Smith Magazine on Katrina & Harvey Pekar

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'll be talking with Leo McGovern, a New Orleans resident, lifelong comics fan, and one of the subjects of "A.D." CBR will also talk with Larry Smith and Jeff Newelt of Smith Magazine, the original publishers of "A.D.," about the project, their upcoming work with Harvey Pekar, and the role that comics journalism plays at the magazine.

Larry Smith is a longtime magazine editor who worked for Mens Journal, ESPN Magazine and many others before founding Smith Magazine in 2006. The online magazine was founded to celebrate personal storytelling in all forms and quickly came to include comics. Jeff Newelt was working in public relations before becoming Comics Editor at Smith, Comic Editor at Heeb magazine, and Minister of Hype for ACT-I-VATE. The magazine's first comic was "Shooting War" by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman, and has included other projects including "Next Door Neighbor," "Graphic Therapy" and "My Home Birth."

Josh Neufeld's "A.D.," which was serialized on the site beginning in 2007, has just been published in an expanded edition by Pantheon. This week sees the debut of Smith's newest comic, "The Pekar Project," written by comics legend Harvey Pekar.

CBR spoke with Larry Smith and Jeff Newelt about their approach to comics on the Smith site, the process of putting "A.D." together, and working with Harvey Pekar on their next webcomic.

CBR: Larry, you worked in magazines for years before founding Smith, which ran for a while before you ever ran a comic. The first comic that you ran on the site was "Shooting War" by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman, which was successful and turned into a book and got a lot of press, but why was the first comic you ran a work of fiction?

LARRY SMITH: It's a good question and we haven't done anything else fiction since then, comics or otherwise. I launched Smith in January 2006 as a place for storytelling in many shapes and forms. Words, images, blogs, video. Mainly words. To this day it's mainly words, but the idea was to grow into this multimedia platform around personal passionate nonfiction storytelling. From what I call the chicken's-eye view, the chicken looks up at the world from the ground to make sense of it, as opposed to the hawk, which sees from above. That was the mission and I wasn't saying we should do webcomics. I heard about "Shooting War" from Jeff Newelt. He said, "You know Anthony Lappe, he has this great idea, what if it was a comic on Smith?" I read a three-page treatment and it was dynamite I said I'd love to have this on Smith though it is fiction and really not our core mission, it's so good and relevant to so many things that I broke a rule and said let's do it.

I loved the way it worked. I wasn't a comics geek back then, I'm still not, but I love the way it can tell a story and the things it can do. I thought the next one should be on-mission. We'll serialize the comic but now do exactly what we do, nonfiction personal storytelling. The themes that were most interesting to me at that moment, this is late 2006, were New Orleans and the environment. I thought New Orleans might be forgotten about a little bit. By serializing on Smith we could keep it in public consciousness a little bit, to the extent that the public knows about Smith.

I met Josh Neufeld, who was perfect. He was a comics artist who'd done work for "American Splendor," which is inspirational to what we do at Smith. He'd volunteered for the Red Cross and written about it, but he'd never illustrated anything. He lived in Brooklyn where I live. Again, Jeff Newelt knew I wanted to do something with New Orleans and he saw all these pieces and that's why he's a great comics editor because he's so good at putting people together.

Jeff, Larry told you he wanted to do a nonfiction comic about New Orleans or the environment. As Smith's Comics Editor, how did you end up working with Josh Neufeld on "A.D.?"

JEFF NEWELT: Dan Goldman, the artist of "Shooting War," was also a member of ACT-I-VATE, the webcomics collective. About the same time that "Shooting War" launched, through Dan I met Dean Haspiel and I really, really, really dug what they were doing. I started supporting what they were doing and they basically asked me to become the fifth Beatle, so to speak, of ACT-I-VATE and become the Minister of Hype. Josh Neufeld was a member of ACT-I-VATE. At the time that Larry started talking about topics for the next webcomic, I knew that Josh had "Katrina Came Calling," his livejournal diary of his time as a volunteer in Biloxi. At that moment I knew that Josh Neufeld had to do a comic on Katrina for Smith.

Larry, it's one thing for Jeff to tell you that Josh is the guy who should make a comic about Katrina, but what made you know that he was the guy and what do you say to him to bring him onboard?

SMITH: When I first sat down with Josh, I said here's the deal, you're going to work your butt off on this comic. We're going to do this on Smith, get it some press and get some eyeballs and then we're going to get you a book deal. You're basically going to do it for Smith for next to nothing, if you think about an hourly rate it's disastrous, but you're going to do it for the dream. The dream is to do great work, to get some attention, to get a book deal. And it worked. We got a great deal from Pantheon and blurbs from Dave Eggers and Cornel West and Dan Baum. It's an amazing thing for Josh. Along with Spike Lee's "When the Leevees Broke," Dan Baum's book "Nine Lives," Dave Eggers' book "Zeitoun," I think "A.D." will be part of the Katrina canon in years to come when people think about how did we tell this story of the greatest natural disaster of our lifetime. I'm so proud of the work Josh did and what we did to support the work.

As Josh's editor, what was your role in putting "A.D." out and putting something like this together?

SMITH: We went down to New Orleans together to do interviews. We found the people together. He sent me scripts and I made comments and brought up things like, you should double check that quote with someone. Classic editorial stuff. I had a few comments when I saw some the art but mostly it's pretty much as Josh did it. We had a good relationship but most of the work and the most valuable was in the beginning. Then it was, stick with it, man, it's all going to be worth it.

I had this idea of doing a Katrina comic from a personal point of view. From there it was Josh's baby. I tried to be helpful and be an editor but you don't micromanage Josh. Mainly I was like, dude, draw faster. [laughs] The web is about speed. It's helpful for getting people excited to not have to wait too long between chapters. It takes a couple years to make sense of it but also to do the work. What Spike Lee did so quickly was almost unbelievable, but he has a bigger budget, but some of these great books that are coming out now, it takes a while.

Larry, you mentioned the recent books by Dan Baum and Dave Eggers, which, like "A.D.", really try to understand the experience of everyday people confronting this disaster. As a journalist who's been doing this for a while, do you find it surprising that so much of the coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath takes the form of personal narratives?

SMITH: I came from traditional magazines, Mens Journal, ESPN, and the reason I started Smith Magazine in 2006 was because the stuff that had the most impact of what I read, edited and wrote was the personal stuff. After 9/11, people were reading the Portraits of Grief. That was the best way we told the 9/11 story. Not about Al-Qaeda or Bush or the rebuilding of the towers. That was what inspired me. The reviews of "A.D." and "Zeitoun" say that Josh and Dave Eggers haven't needed to be overtly political. They just told the story and let it unfold and you can make your own political judgments and get angry, as well you should, but they didn't need to be a polemic against the Bush administration. It's not necessary.

Let's change topics and talk about the other long-running Smith strip, which wrapped up this summer. "Next Door Neighbor" was written and illustrated by a lot of great, high profile talents, but the series of nonfiction vignettes felt much more in the vein of other ongoing projects you have on the site like "Six Word Memoir," as opposed to "Shooting War" or "A.D." Was this something you were intentionally seeking to do?

SMITH: "Next Door Neighbor" is actually pretty colossal. The ideas aren't as big, it's not New Orleans, but you have 29 different writers and artists. Dean Haspiel, who runs ACT-I-VATE, came to me and said, "I have a project, true neighbor stories from regular people." He wanted to do a series with different writers and artists. We brought our community in and had a contest, "What's Your Next Door Neighbor Story?" We said tell us a story in 400 words or less and we're going to pick a winner and that will be one of the comics. This woman, Michele Carlo, won and she was paired with Rick Parker and they made "Night of the Black Chrysanthemum." It's really cool. The idea isn't as big but actually it's pretty huge.

NEWELT: It's more of a slow burn. There's a lot of little beautiful charming strange stories, but it's not the Iraq war or Katrina. It's not an Earth-shattering news topic, it's just a bunch of great, wonderful stories. Dean Haspiel was absolutely influenced by Harvey Pekar. Harvey actually did a next door neighbor story for us. My idea was pairing Harvey Pekar with Rick Veitch and they both loved that idea and it turned out a fabulous little next door neighbor story. I claimed dibs on buying the original art on that. Harvey liked that and it got some good buzz. We let New York Magazine print that strip a week before it went online, and Harvey doesn't go online much so when he saw what the strip looked like he thought it was really nice.

Now that "Next Door Neighbor" has finished, you're starting a new webcomics project, "The Pekar Project," which just started on Monday. What can you tell us about it?

SMITH: It's Harvey Pekar's next project. We paired him with four artists telling "American Splendor"-style stories on Smith. It's going to be Harvey's first foray onto the web. He's going to be tweeting Harvey aphorisms. I always said that in some sense, Smith is like "American Splendor 2.0." Pekar is a fan of Smith. He wrote a six-word memoir. He really liked "A.D." The fact that our next big project is a Harvey Pekar project is pretty cool. It's like getting to meet your heroes.

How long is "The Pekar Project" going to run, or is it an ongoing project without end at this point?

SMITH: Every other week for a year. 26 installments. We always have a new comic when one ends. We have "Graphic Therapy" going too, which is a different thing. It's a nonfiction story of an artist in therapy in Philadelphia. It's really more of a regular person's memoir than anything else. It's very much in the school of "American Splendor." That's still going. Something more complicated we're not really capable of running more than one at a time. But while this is going we'll figure out the next one. I'm fishing around for something big and political again. Something in the "A.D." vein.

NEWELT: What I learned from developing "A.D." and "Next Door Neighbor" is that we do one at a time because it's almost like we're putting on a Broadway show. We have a nice section for the contributors and we're creating a really nice page showcasing books by Harvey Pekar, so someone who hasn't read his books has a real easy cover gallery of all of his books from all of his publishers in one place. This is not just going to be webcomics. It's called "The Pekar Project" because Harvey himself is going to be writing some blogs. It's going to be a place for people to read the comics, but also learn about anything else that he's done.

You mentioned there were four artists on the Pekar Project. Who are they?

SMITH: Tara Seibel, who's doing more of the art than anyone. Joseph Remnant. Rick Parker. Sean Pryor. They're all really great. There'll be interviews with them and different behind the scenes stuff.

Every other Monday you're going to have new Harvey Pekar comics drawn by four rotating artists. If our readers could hear your voice, they would know how excited you are about this, but what else can they look forward to and what are you hoping to do with this project?

NEWELT: We're going to have guest artists, too, but the guests will only do one story each. We have some cool stories. The first story that launches is a recent conversation on the phone between Crumb and Pekar about art and opera. We're not afraid to go intellectual with these stories. We're not afraid to go esoteric with these stories. It's really about Harvey having fun and expressing himself. As an editor, I'm not worried about making sure that these stories are into what people think is an "American Splendor" mode. There will plenty of the classic types of stories that folks are used to. For example, one of the stories is Harvey at the supermarket getting sushi for Joyce.

I truly believe that by having free Harvey Pekar stories online that it's going to potentially bring in his largest audience to date. This is the kind of thing that almost anyone who likes "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or Woody Allen or "Seinfeld" might enjoy, but they wouldn't necessarily have gone out and bought a graphic novel before -- but they will sit at work and goof off for ten minutes to read a webcomic, or they will on their iPhone when they're on the train or during lunch.

I also think that doesn't mean that print is dying. My theory is that it's going to open a market for the books themselves because people who didn't even know they liked comics and would never have bought one might say, "Wow I do like comics and there's a links page where I can buy a book from Amazon!" I truly believe that the web is not competing with print but it's turning people onto the medium. I see all kinds of people who are culturally literate, or even not as up on pop culture, being turned on by things that they wouldn't necessarily have checked out before. Something like "The Pekar Project" could even get a little more attention, because people already know Harvey's name, we're hoping that a lot of people are going to get turned onto not only this comic, but the movie and most importantly his whole body of work.

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