On August 29, 2005, Hurricane 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, CBR News takes 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, we've spoken with Larry Smith and Jeff Newelt of Smith Magazine, the original publishers of "A.D.", about the project and the role that comics journalism plays at the website.
In his book "A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge," Josh Neufeld profiled New Orleans residents who were uprooted by the Katrina disaster. One of those people was Leo McGovern, the editor and publisher of "Antigravity," a local music magazine, and a lifelong comics fan. When McGovern and his then-fiance Michelle returned to their home three weeks after Katrina, he was able to save only a single comic book from his collection of thousands. Blogging about his experiences after the storm, McGovern attracted the notice of not just Josh Neufeld, but McGovern's story struck a nerve with people who wanted to do something small but tangible in the face of watching what was happening in New Orleans, and people donated comics to replace some of what Leo had lost.
"Each time I'd receive something in the mail it was a bright spot in all the gray of New Orleans I was seeing," McGovern told CBR.
As both the witness to Katrina and one of the subjects of "A.D.," McGovern spoke to CBR News about seeing himself portrayed in a comic book and his experiences of rebuilding four years after Katrina.
CBR: Having never interviewed a character in a book before, I'm uncertain how to begin. Could you start by introducing yourself for all the people who haven't yet read "A.D.?"
LEO MCGOVERN: Well, my name's Leo McGovern, I'm thirty-years old and married with two dogs. As for what I do, I think my wife would say "too much!" I publish a monthly music and culture newspaper in the New Orleans area called "Antigravity," I have a "day job" where I work with disabled people (I pick up three guys from their homes and do fun stuff, like go to the library or the movies, things like that), and I'm currently helping re-open the comic shop I frequented before the hurricane, Crescent City Comics. The "Antigravity" office will officially be in the comic shop and I'm looking forward to doing some outreach things with that, like selling comics at art markets, book fairs and whatnot.
I've been lucky enough to write a couple of comics features for "Filter" magazine, a Jeffrey Brown Q&A a few months ago, and a Berke Breathed piece that should be out soon. Oh, and I also organize and run a yearly media convention called The Alternative Media Expo, which is held at the New Orleans Contemporary Art Center and tries to bring together all kinds of artists, from 'zinesters to comics folk to crafters, photographers and musicians.
You have a distinction that very few comics fans can share, and that's seeing a comic book made about you and your experiences. What did you think of "A.D.?"
I love "A.D." for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it's getting the stories inside New Orleans to a wider audience, people who might not realize what really happened here in 2005, and that makes people wonder about what's happening now. For New Orleanians, who've really accepted the book and turned out in awesome numbers at the signings we did last weekend, I think it legitimizes to the media all our Katrina experiences. "A.D." and prose books like Dave Eggers' "Zeitoun" show that Katrina didn't just cause property damage that's easily rebuilt or paid for-it affected our lives and our psyches.
For people who didn't read "A.D." -- and I realize I'm spoiling this -- of your massive collection of comics, you saved one book: "Transmetropolitan" #1. How much did Spider Jerusalem influence your wanting to be a journalist and would you like to warn the kids how much less cool (and violent) being a journalist is in real life?
The cool drugs-and-violence aspect of Spider, while certainly entertaining, was never anything I aspired to-that just seems ludicrous. I was more influenced by how Spider wanted-needed-to tell the stories of the people who surrounded him. The issue where he bangs out the story of the Transients, or "Another Cold Morning," where he tells the story of Mary, who was cryogenically frozen, or (my favorite issue) "What Spider Watches on TV," where he watches TV all day and writes about it-that all resonated much more. The idea of writing about the people who surround you and the culture of media, that appeals to me.
It's hard for most of us to imagine what it's like to evacuate -- packing a bag and driving through the night like you did, knowing there's a chance your home might not be there when you return. You left less than 24 hours before the storm hit New Orleans and before the mandatory evacuation was ordered Sunday morning. What was it that made you leave and think this wasn't going to be another near-miss storm?
The idea of evacuating is part of what makes living in New Orleans unique. If you say to a New Orleanian, "Why do you live in a place that's always at risk of getting hit by a hurricane? Why don't you move up north or somewhere else?" A frequent answer is, "Well, at least we get a few days of notice when a hurricane's coming-the earthquakes just come." People around here are used to leaving at least once every couple of years-we call them "hurrications." I, for one, never like to leave. I just don't enjoy being away from home all that much. I'm comfortable here. I've been to San Diego a few times, Chicago a few times, San Francisco and New York a couple times-it stresses me out, man. I always thought people exaggerated when they'd say New Orleans was laid back, until I went to New York. I remember trying to cross the street near Times Square and seeing 500 people coming at me from the other side.
That said, if you have somewhere to go during even a small hurricane you want to leave. Being in New Orleans for a few days with no electricity (meaning no air conditioning!) and few businesses being open is no fun. So I wait until the last possible second to leave, which is what we did with Katrina and last year's storm, Gustav. With Katrina, it sidled up to us suddenly-really caught everyone by surprise-and all the talk by Mayor Nagin of it being "the One" freaked people out. I did do one thing I'd never done before when evacuating-I took pictures of the apartment, so something must've clued me in to that being the last time I'd see the place in one piece.
You and Michelle drove to Houston that night and you didn't return to New Orleans for about three weeks. What happened in those three weeks?
We went to Houston and stayed for a few days with Toby Craig, a friend of ours and a great comic artist. We met when he exhibited at The Alternative Media Expo and became friends through that and by doing ,Staple, the great Austin indie comics show that I consider a sister show to the AME. We then drove up to the St. Louis area, where we met up with my parents, who were staying with friends, before going to Memphis for a few hectic weeks, where we lived in a hotel until we could make it back to my parents' house.
The big question is why did you return to New Orleans? What does the city mean to you and why, in spite of everything, did you not consider moving or living somewhere else?
You know, I think anyone who knows me would say that I have two overwhelming qualities-stubbornness and loyalty. I said earlier that I don't like to be away from home, and I just can't imagine living anywhere else. It's important to note that the actual hurricane isn't what flooded the city-it was the failure of the levees to hold up that put the city under water. The fact that the levees were so poorly maintained and looking at the response to the city immediately after the storm-it made me want to succeed and rebuild in spite of it all, to spite it all, really. Of course, it helped that my parents' home, about ten minutes away from New Orleans, wasn't flooded. If Michelle and I couldn't have stayed there, I don't know what we'd have done.
After you wrote about what had happened and losing your entire comics collection, people mobilized and started sending you comics from their own collection. How did this happen?
While staying at my parents' house after we came back, I started blogging my experiences, both from during the storm and the aftermath. I think I was one of the first people, because we were back so quickly, to post before-and-after photos of belongings. Boing Boing picked up on my story and sent over 15,000 hits, after that Heidi MacDonald linked on her pre-Beat blog, and somewhere along the way the Comic Geek Speak guys heard about it, and mobilized. I hesitated to accept their offer at first-even though I'd lost all my comics, I still had a place to stay near New Orleans, which many, many people didn't. They kept at it, though, and I appreciate all of it. In the long run those comics meant (and still mean) a lot to me and each time I'd receive something in the mail it was a bright spot in all the gray of New Orleans I was seeing.
Are there any comics you're still looking for to replace what you lost?
Not really. The first books I re-bought were "La Perdida," Dylan Horrocks' "Atlas" series and some "Optic Nerve" collections. I was able to let go of a lot of the stuff I lost and chose to refocus on new books, only re-buying what I really enjoy re-reading from time to time, like the "Transmet" trades. I wasn't going to try and re-buy everything I had, because I could use that money to get new books! I did buy the oversized "Walking Dead" collection, even though it was $100-that's by far my favorite book out now, and it absolutely killed me that my "Walking Dead" #1 was lost. I was with that book from the beginning!
With the economy being bad, we keep hearing about people losing years of savings, but in the epilogue of "A.D.", where another character, Abbas, talks about losing three years of his life, it means something very different. What it's been like for you and Michelle? Where things stand with what you lost and where things stand now?
I could rattle on about this for a long time, but I'll try and keep it brief. Abbas has a great point, because I felt "Antigravity" was on a big upward swing in August 2005. We'd just opened our first office (in the local bar Handsome Willy's, which is still around!), we were planning a big Voodoo Music Experience issue (to cover the local rock music festival) and the magazine was just starting to pay for itself. After Katrina we had to start all over-our pre-K printer went out of business, a lot of our advertisers weren't in a place (or even open) to advertise, national bands were skipping over New Orleans because they thought the population wasn't big enough.
That stubborn streak I mentioned kicked in, though, and we were lucky to boot. Some people donated money, which helped us print our first post-K issue (which came out at the abbreviated Voodoo festival in late October 2005) and the businesses that were open were very receptive to us.
For me and Michelle, it's been a long process. A week before the hurricane, we'd just decided to get married after our engagement was on-and-off for a while, though we'd never broken up. Katrina had a way of amplifying both good and bad relationships and the focus we had on getting into a new apartment and making the wedding happen wound up postponing some of the soul-searching we both needed to do, where our relationship was concerned. We were married in July of 2006 (in a really awesome ceremony held at One Eyed Jacks, the rock music club we'd met at three years earlier), we broke up for a couple months late in 2007 and got back together in January 2008. Since then it's been a steady rise, and therapy's helped in ways I'd never imagined possible. We're really together now, though, and who knows-we might see a new little comics fan running around the house one day.
How did you come into contact with Josh Neufeld and what was it that made you and Michelle agree to be a part of his "A.D." project?
While I was doing all that writing immediately post-K, I came across Josh's LiveJournal, where he was blogging about his experiences with the Red Cross. He mentioned that he was taking a trip to New Orleans with someone who wanted to check on a house, and I offered to be a tour guide. We actually didn't meet at that time, because the new issue of "Antigravity" began to come together very quickly and I was on deadline. He'd read my blog, though, and he must've remembered it when he and Larry Smith began the work on "A.D."
As for why I agreed to be a part of the project, what fan of comics hasn't at some point fantasized about being a character in a comic? When Josh and [Smith Publisher] Larry [Smith] offered the chance to join up with "A.D.", I jumped at it and said I'd do whatever I could to help in the process.
You were the subject of a comic book, one written and drawn by an acclaimed cartoonist like Josh Neufeld. Any ambition for the next comics memoir about Leo McGovern, besides something much more upbeat and triumphant?
Ha! I think it'd be interesting if Josh did an "A.D." sequel in five years. I actually do have some ideas for comics, though not necessarily autobiographical. I have what I like to call my own "Too Much Coffee Man in Firesquito," a strip we run every month in "Antigravity." I'd love to tell a Spider-Man story. I know Joe Quesada's on CBR-give me a shot, Joe!
New Orleans has been the setting for a lot of comics stories over the years. Do you have a personal favorite character or story that you think really captures the city and its residents?
You know, the Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel/Photon/Pulsar) character's my favorite of the superheroes from here-she's not played over the top, she's not walking around saying, "chere!" all the time. She's played the same as any regular person, and that's closer to the way people are down here.
For people who read "A.D." or who just read this interview, what do you hope they come away with and what can they do to help in the rebuilding of New Orleans? Besides reading "Antigravity" magazine, of course.
Well, if they didn't know already, I hope they learn that everyone in New Orleans was affected by the flood, regardless of race or class. Everyone in New Orleans, and I truly mean everyone, has a Katrina story. One of the things that's great about "A.D." is the ending-or lack thereof. Recovery is a process that's been going on for four years and will continue for at least another four. But there's a lot of good going on in the city right now, the city's safe, and there's plenty to see and do if you travel here (and really, that's what the city needs, as the local economy is still largely built on tourism). We'll soon have four comic shops in the N.O. area, my Alternative Media Expo takes place in the first quarter of the year (with tons of comics folk like "Chew's" Rob Guillory and "Punks'" Kody Chamberlain exhibiting), and in April there's a convention called the NOLA Comic-Con, which drew over 500 people this year and has guys like John Dell and Derec Donovan as guests. So if you needed a comics-related excuse to come to New Orleans, I've just made it for you!
If you'd like to contribute to a fund benefiting New Orleans in some way, "A.D.'s" been raising money for Common Ground Relief ($1200 was raised just at the New York launch party), and the local Habitat for Humanity's always a safe bet.