Oil and Water

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
"When you stare into the abyss the abyss stares back at you."
- Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Deepwater Horizon disaster happened in 2010, it was easy to decide who the heroes and victims of the disaster were. BP, we were told, were virtual corporate eco-terrorists, blithely putting the ecological balance of one of the world's most ecologically sensitive areas at risk. Meanwhile, the people of the Gulf Coast were naïve wage-slaves whose happy way of life was irrevocably destroyed by BP. It was an easy story, elegant and clear and perfect for forming television sound-bites and public opinion.

However, as usually happens, truth is much stranger and more interesting than fiction.

Oil and Water tells the story of 10 extremely well-intentioned people from Oregon who travel down to Louisiana to chronicle the story of the people of the Gulf Coast. It's fascinating to see the great intentions of good people of liberal Oregon run aground on the slick and complicated story on the ground there. Duin and Wheeler spend much of this book showing the kind of cultural imperialism or Liberal Guilt that the Oregonians feel when trying to help their brethren from the South, and the resentment that the Southerners feel back at them.

This lovely page does a great job of elegantly capturing the attitudes of an older couple whose house the Oregonians invade -- yeah, invade seems like the right word to use for the events that happen.

The scene has a kind of poetic feel to it, as Shannon Wheeler's calm, quiet and almost abstract images capture the story in a way that allows the story to stray from straight reportage to a quieter meditation on the events that happen. The people he draws have definitive and consistent looks, but the scenes he draws are wonderfully clean and evocative. Wheeler isn't drawing incidents themselves as much as the impacts of them. The story lives in the present and the past, both itself and something more.

For instance, take a look at this illustration of the Deepwater Horizon all ablaze. Wheeler is drawing the fire on the drilling platform, of course, but he's also symbolically capturing the dark cloud hanging over the community due to the fire, as the fire from the oil rig seems to be literally casting a dark cloud over everything around it.

Wheeler takes a very different approach from fellow comics documentarian Joe Sacco, who strives to capture every image exactly as it happens on the ground. But Wheeler's approach is equally as valid and interesting as Sacco's, as he captures mood and emotion in fascinating ways.

Maybe the most evocative depiction of the pain, frustration and anger about the situation on the Gulf Coast comes when the Oregon group, with all good intentions, travel to the Hammond Oiled Wildlife Refuge Center, where pelicans and other seabirds are treated for exposure to oil. The group starts their tour of the facility all filled with noble and good intentions of truly making a difference.

But the good intentions dissipate in light of the overwhelming horror of the events, events where a single person has no way of making a difference. Many thousands of birds will die because of the oil spill and there's precious little that the Oregonians can do to prevent the deaths. The trip becomes a bit of a debacle. One of them gets bored and decides to spend time on one of her other do-gooder projects, the rescue efforts seem pathetically underwhelming, and in the end they're essentially shamed as the tourists that they ultimately are.

By the end of this book I was struck by how different it was from what I expected it to be. I had expected this book to be a sober exploration of the complexities of life on the Gulf Coast when dealing with the worst ecological disaster in American history. And there was a lot of outstanding content about the many thousands of people and their complicated reactions to the spill.

But as much as Steve Duin's text reportage mixed with the art tries to represent the facts of the story, I was more struck by how much this story is about the eco-liberal do-gooders find their naiveté crashed upon the heavy ground of complex moral ambiguity. These very good and well-intentioned people had expected Louisiana to be one thing to them, and it ended up being something hugely different than they expected.

This book is very much about misconceptions and preconceptions, about how we all can feel inadequate when facing enormous problems and how little we often feel we can do in when facing even the small incidents in our lives -- let alone the large ones.

"We are not prisoners of our past," says the "white chick. Gangsta hair. Dreadlock diva" that seems emblematic of the Portlanders who made the trip to Louisiana. Their story isn't as much about how they change the lives of the people they meet as much as it's about how neither side can really change.

As a proud Northwest Liberal myself, who got much of my news about the oil spill from Rachel Maddow, this lesson, surely not directly intended by Duin and Wheeler, is hard to take. When I first heard about this group heading to Louisiana -- probably on our 24-hour NPR News station -- I reflexively envied these people their opportunity to help others in such a moment of need. It's fascinating to read about the impact of their trip and find that there are many more levels of complexity than there appeared to be when I heard about it on my radio in my enviro-friendly Hybrid car.

Jason Sacks has been obsessed with comics for longer than he'd like to remember. He considers himself a student of comics history and loves delving into obscure corners of this crazy artform. Jason has been writing for this site for about seven years and has also been published in a number of fan publications, including the late, lamented Amazing Heroes and The Flash Companion. He lives in north Seattle with his wife and three kids.

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