By Nancy Powell
James Sturm has never been shy about tackling the complexities of race and ethnicity in his graphic novels. Recently, Sturm turned his observant eye on the 2016 election season and set it as the backdrop from which a marriage unravels. Off Season, Sturm’s newest graphic novel, just dropped in stores this past week. The Beat caught up with Sturm to talk politics and to discuss the creative process behind the book.
Nancy Powell: I understand the story was written and drawn as the 2016 elections unfolded. Did the course of the elections determine its development, or had you had some pieces storyboarded prior to what actually happened?
James Sturm: I had started working on Off Season about a year before the 2016 election and had completed several chapters. As the election season kicked into high gear it soon became apparent that if I was going to tell a contemporary story I had to include what was happening on the political front. There was no ignoring it.
Powell: Is any part of the story based on a real life experience?
Sturm: I certainly drew upon experiences I had in crafting the story. And the election of course. And the Cubs Dodger game.
Powell: The style you used in this book seems so much simpler than the drawing styles you employed in your earlier books on American history. Was this a conscious choice that was the result of the subject matter?
Sturm: Certainly the presentation is simpler but I think the art seems more illustrative than most of my previous comics.
Powell: You use anthropomorphic dog faces to stand in for humans. Any significance behind that?
Sturm: As someone in the book says, “putting on a mask is liberating.” This book dives into a lot of heavy material and drawing everyone with animals heads somehow made it easier to go to the places I needed to go.
Powell: I also understand that you went back on the day after election night and changed the chapter titled “Is It Really Over” to “It’s Not Over.”
Sturm: That is true. I was serializing parts of this book on Slate. Not wanting to pull an all nighter on election night I did a story with Clinton winning that was supposed to run the morning after. Having to redraw that strip gave me something to do that night besides cry. I think that chapter printed a little lighter because the ink was diluted with tears.
Powell: Seeing the trajectory of politics over the last two years, if you had a choice, would you change the final ending once again, or would you keep it the same? And was that planned as the last chapter in the book?
Sturm: I didn’t know what the ending of the book was going to be till I got there. For me, the heart of the story is less about politics and more about one couple’s attempt to cross a great divide and find one another again. I was more concerned with that aspect of the story than making any larger political statement.
Powell: Also, would Lisa and Mark ever have that chance at reconciliation after all that’s happened with Trump’s election?
Sturm: I don’t think Mark and Lisa’s marriage is tied to political cycles. But like our political landscape there are deep divides that will be difficult to overcome. I’ll let each reader decide for themselves whether Mark and Lisa’s relationship has a chance.
Powell: How emotionally draining was it to work on a book like this?
Sturm: Working on the book helped me process a lot of intense stuff. It was more rejuvenating than draining.
Powell: What would you think Lisa’s response would be to someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?
Sturm: I think she would love her.
Powell: Baseball has played a huge part in two books—Satchel Paige and The Golem’s Mighty Swing. Have you had a lifelong love of baseball, and will you be chronicling more of its history in future books?
Sturm: I do have a lifelong love of baseball but I don’t see myself making another baseball comic.
Powell: What writers and artists have most interested you in recent years?
Sturm: Oh, boy. So many. Off the top of my head: I’m in awe of the work of photographer Tara Wray. The music of Woodstock Vermont composer and pianist Sonny Saul brings me great joy. In the realm of comics, everything Eleanor Davis does is genius. I’m really loving the work of Glynnis Fawkes and Summer Pierre these days as well. I loved the novel Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman and the memoir The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits.
Powell: What topics are you researching currently?
Sturm: I’m working on a book about democracy with Dan Nott right now. And editing a Harriet Tubman graphic novel by Whit Taylor and Xia Gordon.
Powell: Finally, do Mark and Lisa get a reprisal in time for the 2020 elections?
Sturm: No plans for that to happen but surprising things happen in love and politics.