Power Wheels: Sean Murphy talks "Off Road"

Some guys get dumped by their girlfriend one day, find out they're full of crap the next day and end the week by being covered in mud, cleaning up one of their many mistakes they made after their heart broke. Then again, some people have to deal with all that and then some in one day, such as Trent, the hero of "Off Road," an original graphic novel (OGN) from Oni Press. With the November release date creeping up, CBR News caught up with writer/artist Sean Murphy to learn more about the book.

"Trent has just been dumped after finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him," says Murphy of the book's premise. "A lot has changed since he left for college, but his girl problems haven't. He returns home to find out that his best friend, Greg, has just bought a new Jeep. Trent pushed Greg and their other friend, Brad, into off roading...something they know nothing about. Soon the boys are up against more than just a trail in the woods: returning girls problems, abusive parents, a muddy pond and a ton of mosquitoes. It's a story about 3 guys who have a lot to prove to the world, and all they'll need is each other to do it.

"The story is based on an actual event 6 years ago when we totally trashed Greg's new Jeep. Things kept happening to make it worse, and life didn't let up on us for the whole day. But as bad as that was, 'Off Road' is even worse. I hyped a lot of it up to really batter the three characters. Still, a lot of it is derived from what happened here and there in high school."

The need to bring "Off Road" to life was born out of another incident that set back Murphy at the time but this time the cloud had a much clearer silver lining. "I had just finished inking an issue of a Vertigo gig that fell through at the last second. After that I wasn't getting work. I'm a really picky reader, and a lot of what I was reading really blew. So I figured, why not give writing a shot? In my opinion, stories in comics (and movies) are really in the sink. A lot of them are just waiting to be knocked off the shelf by something better and it wouldn't take much. The idea that an artist needs a writer is bogus when these writers haven't read a single book about plot.

"I wanted something fun, easy and linear for my first attempt. A lot of the indie stuff is similar: artistic guy with girl problem mopes around until his friends remind him that life is worth living. And usually there's a goth chic in there, too. My story was like that, so in order to set it apart I added the Jeep element and really played up the back and forth teasing between the characters because I felt it was one of my strong points. I knew I could draw some cool shots of a Jeep flying through the woods, so maybe Oni would be lenient on me being a green writer. I wrote a full script for 130 pages and did 10 pages of art, presenting the whole thing as a package ready to go. Oni bit.

"I never assume that any editor or company likes my stuff, writing included. I went to San Diego and talked to Randy (assistant editor of some kind). He started talking about what I'd written and why he liked certain parts and that really impressed me. I remember thinking, 'I wrote that?' I was impressed that he'd read it and remembered it. So maybe there's some truth to that. Whether they liked it or not, I knew they couldn't argue with how easy it would be to get done when I was the only guy involved."

The main characters in "Off Road" may also seem familiar, but not in a negative way- they're the kind of real people you might be friends with but definitely know. "All three people are real. I'm essentially Trent, but I changed the name to make him more artsy. That, and I feel that going into a story and knowing that the author is the main characters (hero) tends to discredit it.

"Trent wears a costume. On the outside he tries to look artistically punk but he's full of shit. The story starts when he realizes this. He's based off of me during my few years when I really hated women. He's more emotional, moody, and bitter but he has a real love for his friends and for trying new things. And on the inside, he doesn't really hate women...he just hates himself for falling for them.

"Brad doesn't wear a costume at all. He's very straight forward and tries to see in black and white which tends to drive Trent away. He and Greg like to think they're tough, but Brad's the real deal. His father is abusive and violent and Brad's a product of that. He anger might come out from time to time against his friends, but they know he's a teddy bear inside. So I guess in a way he does wear a costume.

"Greg is the tool who owns the Jeep. He's slings crap back and forth with Trent with every ART vs SPORTS comment he can think of, but all he really wants is for the three to get along. That, and he wants his Jeep out of the mud."

While the reactions to the previews of "Off Road" thus far have led readers to label it as "affecting" and "cool," the idea of self discovery and learning who your friends are is a subject that readers have seen explored heavily in smaller press comics and movies such of "Garden State." "I'm proud of 'Off Road,' but I'm anxious to leave it behind and show people that I'm a 'real' writer as well," says Murphy. "Stories of this genre seem to exist because it's easy to do. In most cases (me included), you've got a new writer who wants to try going alone but he doesn't want to do any real work like researching something complicated. He's a little timid and the only thing he really knows (being in his 20s) are his dip-shit friends in high school. He thinks that his old stories are worth a damn and that people would want to read about them. And if they don't, then hell...they just don't 'get it' so screw them.

"What I started off with was just that. My generation is fixated on humor and dialog that's derived from 'Seinfeld' and 'The Simpsons.' So, to be different, I started reading about writing, character motivation, 3 act structures, etc. I researched other books of the genre and learned what I wanted to avoid: characters that don't DO anything, feel sorry for themselves, and lose the audience.

"The Jeep is what breaks mine apart. I've got some flat out action and danger going on when they get stuck. 'Off Road' still has the emotional action in the undertones that other books of the genre also have, but they're subtler. And in order to keep the reader reading, there's plenty of physical action as well. Hopefully."

Writing this kind of material, authors often say that the journey of peeling back the layers and revealing themselves in fiction can be cathartic, as they gain insight into themselves and experience paradigm shifts. In the case of Murphy and "Off Road," that was also the case and the scribe says he learned more about the art of creating comics. "I've learned that for me, writing is a whole job in itself and should be treated as such. I thought that writing could be done on the side, and it can to some extent. But it's a craft that deserves it's own time of the month without distractions of art. I'm still learning about how the two jobs affect each other and that I can't simply switch gears between the two at any given moment.

"Through taking so much time on this project (with the 'Batman Scarecrow' interruption), I've had a lot of time to think about the dynamic between Greg, Brad and me. Why we argued, why we got along, the whole alpha male thing concerning the group dynamic. I've got a new appreciation for that time in my life."

Humor permeates every page of "Off Road," even in some of the more serious areas, and it isn't an attempt by Murphy to seem hip or cool. The multi-faceted creator says that he found the humor provided a strong spine to the book and a way to connect the characters. "I never know if it's funny anymore after I'm taken the fun out of each joke by analyzing it so much in the writing stage. The humor is there throughout the book. The main force keeping these characters together is their sense of humor. No matter what happens or how bad it is, they roll with it and laugh (after they stop arguing). There are really serious issues that are tackled a few times throughout the story, some of them very abruptly. I want people to feel the pain of these issues and how they affect the characters, but I don't want to dwell on them or make anyone too 'mopey.' A way to get out of that is to make the characters joke about it as a way of dealing with it."

Without turning into Oprah, Murphy admits there is a message in the book for readers who look at the big picture, but assures fans that he won't beat them over the head with his point. "The lesson in the book is that men can have feelings and that's why they stick together. When we were off roading, a lot of girls thought that it was pointless, stupid and dangerous. I want this book to point out that there's more to it than off roading. Just like there's more to ice fishing, shooting pool, and drinking beer. I want to show the beauty and subtlety of what brings guys together when they do stupid shit."

There's also a lot of symbolism in "Off Road," from the Jeep as a metaphor for freedom and the restrictions of the world all at the same time; the Jeep as a symbol for male identity; the do-rag worn by Trent is shown in a key moment as an accessory that he believes transforms him inside. If you're getting the feeling that Murphy is trying to show how people use physical items to define and reinvent themselves without looking within, then you're not off the mark. "When I've got a problem or am coming to the next milestone in life, I find that the forecast always goes unseen. I do something stupid or I get moody or I start getting reckless. These are all signs that something is wrong and I need to do something to fix it. Unfortunately for me, by the time I understand what's going on, I have to answer for something I'm wearing, the head wound, and the puke on the carpet. People change because something isn't working for them anymore.This is probably going on in 'Off Road' more than I'm aware. These signs of change are interesting inner conflict, my glue in the plot. The Jeep, the bandana, the mud...these are my attempts at using storytelling elements to help support that."

As mentioned earlier, Murphy is also illustrating the book and his style boasts very clean lines, in addition to a knack for handling a variety of scenery and characters, which has resonated with fans. "I'm influenced by a lot of guys that I draw nothing like. I try to avoid style when I can. For example, in between pages 54 and 55 is when I had to draw Batman. My abilities got a lot better during that time, so when I got back to 'Off Road' I noticed a lot of things I had done that was purely style: angular chins and cartooniness (my new word) to hide anatomy. I was pissed, so I started rounding everything out and making it look better. To me, there's a difference between drawing cartoons and drawing real life AS a cartoon.

"Zaffino, Sale, Ware, Baker, Bisley, Lark, Toth, Davis, Grant, Colan, Watterson, Miller, etc. These are all guys who I draw nothing like, but I admire what they've got going because the way they draw is a world all their own and they're not ripping anyone off. I've given some thought to writing scripts and seeing what Oni would do with them. But I hate working with other artists. No one is dependable like I am to my own ideas, so I've tried hard to become efficient at doing most of the stuff myself."

A book like "Off Road," full of new characters, a finite story and no "shock" events, seems like an anti-thesis to the current comic book market driven by familiar names, "Crisis" and crossovers. "I hope that 'Off Road' is considered fresh or at least parts of it," admits Murphy. "I'd like people to think it's at least solid, and that solid is fresh. Realistically, I'll settle for 'solid,' 'well done,' 'good storytelling,' 'cool Jeeps,' 'worth $11.99,' and 'the zipper in my pants keeps breaking.' Because, Jesus, that's an expensive coaster.

"It's not mainstream so it works against me when I think about circulation, feedback, and profit. I like Batman and a few other mainstream things, but I'm tired of the rest. I'm not 15 anymore and those stories don't fool me. I don't care if it's called 'indie' or 'underground' or 'Bob got stabbed with a flute.' These are the stories that happen in real life and this genre's so huge that it will always feel untapped."

If you're still not sold on "Off Road" and want more reasons to pre-order it, Murphy provides two reasons, "Cool Jeeps and a great coaster."

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