At San Francisco’s WonderCon, the creators of the upcoming book Oil and Water talked about the journey with PDX 2 Gulf Coast that resulted in the Fantagraphics volume coming out in September. Michael Rosen, the PDX2GC project leader and manager at the Watershed Division of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, led the panel. Joining Rosen were Oregonian columnist Steve Duin and New Yorker cartoonist Shannon Wheeler.
In the summer of 2010, a diverse group of Oregonians that included the three panelists traveled to the Southeast United States to witness the effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, both on the environment and the residents. The group met and spoke with people from the affected areas, finding out how entangled the Gulf Coast’s fortunes are with both the fishing industry and the oil business.
Duin spoke about the reasons for the book. “We love comics, particularly ones that matter,” he said. It was the reason he created Comics: Between the Panels with Dark Horse founder Mike Richardson, to document the artists and pioneering dealers and collectors who mattered.
The comics that matter, according to Duin, are the ones about social justice. “Comics can aspire to the tenet of journalism: ‘Afflict the comfortable; Comfort the afflicted,'” said Duin, quoting the 1960 film Inherit the Wind.
Among the comics that Duin listed as exemplars of social justice were EC’s Shock SuspenStories, which was “willing to tackle social issues such as racism and antisemitism,” and 1992’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning Maus, which was the mainstream’s decades-late entry into such topics.
Duin named some recent graphic novels as well, including Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which he recommended “if you want to see what comics can do.” Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco tells the story of the author’s six years spent researching the 1956 massacre of Palestinian refugees, a work that Duin admitted “forced me to reinterpret the situation in Palestine.”
Duin’s long history of journalism came through in his words, as did his devotion to the medium of comics. His perspective on the effects of the spill will certainly be anticipated by those interested in join the discussion about how the events in the Gulf reflect upon the way we live and learn.
Rosen, representing his local comic shop in a Bridge City Comics golf shirt, talked about the trip and its expectations. Their basic goal was “to tell informed stories of lives and systems,” he said. Toward that end, there would be three different products of PDX 2 Gulf Coast: A documentary video, Beyond the Spill, which premieres April 20 at the Alberta Rose Theatre; a curriculum for college and high schools students as well as community groups, and the Oil and Water graphic novel.
He noted the many sponsors that helped to make the trip possible. Special mention was made of the participation of Portland footwear company Keen, which invests in social issues and encourages its employees to become involved. “How many of you here,” he asked, “can think of a major footwear company that would give tens of thousands of dollars to a group of artists and journalists and environmentalists to go to the Gulf Coast and produce a graphic novel?”
The group went to the spill site and interacted with a wide range of people affected by the accident, from talking with scientists at Tulane University to sitting down to dinner with 250 shrimpers and even chatting with BP supervisors. Their activities included observation at a bird treatment center and relocating sea turtle eggs.
Rosen put the magnitude of the spill in perspective by referencing the last major oil spill, the Exxon Valdez. The Valdez spill amounted to 11 million gallons of oils dumped at surface level, whereas even after cleanup efforts, as much as 170 million gallons remain from the Deepwater Horizon spill, which spewed in plumes from the sea floor into frigid water.
Clips from the documentary’s interviews were played, including one with Dr. Michael Blum in which Rosen questioned the effectiveness of using dispersant of unknown toxicity in a method it was not designed for. The soundbites and facts made obvious the overwhelming unknowns that still remain after the government has established a perception of “mission accomplished” and news sources have moved on to the next attention-grabber.
Wheeler, best known for his philosophical absurdist comic Too Much Coffee Man and now his cartoons in The New Yorker, admitted that Oil and Water was a departure for him. But he also realized that cartoonists were important to issues of social justice “because they can get at the truth.”
According to Wheeler, cartoonists can gain access to people and information much more readily than other journalists for several reasons:
- They genuinely look lost,
- They don’t carry a camera
- They are easy to talk to
- Everyone loves to be drawn.
He went on to relate how he was able to get a BP worker to explain a large sand-cleaning machine to him instead of kicking him out of the area, as happened to a group member with a camera. “Cartoonists draw people in,” said Wheeler. “This guy was giving me more and more quotes.”
He added that for Oil and Water, the members of the PDX group will be fictionalized, but the situation and events in the Gulf will be real. The important part of the project is that it keeps the story in the public eye, refusing to let people easily forget.
The following question and answer period brought out several interesting topics for the group. One audience member asked how the message about the impact of the spill on the Gulf residents could be communicated without sounding preachy. Rosen attributed this to Duin’s ability to “stay subtle” with his narrative, trying to “tell their story and just let them talk.”
Asked if there was a plan to do more books around social issues, Duin referred to a column he recently wrote for the Oregonian about a “bright woman turning tricks to fund a meth habit.” He said that he and Wheeler were interested in following her in order to further tell her story, but that it would be difficult knowing that they would be watching her kill herself.
According to Rosen, the aim of the project is not to send out a “heavy message,” but still we must ask ourselves “is this another disaster, or a significant moment in history that changes the way we all live?” This Fall, Fantagraphics will provide readers with tools to help make that decision.