"We piled out of the van, convinced we'd finally crossed into a Louisiana you couldn't read about back in Portland."
Leave it to a comic book to introduce itself with a Slidell joke.
The comic book — rather, a graphic novel — takes only a few frames to mention "sexy sirens from Slidell," as advertised on a Grand Isle strip club's marquee. Those first few pages of Oil and Water jump headfirst into the intimate details of the Gulf South.
In a blog post written by Steve Duin, a columnist for the Portland, Ore.-based newspaper The Oregonian, he recounts that night at Daddy's Money and its struggling, jaundiced-eyed proprietor Jack Jambon, slouching at the end of his bar and counting the dollars from BP cleanup crews who are there for the show: "Then he mounts that stool at the corner of the bar and watches the money roll in from the guys who drink to forget the women are from Slidell."
Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler, a New Yorker cartoonist best known for the alt-weekly strip Too Much Coffee Man, collaborated on Oil and Water, a mostly nonfictional account of a Portland group's eye-opening trip to the Gulf South in the wake of the BP oil disaster. It synthesizes the group's 22 people into 10, and compresses 10 emotional days across three states meeting dozens of real-life characters into 120 pages. Venerable comics publisher Fantagraphics published the book this month.
The Slidell joke is just a detail, a glimpse into the personal stories of several Gulf residents — mostly fishermen — during the dog days of summer 2010 when the media left and the country's attention drifted elsewhere. It weaves those stories into the Portland group, the social justice-minded PDX 2 Gulf Coast, struggling with its naive approach to the disaster, and waking up to the realities of its neighbors down South.
"Most of the people who went on the trip — it changed their lives," Wheeler says. "Just going down there and seeing this really is a complex issue, and the people there are really aware how complex it is, and the failure in analysis is people simplify it too much."
"I take it this isn't the French Quarter."
Comics are, stereotypically, stories of heroes and villains — there are good guys and there are bad guys, and the good guys always win. What happens when your bad guys are unfathomably powerful oil industries, the good guys are everyone else, and the story is too complex to pigeonhole into a familiar black-and-white comic book format? Is that even a comic book anymore?
Oil and Water isn't a first for the medium; its roots are in the political cartoon. Graphic novels have served as an intersection for social justice journalism and comics with works like Art Spiegelman's Holocaust memoir Maus; Marjane Satrapi's Islamic revolution epic Persepolis; Joe Sacco's on-the-ground illustrated accounts in Beirut and Bosnia; David Axe and Matt Bors' Iraq chronicle, War is Boring; and Josh Neufeld's acclaimed A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which chronicled the Hurricane Katrina stories of four New Orleans residents. The nonfiction graphic novel is part of the "new New Journalism," using an unconventional medium to say what couldn't be said elsewhere.
"This is the YouTube age — we're not going to write a book Al Gore would write," says Mike Rosen, project leader of PDX 2 Gulf Coast. "We want to touch youth in an edgier way. We put together a half-hour documentary, an essay-based curriculum, and a graphic novel. ... Steve thought the idea was nuts. I'm not exactly sure what his turning point was."
"I never thought we could possibly get a graphic novel out of this," says Duin, who's also a comics connoisseur and historian. Duin and Wheeler didn't have a plan when they landed in Louisiana, but Rosen was confident he picked two people who could tell an effective story.
"Mike had a vision that was pretty clear. 'I'm going to get these two guys together: Steve's gonna write it, Shannon's gonna draw it.' He had a real agenda," Wheeler says.
"I'm used to finding people, talking to them and turning it over fairly quickly," Duin says. "I exercise my voice a lot, because I use it. But it's such a delight when someone's voice comes along, like the owner of Daddy's Money had. You just get out of the way and let them carry the story. I don't know if we were stupidly lucky in the people we met, or if we stayed another week we would've met an equally interesting cast of characters. I'm guessing it's the latter. Oregonians tend to be nice but bland. There's no blandness, as far as I can tell, in southern Louisiana."
The character "Catfish" gets his own eponymous chapter. "Seen a lot of shit in the last 20 years," he says, as panels illustrate Vietnamese shrimpers working the Gulf and cocaine trafficking replacing the shrimping business. "Made good money. Served 39 months."
Deano Bonano, then Jefferson Parish's emergency management director, meets the group coincidentally in Grand Isle. Bonano wrangles a shark from his fishing line and gently sends it back into the Gulf, resting it against the waves to let water pass over its gills. "Louisianans are resilient," says Bonano, speaking for both himself and the shark. "We came back from Katrina. And if we came back from that, we can come back from this."
Tulane University ecology professor Michael Blum also made it into Oil and Water's pages. Blum has been a go-to environmental sciences expert on TV programs like The Colbert Report and The Rachel Maddow Show. In the book, he has few answers, if any, as a seasoned scientific pro faced with a very new problem. ("We don't know," he often repeats in the comic.)
"It's one of the most favorite things I've done," he says. "There are large chunks in New Orleans, in southern Louisiana and the Gulf Coast, that have a general understanding of what's going on (with the oil disaster) but are in many respects disconnected — example: Tulane's student population. Something like this would provide them, and people like them, an opportunity to see it as it unfolded, to see the different communities involved."
Duin and Wheeler mapped out stories and scripts, between arguments and back and forths about plotting, storytelling and pacing.
"I'm basically writing the screenplay, and Shannon's a single-panel cartoonist," Duin says. "I'd give him the script and sample drawings, and of course Shannon would say, 'You're out of your mind.'"
As the book gets deeper south and deeper into the complexities and relationships of oil to the Gulf and its people, the stories get murky and collide, mimicking an ebb-and-flow that at first is much like oil and water, then gradually homogenizes. The Portlanders come to grips with their own misconceptions, and the characters that were once miles away from their lives become embedded into their own.
"You think oil is the problem? You ain't from around here. Oil is the solution."
Oil and Water's Portland characters first board a plane to solve an environmental crisis nobody else seems to care about, only to have those preconceived notions (and stereotypes) flipped upside-down, or defeated ("There's so much left to do ...").
While the Gulf Coast and its residents' lives crumble, the "do-gooders from Portland," as Duin describes them, face their own reality: They came, they saw, and they have absolutely nothing to do to help in the face of devastation they naively believed needed some liberal enlightenment and an eco-enema. The real-life group admits it was conscious of its "do-gooder" presence, and the last thing it wanted was to condescend to people on the coast.
"What do you do with these good intentions?" Wheeler says. "I don't know if I have a good answer."
The first several frames introduce the characters, who are both earnest and a bit holier-than-thou. "The BP spill is the worst environmental disaster of our lifetimes. The people there need to know we have not forgotten about them," says Emily as the group boards a Louisiana-bound plane. A few panels later and bleak, black images of smoke billowing from the Deepwater Horizon rig fill the page — followed by the group complaining about the heat and trading "poop" stories.
The next chapter introduces two African-American women who feed the Portlanders, as the visitors litter an office with laptops and water bottles ("We'll hit the city's 9th Ward after breakfast"). The women step outside for a cigarette: "Lemme get this straight," one asks. "They white. We black. They blue. We red. They rich ... and I got $53 to buy a week's worth of groceries. And they gonna tell our story?"
Duin admits those women are fictional — they served to project the group's anxiety about how its intentions would be received. A sign outside the church reads, "Where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet" — an esoteric addition referencing a quote from theologian Frederick Buechner.
"We wanted to come down and get firsthand experience of what folks down there in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama (experienced) and bring it home and maybe change our lives a little bit, than pretend we could change or influence the lives down there," Duin says. "(Buechner's quote) isn't a theme I wanted to make too dramatic in the book, but I think that's a lot of what I think all of us were trying to do, and I'm sure that's not altogether different than what folks in Louisiana are trying to do to get through the day."
The group received little press before its August 2010 trip, funded via a Kickstarter campaign that to Gulf residents may have seemed well-intentioned but unwelcome. The group knew it was entering territory that hesitates to welcome outsiders following disasters — from press, environmentalist agendas and scientists. The PDX 2 Gulf Coast trip had all of those — 22 people in tow, including community activists, videographers, high school teachers, and of course, a cartoonist and a newspaper columnist.
"We thought the primary thing we could do is bear witness, and bring back information as a caring community. It sounds a little trite, but it's a Portland thing," Rosen says. "And keep a story alive. Let people understand these are our neighbors, it's a big deal, and it's complicated."
Rosen admits those expectations proved much more difficult. "It floored me," he says. "I grew up in New York with a real New York Jew perspective. The South was one of those places I never appreciated and even had a disdainful attitude toward. ... People were skeptical, and maybe still are skeptical of us. The book lampoons the 'do-gooders from Portland' — 'Why don't you guys just raise money for the Gulf Coast?' — That's one of the things I'm proud of in the book. It asks, 'Why the hell are we even there?'"
Wheeler brought his sketchbook everywhere. He approached a taped-off stretch of beach on Grand Isle and crossed it. A beach-cleaning machine sat near mounds of tarry sand, and Wheeler got to work drawing. A BP employee approached Wheeler and told him to leave.
"We start talking about drawing, and we talked for 45 minutes about how the machine works, and he gave me a whole tour," he says. "Usually I'm sitting in a coffee shop, or at home alone, and I'm trying to remember things, searching on the Internet for an illustration or photograph for reference. There, I'm on the spot: 'What is this person saying, what is the soul of what's happening?'
"I did 300 pages in 10 days."
" ... and I don't know how much anger and frustration to stuff in the duffel bag and how much to leave behind."
Oil and Water
Written by Steve Duin
Art by Shannon Wheeler
Hardcover; 144 pages