"A.D.'s" Josh Neufeld on New Orleans After Katrina

On August 29, 2005, Hurrican Katrina made landfall in Louisiana. Looking back, what we remember best about the storm are the stories of individuals. The horrors they witnessed. The strength they found within themselves. The acts of heroism that saved lives. The community that pulled through such a disaster.

This weekend we take time to remember what happened four years ago and the rebuilding that continues to this day. In addition to Josh Neufeld, whose new book "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge" has been receiving praise and attention since before its release last week, CBR News will be talking with Leo McGovern, a New Orleans resident, lifelong comics fan, and one of the subjects of "A.D." Later, we'll also be talking with Larry Smith and Jeff Newelt of Smith Magazine, the original publishers of "A.D.," to talk about the project, their upcoming work with Harvey Pekar, and the role that comics journalism plays at the magazine.

Josh Neufeld has been a longtime artist on Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor" series and is one of the founders of ACT-I-VATE, the online comics collective, but remains perhaps best known for his independent comics series "The Vagabonds" from Alternative Comics, and the Ignatz Award-nominated "Keyhole" that he collaborated on with Dean Haspiel ("Billy Dogma," "The Alcoholic"). Neufeld also received a Xeric Award for his book "A Few Perfect Hours (and Other Stories From Southeast Asia and Central Europe)."

Pantheon has just released Neufeld's latest book, "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge." The comic originally appeared on Smith Magazine, tracking the real life experience of multiple New Orleans residents before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. Neufeld, who volunteered with the Red Cross in Mississippi during the hurricane's aftermath, was uniquely placed to tell a nonfiction account of the storm and took time to talk about the book, the individuals whose stories he told in it, and his career as a nonfiction cartoonist.

CBR: "A.D.," that Biblical dividing line making it clear that what came before will be different from what goes on after. The title is appropriate on many levels. Who came up with it?

JOSH NEUFELD: I give credit for the title to Larry Smith, the editor at Smith Magazine, where the comic originated. I think it was very late in the process, a couple weeks before the first chapter went up. I had come up with a bunch of song lyrics referring to floods and different bad ideas. We were going back and forth and not really coming up with anything. There was a famous French poem "Apres le deluge." Larry said, What about "A.D." for "After the Deluge?" One of us came up with the subtitle "New Orleans After the Deluge." The biblical gravitas of that seemed really right for what I was planning on doing with the comic.

You worked as a Red Cross volunteer in Mississippi after the storm. You obviously didn't spend weeks working there with the intention of collecting material for a book. How did you go from having that experience to writing and drawing "A.D." years later?

They are really very different parts of myself. When I responded to the hurricane, seeing the people abandoned by the government, trapped on their rooftops and stranded at the convention center and the Superdome without food or water in desperate situations, I was so moved by that that I ended up volunteering with the Red Cross in New York and then getting trained as a disaster response worker. At no point was I thinking of doing a comic about it. I even went through a period where I questioned what the utility of being an artist was and maybe what I was meant to do was be a relief worker and go around the world working for organizations like the Red Cross.

I guess over time, my calling as an artist took over again. That's what I've been doing for so long and I'm not at a stage of my life where I can just go off and join the Peace Corps anymore. I came back to reality about who I was about six months after the hurricane and started thinking about taking my experiences and figuring out if there was a way I could make them into a comic.

One thing I did do while I was volunteering was blog about my experiences. Every day after all these intense hours of work at the Red Cross, one way I blew off steam was to write about what was going on down there. I ended up having a really great experience with that blog because a lot of people were commenting on it and it was getting mentioned and posted on various communities. Other Red Cross volunteers started responding and people who lived down in the affected areas were responding. It became this conversation and I commemorated it when I came back by typing it all up and self-publishing a little book that I distributed for free to all the people who had been in the blog.

That book got mentioned in the USA Today blog and made the rounds a little bit and it came into the hands of Jeff Newelt, the comics editor at Smith Magazine, who then passed it onto Larry Smith. It was at that point that Smith was ending the run of "Shooting War," which had gotten really good press and was very popular and got turned into a book. Larry was looking around to see what the next comic or online graphic novel was going to be and he already had in mind doing something about Katrina. It was sort of a perfect moment, because I had already had a reputation such as it was of doing nonfiction comics and I had had this personal experience with Hurricane Katrina.

Smith had just ended the serialization of "Shooting War," which had been very successful and unlike the rest of the magazine's content, was fictional. Your background is in nonfiction comics, from "American Splendor" to "A Few Perfect Hours." Was there any conversation early on about making "A.D." anything other than straight nonfiction?

I never even considered doing anything fictional. First of all, that's just not where my skills lie. Second, it just seemed to make total sense that this is the kind of comics I do and that's the kind of comics I promote. I believe very strongly in that as an element of our field. Some of my biggest heroes in comics are nonfiction cartoonists like Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar and Art Spiegelman. For me it was a no-brainer. And I don't believe that Larry ever thought about doing any kind of fictional treatment either. It was just too important a real event to take advantage of it and use it as a backdrop for some fictional story.

What was the biggest challenge in setting the boundaries of what this story was? It's one thing to say that you want to make a comic about the experience of Hurricane Katrina, but how did you envision what "A.D." eventually became?

At the beginning I was stuck on the idea that if I'm going to be the guy doing this story then it should be related to what my experiences were. So initially I thinking about doing the stories of some of the people I met in Biloxi. Some of the people I met there had incredible survival stories and stories of being washed right out of their homes and being rescued by neighbors and rescuing dogs that were floating by and just crazy stuff. Then I thought of doing a combination of profiles of people from Biloxi and Red Cross workers and maybe someone from New Orleans.

Larry wanted to focus on New Orleans itself because he felt that going forward, people will associate hurricane Katrina with New Orleans and what happened to the city of New Orleans historically and culturally, that's where the story should be based. Once we came to that agreement it was a matter of us putting our heads together and reaching out to everybody we knew. We both have a lot of friends in the journalism community, especially Larry, and we wanted to do a cross section of the population there; to touch on as many different experiences and express as many different voices as possible. We weren't so crass as to say we needed to have two black characters and a gay guy, but we wanted to have a real cross section of the population.

Beyond their backgrounds, what you managed to do was find a cross section of experiences of the storm. People who left the city and who didn't. The very different stories of people trapped in the flooded city. How do go about interviewing people and finding these individuals willing to let you into their lives like your subjects clearly did?

There were a couple people I knew from the beginning were going to be in there, like Leo and Michelle. Leo was someone I had already been in touch with from my earlier blogging book. I had learned his story about how he had lost his entire comics collection in the storm and, when he came back and started rebuilding his life, how the comics community had rallied around him and people started sending him comics through the mail. I found that such a powerful and touching story. It just said so many things about the hurricane and the experience of loss but also about how people have such compassion and can help somebody when he needs it. That was a story that was symbolic of so many other stories of after Katrina that I knew he was going to be in there.

Denise, the woman trapped at the Convention Center. I had heard her story on a radio show and her experiences and what she had to say about the way the media had represented that Convention Center episode and her contrasting that with what she saw was to me really important to tell that story.

The other story that I was really compelled to get was Abbas', his story of being in the store and almost being flooded out and getting out at the last minute. He's the relative of a friend of mine, she told me about him and what a character he is, this partying Iranian family man who's a Tae Kwon Do expert who owns a supermarket and loves football. He's just a great character. I just identified with him and the misadventures that went on with him. I almost think of him and Darnell as, in a sense, the comic relief of the book even though it's not laugh-out-loud funny. There's just something funny about they keep getting in worse and worse scrapes. They think the end's right around the corner and everything's going to be fine. I love to have a pair of buddies in a story to play off each other.

I came across The Doctor from a friend of mine who's a writer who used to live in New Orleans. He associates with Galatoires restaurant, which is a really famous restaurant down in New Orleans. We knew we needed a young person and maybe someone involved with the religious community and I just happened to be reading the alumni magazine of my alma mater and I read about Kwame. He went to Oberlin, where I went. He's seventeen and his story is so emblematic of this diaspora of people who sort of still have not been able to return to their city.

The story of Hurricane Katrina and especially the aftermath of the storm is a very political story, but you really went out of your way to keep politics and your own editorializing out of"A.D." Politics enter the story largely because of Denise and what she witnessed that contradicts the "official story" that was presented at the time. What was the challenge of being as neutral as possible in a story that it's almost impossible to be neutral towards?

The whole reason I chose Denise was to address a political question. At the same time, I very much resent when I feel like I'm being lectured to in art and told what to think or that this side is right and this side is wrong. I prefer to draw my own conclusions based on my own inclinations and beliefs. It was a balance. On the one hand, I had her story in there specifically because I was trying to bring this topic up and let people experience it for themselves and see what they thought of this. On the other hand, I never wanted to editorialize. At one point I was talking to Larry about having a frozen moment thing where we were going to show all these different things outside New Orleans the day the flooding happened. Show George Bush at this military base in San Diego where he went on stage with a country star who was playing guitar while people were drowning in the streets. Michael Brown, the FEMA director, sitting at his computer typing emails about how his suit looked and whether someone would babysit his dogs. Things like that. I thought in the end that that would cheapen the book. I didn't want to inject that kind of editorializing.

It's hard to imagine any editorializing that could match what Denise witnessed. I remember hearing her on "This American Life," where she was talking about what went on at the Convention Center. The main section of "A.D." ends with Denise at the Convention Center. People had been there for days without help, people who tried to walk out of the city were told to turn back, at gunpoint, by the Gretna sheriffs and Denise said, "They are trying to kill us all." Was that always the ending?

She was such an amazing witness for me and a resource. She had so many experiences. There were things that were even more just horrifying that she told me about that I didn't put in the book because I felt that I had reached a saturation point with the reader where if I went any further it would just become too much for anyone to take and would start to become laughable. I felt again like I had to strike a balance. I don't know. Maybe it was just a chronological thing, the point that I stopped the minute-by-minute narration, that's right where it ended. I can't tell you why I made that choice. It just made sense. I write from an emotional rather than a strategic place.

Let's talk about your influences. You mentioned Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman earlier, but I wanted to ask about Harvey Pekar. You've worked with him on "American Splendor" for years. Does the way he works and his approach influence your work in nonfiction, and more specifically in "A.D.?"

I've been working with him for 15 years. I'm really indebted to Pekar from a writing point of view, in the understated way he goes about telling his stories. I don't know if it's purposeful or whether it's just the way that he writes, but he's always structured his stories in a very uncharacteristic way. They don't tend to follow the "epiphanic moment" way of writing. He really underplays drama and sentimentality and really just lets quiet moments speak and doesn't force drama onto a story. I think that's a lesson that I definitely imbibed over the years of trying to illustrate his stories. To illustrate someone else's work you need to really get into their mind and further what they're trying to do rather than to force your own aesthetics onto it. That's a big inspiration for me.

Purely on a technical level, most of my previous work had always been very narration-heavy and I used a lot of dialogue captions and narrative captions to move the action forward. One thing I knew I wanted to do with this story, from the beginning, was to really avoid narrative captions as much as possible and just tell the story through action and dialogue, and of course the events of Katrina made that really easy because so much was happening second to second. In the epilogue section, I had the characters speaking for themselves and narrating a lot of later events that take place with lots of gaps in time so I had to use their voices to bridge those things.

The other influence I wanted to ask about is the artist Martha Rosler, who many people may not be aware, is your mother. She's a very socially conscious and politically conscious artist. She's done a lot of work involving the interplay between image and text. Are you aware of an influence on your own work?

It's a combination of growing up in my mom's household and being very socially aware and socially active and politically active. She is a believer that the personal is the political and there's no way to differentiate those. Whatever way that you live and how you interact with the world is itself a political act and the point is to always be aware of that. Going to Oberlin College in the 1980s during the height of the political correctness movement and identity politics furthered my education and belief in being politically engaged. Certainly, my mom is a very big influence on me because she created my values system. I can't even remember when I didn't have these beliefs because it's always part of the way I was brought up and thought about the world. She gets tremendous, enormous credit, if there is credit to be given. It's not like I set out specifically to emulate what she does because our work is just so completely different. We work in such different fields and for such different audiences. But yeah, there's no doubt that I am the progeny of Martha Rosler.

A lot of people read "A.D." online at Smith and will be tempted to buy the book if only for the handsome package that it is, and there's an epilogue tracing what's happened to people since the storm, but other than that, how much new material is there in the book?

There's about twenty-five percent more story in the book. The epilogue section especially. I'm really happy that Pantheon and Smith have agreed to keep the webcomic up in perpetuity because if you read it that way there are a lot of bell and whistles attached to that experience; there's links that lead you to internet resources or videos or audio clips and all sorts of ways to expand your experience of "A.D."

The book is revised. There's new artwork and new stories and it's packaged in a different way. The experience of reading it is, I think, much more pleasurable. I'm an old fashioned guy in the sense that I still have trouble reading comics on the internet. The way I formatted the book is much more like a traditional comic book with different size panels and two-page spreads. It's a beautiful package. It's on great paper and put out by Pantheon. It's a good object.

Online, "A.D." had links to news reports and eyewitness accounts and other resources and really utilized the web in a way that few webcomics have. What did you think, as someone who's been creating nonfiction comics for years, of this and can you see yourself doing this again?

I think it was done so well and I enjoyed the experience. I thought that the way that you page through the comic and the links and how there was a blog right there at your fingertips was really innovative. It worked really fluidly. If the subject matter was right, I would love to do something like that again. It seems to me that everybody should start doing their comics on certain topics that way. Nonfiction works especially well. The experience of doing a comic online and having that instant feedback and the crowd sourcing fact-checking is really rewarding. As a cartoonist used to working at his lonely drawing table and not having anyone look at what I've been doing for months or years at a time, it's just a joy to get that.

Your next book has already been announced. You're drawing a book that the NPR host Brooke Gladstone has written about the media. What can you tell us about it?

She's the co-host of "On the Media" and she's really, really great. I've been a listener of her show for a number of years. She had this idea for doing a book about the history and influence of media in a comic book format, on the model of Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics." She'd been working on various ideas for how to develop it but hadn't been able to find an artist she was happy with. She was given my name by the editorial director at Pantheon and she called me up out of the blue right as I was close to finishing the production work for "A.D."

I got a call from this person who I admired and was a fan of and she said, I'm doing this book, would you like to talk about it? We met and she showed me what she had in mind and I showed her some of my stuff and we really hit it off. So we're going to be doing this book for W.W. Norton called "The Influencing Machine," at least that's its tentative title. It's supposed to come out at the end of next year. I think it's going to be really cool and very different from "A.D." I didn't want to do another project right after this of another major calamity or disaster, so I think it's a great side-project to do and I love collaborations. I think it's going to be weird in good way.

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