- Blood on the Page
Three months after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, a group of twenty-two Oregonians planned a ten-day expedition called PDX 2 to the Louisiana Gulf Coast. Their goals were to bear witness to the devastation, measure the impact of the disaster, and to return with a story to share. Two members—Steve Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian, and Shannon Wheeler, an Eisner Award-winning cartoonist—collaborated to produce the graphic novel Oil and Water. The story of Oil and Water closely mirrors the journey that Duin and Wheeler took with their fellow Oregonians. Condensing twenty-two real-life people into a more manageable ten characters, the narrative follows the Oregonians from their flight to Louisiana to their varied experiences and interviews with locals struggling to make a living: retired residents, fishermen, scientists, cooks, adult club owners.
Oil and Water is a good first step towards graphically responding to the BP oil spill. In terms of visual effects, Wheeler's choice of rendering the graphic novel in black and white with dark watercolor shading effectively brings the presence of oil to life on the page. Rather than abstractly talking about oil, the graphic novel provides a much-needed space for visualizing oil. Full-page panels of oil pipelines, an oil-covered pelican, and the parallel plumes of oil gushing underwater with plume of smoke billowing above water effectively convey the degree of contamination in a visual language that bleeds. However, the dark wash makes it impossible to distinguish between the color of oil and the color of water. This suggests a symbolic ambiguity between these two substances commonly thought to be separate, insoluble. We are left with the open question of how "oil and water" works as a metaphor for the incompatibility between disparate groups of people—the Oregonians, the BP executives, and distinct groups of Louisianans themselves. Wheeler could have gone further in developing the dark watercolor's presence as a character, such as by allowing it to bleed between panels; however, the graphic novel resists such fantastical or metafictional levels and remains committed to realism within panels.
Duin and Wheeler consciously frame the story through the eyes of Oregonians rather than trying to tell the story from the point of view of local Louisianans. Towards the beginning of the story, the two African American women serving the Oregonians dinner make a good point: "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?" Duin and Wheeler eschew the ability to tell "their stories" and instead focus on the challenges of "witnessing" a disaster. However, the cast of ten characters who witness the Gulf Coast is perhaps too large to develop within the limited scope of 144 pages. Their relationships form a thin thread of continuity between their experiences meeting new people in Louisiana. Pages are spent on somewhat tasteless episodes of the Oregonians's social interactions, such as teen Oregonians playing a game of "fuck, marry, kill" (the title of one chapter), an old sailor relating a past story of having explosive diarrhea, and the opening scene that references the cost of "baby oil" used at an adult club.
However, where the trope of "different kinds of oil" works better is when the Oregonians travel to the Brown Pelican "ER" hospital: "[brown pelicans] spend their lives organizing their feathers. Preening. Straightening. They are fine-tuned, well-oiled machines. And then one day, a different kind of oil rolls in on the tide.... And the system that has always kept them warm and dry...is so trashed the birds are just like down-filled sleeping bags, left out in the rain." For both animals and humans, Oil and Water's journalistic framing does succeed in conveying the acute sense of abandonment felt by those who stayed in New Orleans. Wheeler gives particular graphic attention to New Orleans-specific graffiti such as "FEMA: Fix Everything My Ass"; "an injustice to anyone is an...