Oil and Water

by on Nov.15, 2011, under Comics

In the decade and a half or so since Joe Sacco invented long-form “graphic journalism,” not many authors have tried to do anything like it. Guy Delisle, to a certain extent David Axe, Dan Archer. But more and more seem to be picking it up, and in Oil and Water journalist Steve Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler show why it has such great power when done right.

Like Sacco, Duin and Wheeler take us inside a tragedy that’s already been covered extensively by traditional news outlets: last year’s terrible BP oil spill. And like him they do it by focusing on individual stories, giving humanity and voice to people who we’ve otherwise met only in three-second soundbites at best, giving local color to the news’s dispassionate accounts.

Comics are an especially good medium for this, I think. Text alone doesn’t give the same effect of a person’s face speaking directly to you, and filmed documentaries must either hope their subjects are eloquent and charismatic or else edit their interviews extensively. Graphic journalists can clean up what people say and make them even more magnetic than they are in real life.

The frame for the reporting here is a trip to the Gulf taken by a group of about a dozen Oregonian environmentalists a few months after the spill. They are there to “bear witness,” they say, and it’s unclear what else they’re doing. There’s no attempt in the book to find a point-of-view character or to investigate very deeply what any of the visitors think about what they see; they are merely recording eyes who occasionally voice opinions. I don’t know if that will work for every future tragedy or even for every reader of this book, but it worked just fine for me. The book as a whole has a clear, angry point of view and it’s one I share. I’m a birdwatcher. The mass deaths of birds they describe upset me a lot. I don’t need that dressed up with characterization.

The only thing I wish were different is the art. Wheeler has opted for an almost impressionistic style in black and white, basic line figures shaded with ink brushwork. In a few panels this is quite effective, notably in some overhead landscape views of the Gulf or of towns. Much of the time, though, I found myself wishing for more detail. Since the event itself takes center stage, I wanted to experience it more fully, to see real individuality in the people who spoke and particularity in the lands around them. I wanted drawings that were more realist, in other words.

Even so, Oil and Water is a real achievement, both as a political statement and as a marker in the development of its subgenre.

PDF preview here.

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