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Off Road is the first graphic novel by Sean Murphy from back in 2005. IDW, sensing somehow that Murphy was a hot artist (I wonder how they sussed that out?) has republished it in all its black and white glory. It’s a handy $17.99, and it’s totally worth it just for the art. Murphy, you may know, is pretty danged awesome.
Murphy’s story isn’t bad, but it’s really not the main focus of the book. Three old high school friends – Trent, Greg, and Brad – reunite when Trent returns to his home town and decide to go off-roading before a big party that night. Things get hairy in the wild. Each character is dealing with stuff, although Trent, as the main character, gets the most screen time. Trent is a struggling artist whose girlfriend dumps him in the first few pages, causing his flight back to his home town. He’s very good friends with Greg, who’s a bit spoiled because his father is rich (not too obnoxiously, though – just a bit). It’s his jeep – a gift from his father – that the guys take into the forest. Brad is not really Trent’s friend – he’s more Greg’s friend – and so he and Trent don’t get along too great, although Brad is much more of a good guy than the other two – he fights his own father when his dad cheats on his mom, and he tells Trent hard truths that he needs to hear. Of course, by the end of the book, they’ve bonded over their experience in the wild, but Murphy does it nicely, taking his time and not forcing anything on the trio.
Trent’s biggest problem is with women – he can’t get over his first crush and he allows himself to be pushed around by his girlfriends. This is very much a Boys’ Own Story; there are basically two women in the book – Trent’s girlfriend, Kelley, who dumps him at the beginning of the comic and may or may not have been cheating on him; and Leona, the crush, who took advantage of Trent through high school by using his crush to get him to do all sorts of things for her and who shows up late in the book with her new boyfriend, whom she also treats like dirt. It’s not really that Murphy writes these women poorly or that the book is anti-woman – despite their bitchiness, Trent deserves a lot of it, and they’re both pretty much right when they talk about him – but Off Road isn’t about women, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a book about three guys who have lost their way a bit and need to figure out what the hell they’re doing with their lives. Then, maybe, someone like Trent can have a better relationship with a woman.
When Greg gets his jeep, the salesman tries to convince him to take it off-road, but Greg is hesitant because he doesn’t want to mess up its bright yellow exterior before the party they plan to attend that night (a party thrown by Leona, something Trent finds out about later). Trent and Brad manage to convince him to go into the woods, and the three of them are off. Murphy does a nice job establishing the friendships between these three young men – the dialogue is naturalistic and silly and even a bit meaningless, just like the dialogue between three old friends would be. They crack jokes about each other’s moms, they insult each other, they quote Mr. T (Greg likes Mr. T), they talk around important subjects, and as they go deeper into the forest, they become more and more convinced of their own invincibility. Of course, this doesn’t last – they end up stuck in a swamp, which is when the book becomes increasingly bizarre. As they try to get out, they encounter Brad’s father, who is at a trailer park grilling some food; redneck ATVers with fireworks; and Leona and her boyfriend. They are absolutely unable to get out of the swamp, and then things get downright dangerous. Of course, they do eventually get out, and they are changed for the better by the experience … or are they? What’s kind of neat about the ending of the book is that even though Murphy wants us to believe the young men have changed, you could make the case that they’re as adolescent as ever, just in a bit more positive way. It’s a fairly subtle ending, even if it doesn’t appear to be.
The big draw of the book, however, is Murphy’s art. Even though it’s a bit more raw than his recent work, it’s still staggeringly good. Murphy has a wonderful cartoony style that blends exaggeration with realism, so that he is able to draw gorgeous backgrounds and solid objects like the jeep but still allow his characters to show a myriad number of facial expressions that are not quite possible in the “real” world. His characters are all varied physically – Trent is a skinny dude, Greg is fit as we might expect, Brad is a big lug, Kelley is a cute hipster, Leona is a more curvy young lady, Walter (Leona’s boyfriend) is a preppy, Brad’s dad is an older and more chewed-up version of his son. Murphy is fantastic as well at taking the off-roading aspects and ramping them up just a bit to make it slightly ridiculous but still cool – when Greg drives the jeep quickly through the forest, for instance, it flies down a cliff that would immediately destroy it, but of course doesn’t. We see this all the time in action movies, when car chases feature utterly ridiculous feats of physics-defying stunts, but because of Murphy’s slightly askew worldview, it feels more “realistic” than seeing actual cars zipping through actual streets and doing impossible things. Murphy also does wonderful things with point of view – many panels show the guys’ situation from interesting angles, and while they’re not difficult to figure out, they do force the reader to slow down and really look at the art, so that we appreciate the craft that went into it.
Murphy does some nice work with shading, as well. Early on, there’s a basic black-and-white inking, but when Brad comes out of his house fighting his father, Murphy changes the look a bit. Brad tells his father to leave, and we get a panel of just his dad’s face, as he’s contemplating continuing the fight. Murphy shades it beautifully, throwing darkness over his eyes to hide the tempest inside him. It’s the first major example of his shading, but it’s not the last – there’s a full-page drawing of Trent thinking about Leona and how she “inspired” him to become an artist (by rejecting him so much), and the shading is wonderful, putting Trent into a bit of shadow while Leona looms behind him, an unattainable muse. Murphy does this quite often in the comic, and it adds a nice extra dimension that perhaps even color could not bring to the work. Murphy’s attention to detail, which is so evident in Joe the Barbarian, for instance, is on beautiful display here as well.
Off Road is a fun adventure that isn’t quite a coming-of-age story but is more of a story about friends reconnecting. Murphy doesn’t aspire to much more, and that’s fine, because he tells the story well. Mostly, this is worth your time for Murphy’s wonderful artwork, which has only gotten better in the intervening years but is really good in this book, as well. Do yourself a favor and give it a look!
Our Dread Lord and Master really likes Murphy as well, as he’s been pimping him for a long time – as far back as 2005, while Skottie Young likes him too. You can trust Skottie Young and the Great Cronin!
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