Wheeler, Duin & Rosen Spill "Oil and Water"

The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 was both an epic natural disaster and the second disaster to hit the people of the Gulf Coast in the span of just a few years. A new book from Fantagraphics explores the toll the oil spill took on the residents of the Gulf Coast. Three Portland Oregon residents, Michael Rosen, newspaper columnist Steve Duin and "Too Much Coffee Man" cartoonist Shannon Wheeler visited the Gulf coast to bear witness to the oil spill.

The resulting book, "Oil and Water," features an introduction by noted writer and activist Bill McKibben and tells the story of the oil spill's aftermath from a very human perspective. Whether from the perspectives of Oregonians trying to understand or allowing Gulf residents to tell their own stories, the book puts a human face on this event and makes it clear that while the beaches were cleaned quickly, the effects will be felt for years to come. CBR News spoke with all three creators and Shannon Wheeler showed off work from his sketchbook in addition to an excerpt of the book.

CBR News: Michael, this book began with the trip you led to the Gulf Coast. To start, will you talk about your background and what you were hoping to accomplish with the trip?

Michael Rosen: My training and work experience is in environmental science and engineering and I work for the City of Portland in natural resource protection managing the Watershed Division. I work with environmental activists, scientists, educators and community organizers. As we watched the Gulf Coast spill go on and on, we were very concerned about the devastation it was causing not only to the environment but to the livelihoods of our neighbors to the south as well. We wanted to do something and we knew we would not be allowed to help with the cleanup. So we formed PDX 2 Gulf Coast and decided to "bear witness" to the spill. For us that meant observing, documenting and communicating what we saw in a nonjudgmental and compassionate way.

Our hope is to keep the long-term and complex issues that continue to result from this spill on the radar screen of our nation. We want to motivate citizens to take personal responsibility for the spill and ask what we as citizens can do to prevent this from happening again. Here's the mission statement we developed: "To build meaningful relationships in the Gulf Coast in order to tell informed stories of lives and systems impacted by the greatest environmental disaster in US history and to create tools that inspire choices for a more sustainable future."

At what stage was the idea of turning this trip into a book raised and what role did you play in trying to figure out what the book would be?

Rosen: Early on I knew I wanted to develop a variety of tools to reach as wide an audience as possible, in order to keep as much of a spotlight as possible on the spill and its impacts. I'm a big fan of comics and especially book length comics. I had recently read "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge" by Josh Neufeld and wanted to produce something along those lines. Neufield's book told the story of hurricane Katrina and its impact in a fresh way and presented stories that I hadn't heard or seen before. I wanted to reach an audience that reads comics and especially comics that have something important to say. I also wanted to tell this story and share what we witnessed through drawings and words. In addition to "Oil and Water," we also produced a 30-minute documentary, "Beyond the Spill" and an educational curriculum, "Just Below the Surface: Perspectives on the Gulf Coast Oil Spill."

Why is this a graphic novel and not, say, a prose book?

Rosen: Because comics tell important stories in fresh, compelling and artistic ways. When you look at some of the more recent book length comics (OK, graphic novels) like anything from Joe Sacco, or "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel, or Nate Powell's "Swallow Me Whole" you see the ability of comics to take on complex, difficult issues in fresh and powerful ways. Several books have already been written on the Gulf Coast spill but I believe "Oil and Water" will be much more accessible to the many people who would not likely read a prose book on this type of issue.

As the editor of the book, what was your role in putting it together and teaming Shannon and Steve?

Rosen: I've long admired Shannon's work in comics and Steve's writing for The Oregonian. Plus, I've read Steve's book, "Comics Between the Panels," and knew Steve was a collector, fan and regularly reviewed book length comics. Both Steve and Shannon lived in Portland and were interested (at least a little at first) in the project and were considering going along. So the circumstances were perfect for Steve and Shannon as a team. As far as the book, it's all Steve and Shannon aside from me reviewing and commenting on their plot ideas, editing drafts and trying to keep everything associated with the book organized and moving along (not to mention begging for the trip leader in the book to be drawn wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt). Once we had a preliminary outline and early pages, at Steve's urging, we pitched the story to Fantagraphics Books. They quickly picked us up and so off we went. And Fantagraphics has been awesome to work with.

Steve, Shannon, how did you first become involved in this project?

Steve Duin: Mike Rosen invited me to make the trip with the PDX2Gulf Coast Group because he believed the experience might inspire a graphic novel. I thought he was out of his mind.

Shannon Wheeler: I'd met Mike Rosen at a couple of comic book events -- specifically the San Diego Comic-Con and the "Too Much Coffee Man Opera." At one point we'd talked about doing some educational comic strips for various city projects. But it was out of the blue that he called and asked if I might be interested in going to the Gulf Coast as a cartoonist to help chronicle the trip. I was flattered, honored, overwhelmed and intimidated. At that point we didn't know what I would be doing except drawing a lot. We also didn't know what we would see. If the beaches would be drenched in oil or if we'd see families swimming in the surf.

Is "Oil and Water" a fictionalized version of the trip or is it straight documentary?

Duin: "Oil and Water" is a hybrid. I introduce readers to real people in the Gulf, including Brian Gainey, the 20-year-old crabber; Jack Jambon, the owner of Daddy's Money; and Catfish, the charismatic shrimp boat captain with the drug-running conviction. Most of their quotes are straight from my notebooks. Several elements in the narrative involving group members, however, are fictionalized.

One aspect that may surprise people is the book is very centered around people, which makes the disaster more abstract but also more personal. What was the thinking behind this and in what ways was it a challenge?

Duin: I approached this project as I usually approach my newspaper column: You have to personalize the tragedies, and celebrations, you're writing about. What's more, I was blown away by the characters we stumbled upon. Deano Bonano, the head of Homeland Security for Jefferson Parish, was indeed shark fishing on a semi-deserted beach. Brian Gainey? Four of us headed to Grand Bayou for a tour of the Atakapa-Ishak subsistence fishing village, only to discover that our guides had left without us. We were standing around like lost dogs when Gainey rolled up and began unloading his truck. I offered him $50 to take us out on the Bayou for an hour, and it was my best hour in Louisiana. An unbelievable voice. An incredible work ethic. An unexpected (for us) bit of luck. I was much more intrigued, in the end, by the spill's impact on Louisianans than its impact on Oregonians. Thus, I focused on the characters who would be living with the oil long after we were gone.

Wheeler: In many ways, we've gotten used to the visual shock of seeing an oil spill. The images of the environmental damage have an immediacy and are very emotional but what impacted us were the stories told by the people living there. The long term effects on a family that has to change the way they survive after three generations of fishing. It's a story that hasn't been as explored and has an emotional impact that we thought was important.

Steve, you spend your days as a columnist at the Oregonian newspaper but you've also written about comics. What challenges did you face writing a graphic novel and what it was like working with Shannon?

Duin: I've been a serious collector and reader of comics for more than 40 years, but I would never suggest I know what I'm doing when it comes to writing comics. Shannon and I had the adventures you might expect when you hand what amounts to a screenplay to a guy who makes a living off single-panel cartoons, but the collaboration had many benefits. While I wrote the "science panels," they're in the book because Shannon advocated for them. I was concerned they would interrupt the narrative.  Shannon was right; I was wrong.

Shannon, in recent years it seems you've been doing more work in collaboration with others. Is there a particular reason for that? What was the experience of working with Steve and Mike like?

Wheeler: I've had several projects that were in the wings for a long time, "Grandpa Won't Wake Up" and "God Is Disappointed in You." It's a coincidence that everything is coming out at the same time.

It was a stretch working with Steve and Mike. They pushed me hard to work beyond my comfort zone. I had to learn a lot, work hard, and work fast. Fortunately, I have a lot of respect for both Mike and Steve and they got me to do things that I didn't think I would be able to do. Working with them was amazing. It improved me as an artist. I couldn't ask for more. I'm very proud of our work.

Shannon, I know that you have a lot going on right now with a couple other books in the pipeline as well as a gallery show. Can you touch on those other projects briefly?

Wheeler: I think the trick to collaboration is to work with people who are smarter than yourself. It was true with "Oil and Water" and it's true with my other books too. Simon Max Hill wrote a book that made me laugh. It's offensive and wrong. But there are a lot of books that are offensive and wrong. Simon's writing is filled with genuine cleverness.

"God is Disappointed in You" is the Bible painfully researched to be accurate and meticulously edited to be brief and creatively rewritten to be funny. I was a fan of Mark's writing and I jumped at the chance to work with him.

My gallery show is 101 one-panel cartoons in a one-man show (and it's at 1111 SW Broadway in Portland, OR). I thought it would be an easy show because I've been drawing hundreds of cartoons to submit to the New Yorker and this is the best of the ones they didn't buy.

It's been a crazy, productive year. I've been lucky to work with great people.

In closing, what do you hope people take away from "Oil and Water?"

Rosen: Well, I hope they enjoy the story and then come away with a broader and more informed perspective on the magnitude and severity of the spill. We're not trying to preach, just give people an opportunity to share the personal connection we made in the Gulf and then ask themselves, "What do I want to do now." And whether it's learn more, consume less or read more comics, it all works for me.

"Oil and Water" is available in November from Fantagraphics.

Abrams' Spider-Man Comic Reveals a Tragic End for the Avengers

More in Comics