- Posted by Johanna on January 15, 2006 at 9:15 am
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Sean Murphy
- PUBLISHER: Oni Press; $11.95 US
Off Road is a near-perfect symbol of the alternate pressures young comic creators face today. It presents a traditional alternative/indy autobiographical approach using manga stylings and format. Ultimately, it succeeds at neither. It’s too wordy and introspective for action fans and too exaggerated for those looking for insightful real-life stories.
(That autobio approach is often described as “whiny” or “navel-gazing” by detractors. I admit, I’m not a fan of new comic creators writing stories about their lives when they’ve lived so little that they don’t have much material or perspective. At least the semi-auto-biographical incident presented here is innately visual.)
Trent has been dumped by his girlfriend because he’s not adventurous enough. He’s on his way home from art school to meet old friend Greg, whose father just bought him a new yellow Jeep. Egged on by the salesman, Trent wants to go off-roading, although Greg wants to keep his new toy clean for that night’s party with friends from high school. Trent’s real desire is to prove himself by demonstrating the qualities his ex-girlfriend thought he lacked, as well as to break the pattern of his life by doing something different and exceptional. (One might wonder whether this graphic novel itself serves a similar purpose for the artist.)
They pick up Brad, a macho friend of Greg’s whom they find beating up his dad for cheating on his mom, to complete the trio. The three often quote Mr. T to push each other into doing things that fit their idealized view of masculinity, one based on experiences they’ll never know. They’re young white guys idealizing a large black man they’ve only seen on TV. As expected, they get in trouble, which forces a breakdown of all the social and friendship barriers between them and drives confrontations with the abusive father and another ex-girlfriend of Trent’s. There’s also a plot twist driven by unfortunate stereotypes of stupid hick rednecks engaging in incest and drunkenness.
The art style is traditional — the page is structured in squares and rectangles, strongly separated from each other with wide gutters. The figures remind me of a more detailed Andi Watson or Jimmie Robinson. (Trent’s square chin could serve as a snow shovel.) Murphy seems to have simplified his work, but he still hasn’t gotten down to just the essentials, leaving in some construction lines and getting scratchy around the edges. The exaggerated expressions and gestures also remind me of manga; they’re one step beyond the realistic.
At times, the books looks like a Jeep commercial, appealing to the male who loves the idea of trampling on nature to demonstrate his manhood. That the narration elaborates on the stupidity of this idea doesn’t negate it; it’s like the comic that “parodies” objectified women by drawing a lot of them. By the end, off-roading has been validated as doing just what the ads promise: helping Trent become a man.
The use of coincidence and stereotype (especially when it comes to the one-dimensional female characters) is too convenient, and I didn’t buy Trent’s transformation into a sort of action hero. That what he selfishly needed to fix things wound up saving the day was also unbelievable. It’s all in keeping with the overall action movie approach — this graphic novel works best when viewed as the storyboard for a Hollywood summer release aimed at teen boys.
If you’d like to see for yourself, there’s a 50-page preview available.