In August 2010, a project called PDX 2 Gulf Coast took a group of 22 Oregonians to the Gulf of Mexico to get a firsthand look at the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that had devastated the environment and surrounding communities just a few months earlier. Among their ranks was Too Much Coffee Man cartoonist Shannon Wheeler and Oregonian columnist Steve Duin, who combined forces in an appropriately Captain Planet-style way to document their experiences in the form of a graphic novel.
The result, Oil and Water (Fantagraphics, 120 pages, $19.99), sits a little uncomfortably between cartoon journalism and travelogue. The former is expressed in the form of a handful of excellent snapshots of locals affected by the disaster. There's the fisherman who still gets up at 4 every morning to preserve the family business even though crab yields have halved. The wildlife rescue workers who man the endless production line of oil-soaked pelicans. The former shrimp boat captain who says he's being paid "hush money" by BP. The strengths and weaknesses of the comic medium are both on display here: Much of the characters' body language and emotion gets lost in translation to Wheeler's fairly minimalist character illustrations, but he compensates with visual perspectives and scenes impossible to capture through photograph or film. The oily, black smoke billowing off the Deepwater Horizon seeps its way into many of the panels and hangs above the characters' lives with heavy metaphor.
The authors have smooshed 22 people down to a more manageable eight with slightly altered names and stories, resulting in a questionable mash of fact and fiction. More problematic is that most of these characters just aren't that interesting; the tight page count leaves little room to get to know them as individuals, and the stories we do get—a teenage romance, a guy with explosive diarrhea—took up space I'd have rather seen dedicated to more voices from the spill. Duin and Wheeler's desire to record what must have been an emotional and memorable journey with a close-knit group is understandable, but it adds nothing to the book.
The team's presence is far from a total waste of ink. The authors show admirable self-awareness in portraying their semifictional companions (and by implication, themselves) as naive voyeurs whose presence mostly irritates their subjects. "Lemme get this straight," says one character. "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 stories?" Actually, they do a fine job.
GO: Oil and Water authors Steve Duin and Shannon Wheeler will appear at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Nov. 28. Free.