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Oil and Water: A Review

In 2010, the worst ecological disaster in the United States occurred in the Gulf of Mexico when British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil station exploded causing approximately 210 million gallons of oil to seep into the Gulf. It damaged not only the ecosystems of the region, but the local economies as well. The spill affected almost 500 miles of Gulf coastline. Now, while this is a serious matter, why would I be talking about it? Well, that same year a group of journalists, cartoonists, environmentalists, and other concerned citizens from the Portland, Oregon area went to Louisiana to see the damage for themselves and the affect the spill had on the people there. Again, why would I be talking about this? Well, two of those who went on the pilgrimage, journalist Steve Duin (from The Oregonian) and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler, documented their experiences of their pilgrimage and created a graphic novel from that. The collection is titled Oil and Water and it documents their trip and the stories of those they met down in Louisiana. I decided to take a look at it. That’s why this is here.

The art in the collection is very rough. Not in terms of its tones used, but that it feels more like sketches than it does a more polished piece. It gives the work a more organic feel than a more polished piece would. It does lend itself well into moments in the work, but I feel that the work could’ve used some more polish. There were several times where I had trouble distinguishing people from one another. Wheeler definitely does a better job at illustrating inanimate objects, or even animals, but can struggle with people here and there. Given the fact that Wheeler’s works primarily as a cartoonist, not a graphic artist, penciler, etc., the style makes sense. On the whole, I feel like the sketchy style of presentation is effective at parts, but it would’ve probably been more effective if it had been given more time or a more detailed feel.

Oil and Water art sample

In the case of Oil and Water the art is intended only as the vehicle of the piece, it’s a supplement to the journalism of the piece. The intent of the project is the documentation of the effects of the Deepwater spill on the environment, both in terms of the local ecology and human population. And this is present within the work. There are short blurbs between segments that include some information regarding the spill and related issues. There are also several encounters with local victims of the spill met in the course of the work. Some of these stories shared are actually quite touching. However, there’s one huge flaw I believe to be in Oil and Water. While I said this was intended as a journalistic piece, it has far too much linear narrative to be journalism. There are journalistic-like pieces such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil that successfully use a narrative structure, but it was so because it did something that Oil and Water didn’t do. It talks far less about the subject matter than it does the people viewing the subject matter. And that doesn’t work for me. As a piece supposed to be about the tragedy of the oil spill and the victims it shouldn’t be about those perceiving it and themselves. It should be about the tragedy. There is a time and a place for this, but not when the intent of your project is like this.

I really wanted to like Oil and Water far more than I did. The art accomplishes its goal, though at times could use a bit more polish. While I did complain a bit about the subject tone of the narrative, I found more good with it than bad. I was just sorely disappointed in the piece missing its intended goal. There is definitely an interested market for these kinds of works and I’m glad that pieces like this exist, however, I do hope they can become more refined in the future.

Oil and Water is written by Steve Duin with art by Shannon Wheeler. It’s distributed through Fantagraphics Books.

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