Paddling Penobscot River from Bangor to Brooklin

Maine comic artist explores ‘gallows humor’ and the poisoning of the natural world

Thu, 10/24/2019 - 2:00pm

    Gabby Schulz lives deep in the woods of Maine—it’s as far away from the city he can get.

    As one of 10 participants on the floating artist residency in my story, Ten artists, two canoes and ten days down The Penobscot River, Schultz’s particular brand of artwork struck me. I thought I’d see photographs, poems, and sculptures at the artists’ reception (and I did, all good) but I didn’t expect to see hand-drawn comics with a biting tone.

    Here’s an older comic, titled The only thing I know, that provides a window into Schultz’s mindset. 

    “I drew that comic while I was a working stiff in Chicago for a couple years,” he said. “Chicago is a really big city with a truly antagonistic stance toward nature or beauty of any kind. Every weekend I'd go mushroom hunting, which meant I had to ride my bike five miles to the center of the Loop, then catch a commuter rail an hour out of town, as far out into the suburbs as I could get, then bike another half an hour to the nearest green area on the map. It was hilarious to me that it took this much effort just to see grass without Roundup on it, but it was the only joy I could find out of life there. After a couple years of this ritual I did some research, and I learned the reason this one natural area hadn't been built up like the rest of Illinois was because it was the (unmarked) dumping ground for the world's first nuclear reactor. I guess this story is supposed to illustrate how desperate I was during this time to get to a place with trees instead of buildings, or plants instead of people, and how that must mean it's pretty important for humans to be outside of cities. But also it’s so fascinating and sad how hard it is to describe something so essential in any meaningful or articulate way.”

    Part of his bio gives a clue into his rationale. “I've embraced ‘gallows humor,’ a lifelong friend of comics, as the only sane response to the forces hurrying our own kaleidoscopic collapse, and I see absurdity as one of our few remaining pathways to beauty and joy.”

    “At this point it seems pretty self-evident that the world as we know it is dying, fast, and this can make an artist a little philosophical about what concepts like ‘obligation’ or ‘engagement’ or ‘posterity’ might really mean anymore,” he explained. 

    He applied for and secured a spot on the Village Canoe in August, an experience, he said that took him out of the woods and into a communal experiment with strangers, which is not always a comfortable prospect when one works alone.

    “Overall it was just what I expected—a lot of paddling, some good nature communion, a little chaos, and some wonderful bonding with strangers,” he said. “The communal experience was definitely the highlight of the trip, as the group was such a great combination of different people with different focuses and interests and personalities — and yet, no one was pretentious or overbearing or unavailable or boring. We all gelled really nicely, and from what I hear that's a bit rare with a bunch of artists.

    “I was very curious to find out how other artists might be processing our changing relationship with the natural world, but I'm not sure anyone knows what to do now. With the fresh awareness of the Sixth Extinction hanging over us, communing with nature suddenly feels fleeting, unreal. Any inspiration I can draw from wilderness now feels more like finding ways to say goodbye -- to the ocean, animals or plants soon to be altered forever by climate change. It makes one feel obligated to document this very special moment in our history — likely a final chapter, as I see it — but that's also a hell of a thankless job. You have to laugh to keep from crying, and luckily that's a talent cartoonists have honed for generations now.”

    Out of his 10-day paddling and camping experience, Schultz created three comics for the final artists’ show; one titled Biolumes, one titled Time Capsule and one, untitled featuring a hug.

    “I guess the Biolumes one is pretty self-explanatory, but the Time Capsule comic was just a statement of despair on everything,” he said. “You have a wonderful trip camping on some islands, but really, how is it contributing to stemming the tide of doom? Even with our minimal impact, how can we hope to ally ourselves with the natural world instead of further poisoning it? Looking at our efforts with a wide lens, it all just feels so hopeless, and decades from now our consumptions and comforts will probably seem criminally dumb, and all our big plans to save the world is just so much comically impotent hubris. Ironically, I feel like if more people were willing to see ourselves in this way, maybe meaningful change could happen. But while holding my breath waiting for that to happen, maybe it's all i can do to at least try to make us laugh at ourselves a little.”

    For more information about Schultz’s work visit: and for more information about the project

    Kay Stephens can be reached at