t think he’s a Trump supporter, but he’s worrying about making a living and raising his kids. It’s not forefront on his mind, for sure.

I love the part of the book where Mark and Lisa are getting together, in a flashback on the dunes. It’s a really lovely way to set them up. Why start with them separated?

I did a lot of those chapters in different orders when I was assembling the book. That just seemed like the place that seemed comfortable landing. I wanted to kinda drop people right in to what the book was about. But then as I was working on the book, I really felt like I had to show them together. I had to show them in love. I had to show the bond that they had through many, many years. Honestly, what they do for each other or how they function as a couple.

For me, and not to refute anybody’s reading of it — there’s many entry points into the book — but a lot is made of the political aspect of it, which is certainly deliberate and an important part of the book, but it really is for me about a couple trying to find their way back to each other. To have some type of renewal. And it’s hard. It’s just hard, but they’re really trying. There’s therapy, there’s microdosing. Two out of the last three chapters end with them saying “I do” to each other.

It’s such a vast divide. So I guess the question, for this couple, and why it makes sense set it in this political thing, for me, is that it’s such a huge divide that’s separating us, from red states to blue states to this specific couple. And how do you crack that? Clearly, there is a deep, profound commitment, but how do you reconcile your differences and become one nation under God, one couple. [laughs]

This is so confusing because we’re still in the middle of it. We just had the midterms.

Oh yeah, it’s still a raw nerve, for sure.

It’s one thing to do this for Slate and have it go up immediately and have people react in the moment, but books live on for years. Did you think about that while working on this? How did you imagine this book aging?

I really wanted to document a certain time and certain place as accurately as I could and pay attention to personal and political discord and estrangement. It was so pervasive that I felt like I couldn’t ignore it. And I had to address my own anger and shame, having been conned and having that experience happen to me. It was affecting my relationships with the people that I cared most about in the world. That scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t going to leave that alone. Like, I better deal with this now or I will end up like Mark and Lisa.

It was a book born about necessity. I had other plans to work on other things, and somehow this material just kinda took over. In the same way that Trump has colonized all of our brains. You can’t just say, “I’m not into politics” and ignore it. That’s super irresponsible at this point. There is a need for everyone to start paying attention, not just being more engaged in the democratic process but just trying to be better, less cruel humans.

What happened with your house?

It’s really hard to nail con-men, as Mueller is finding out. You have to show intent, you know? That’s really hard. You just can’t prove that people mismanaged your money or are horrible bookkeepers or didn’t show up that day, but you have to show that they intended to do that. The District Attorney charged this contractor with a crime, but who knows if anybody follows up with oversight.

I have to say, as somebody who has at least patience and time and an education that I could create some allies in the system, it took so long and it was so hard to navigate. It really made you realize how difficult it is to find justice in the system. It’s very difficult to hold people accountable.

Is it over for you?

Oh it’s over for me. I mean, it’s not over because I’m talking about it now, but no it’s totally over. The process of making the book helped it be over. It also put that in perspective. When you read the book, it’s not really about the contractor, you know? He’s an element that makes things more difficult, for sure, but it’s not about him. Whenever I’m making a book, I want to reach a little deeper with what the book’s about. At the end of the day, it wasn’t that I was ripped off for some money, it’s how it affected the relationships in my life. That, to me, was the more urgent concern.