The 2016 presidential election created a lot of tension for families, driving people apart with an ugly campaign season and a final result that left many in distress. James Sturm’s new Drawn & Quarterly graphic novel, Off Season, unfolds over the months immediately before and after the election, following a recently separated husband and father of two as he tries to maintain order in his increasingly chaotic life. Propelled by Mark’s narration, the story is a deeply introspective character study, homing in on Mark’s increasingly unstable mental state and the ways it distances him from the people he loves the most.
The book flap describes Off Season as a “love story for our times,” but it feels like a stretch to call this book a love story when it’s so heavily focused on one man’s anger and frustration. Sturm doesn’t make the entire book about the election, but he maintains a strong political undercurrent throughout, reinforcing how partisan allegiances impact personal interactions even when no one is talking about the government. The appearance of a MAGA baseball cap toward the end of the story is one of the most powerful moments in the book, with Sturm masterfully using the page turn for a devastating reveal. That moment is significantly enriched by the presence of Mark’s ex, Lisa, but Sturm intentionally keeps Lisa away for most of the book to emphasize the hole she leaves behind.
The characters in Off Season are depicted as humanoid animals, primarily dogs, and Sturm explains the artistic choice within the book with a flashback to a stage production of Animal Farm that brought Mark and Lisa together for the first time. It’s a brief moment where the actors talk about the long history of animals as human stand-ins and the liberation of wearing a mask, and by using animal characters for his graphic novel, Sturm is able to openly engage with painful material. That flashback comes at the ideal time in the narrative, revealing early moments of happiness and connection after showing readers Mark’s sad, desperate state post-separation. There’s some particularly beautiful imagery in this sequence, and the panel of Mark and Lisa sitting in the middle of wave-like sand dunes encapsulates the book’s theme of trying to find companionship in a sea of ever-shifting life circumstances.
Sturm understands the value of contrasting text with imagery, and the final chapter has Mark breaking down important past and present events in the narration while the artwork depicts a cat struggling to cough up a hairball during his daughter’s piano lesson. As Mark learns how to work through his emotions and takes steps toward reconciliation with his wife, the cat’s actions become a metaphor for holding onto feelings that cause deep discomfort and poison relationships. But there’s no sense of victory in this expulsion. This is still a cat hacking up a hairball, and by spotlighting that image, Sturm undercuts Mark and Lisa’s achievement. That cat will have new hairballs just as these spouses will have new issues that challenge their commitment, and it’s uncertain if these characters will be able to make it through the long haul.