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Josh Neufeld:

A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge

“Yessir, this one’s called Katrina. She’s a big one too. Category 4 or 5. Just hit Florida, an’ they’re sayin’ she’s comin’ up this way—maybe even right here to N’awlins.”

Katrina came upon New Orleans four years ago on August 29th. The worst hurricane in a generation brought winds of 140 miles per hour to Louisiana and Mississippi and struck east of New Orleans, shattering the defensive levee systems and flooding 80 per cent of the city with water from Lake Pontchartrain. Cartoonist Josh Neufeld has specialised in non-fiction reality comics. I picked his travelogue A Few Perfect Hours (& Other Stories From Southeast Asia & Central Europe) for my Graphic Novels book in 2005. For his latest journalistic comic, Neufeld first found inspiration while volunteering as a “disaster response worker” in Biloxi, Mississippi for three weeks for the American Red Cross. He turned his blog entries from this experience into the self-published book Katrina Came Calling. This in turn instigated A.D., originally serialised online in 2007-8 on Smith (previously home to Shooting War by Anthony Lappé and Dan Goldman). Smith editor Larry Goldman was closely involved with Neufeld, linking him with the principal protagonists, through which he vividly portrayed a city under water and under siege, adding podcasts, YouTube videos, archived footage, and other links. This version is still online at Smith Mag.

Now revised and expanded by about a quarter from its web incarnation, A.D. arrives in print. Such devastating, massive events as this hurricane can be hard to grasp, but by focussing in tight on a diverse range of citizens, Neufeld pulls us into their personal, individual experiences of loss and survival, of what really happened on the flood-wracked streets as the authorities abandoned them and the sensationalist media lied about shootings and rapes. What becomes movingly clear is that in times of disaster, when governments let you down, people sharing terrible adversity care for each other and despite all odds, form some form of supportive community among themselves.

Neufeld sticks mainly to a two-tier layout, intercutting double-page spreads, sometimes full-bleed, to heighten the impact. He makes good use of varied single- and two-colour palettes to add mood to different sections of his book. He opens with a glowing yellow and orange colour scheme to convey New Orleans’ sunnier days, a “Gilded Age”, as he unveils his seven main players. He introduces us to Denise, a social worker who gets trapped at the beleaguered Convention Centre with thousands of other evacuees. In these scenes, he switches to an almost 3D-like red-and-green combo to add to the aura of distress. In the introductory section, we also meet: Iranian-born grocery-store owner Abbas and his friend Darnell, who are determined to keep the shop open; Kwame, son of a pastor about to start his final year in high school; young local couple Leo, local music entrepreneur and massive comics collector, and Michelle, waitress and gym instructor; and finally Brobson, a doctor from the French Quarter.

Neufeld explains, “My main goal was to be as true to the characters’ experiences as possible, to do justice to their stories. What Katrina survivors went through is so incredible to me on its own, it’s pointless to ‘augment’ the drama. Since A.D. began to appear online, I’ve had a number of encounters - both in person and online - where Katrina survivors have thanked me for telling the story of the storm and the city. I get the sense that for them reading A.D. has been cathartic, almost like ‘group therapy’.”

Being able to hold the whole story in one hardback book, being able to easily review and remind yourself of what’s gone before and spot symbols and motifs woven through the book, sometimes pages apart, makes it a very different and in many ways more fulfilling read than on the web.

In one early panel, you can spot how someone with two dogs on the roof of a flooded house has written on it in capital letters “Varese, Sacco [sic], Brandon, Gum, Daqui are alive.” A dead body floating face down in the water is echoed the night before the hurricane hits by a Spider-Man toy also floating face down as Kwame runs his father’s bath. There are some terrifying scenes here - rats lurking in the trees; a ceiling collapsing onto the very bed where Denise would have been sleeping; the ghastly unsanitary conditions at the supposedly safe Convention Centre; troops turning away a father, mother and baby struggling in a boat, and when evacuees offer to take their baby, the mother refusing to be separated from her child; a father desperate for water for his dehydrated daughter. It beggars belief that this can be happening in Bush’s 21st century America.

The bulk of the book chronicles the six tumultuous days between August 27th and September 1st, and the despair and anger at their harrowing mistreatment. To open the book there is a powerful overview of the gathering storm and its destructive arrival, told without narration or dialogue, just curt time-and-place captions, and in shades of green and blue to evoke the winds and waters.

The book closes with two chapters. The Diaspora jumps ahead eighteen months to Neufeld Skyping his subjects to find out how they have all managed since. The Doctor speaks for many when he comments: “They couldn’t get the live people out in time, and they couldn’t get the dead people out in time either. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) failed the living and the dead.” Denise is the one who has suffered, and still suffers, the most, paralysed by what she has lost, a bitter “refugee” relocated to Baton Rouge. “Here I can pretend that what we lost can be replaced. I fucking hate it here but I’m afraid I would hate it in New Orleans more—and I don’t want to hate the only place I ever considered home.”

In the final chapter, The Return, Neufeld charts the lives of those “cast members” in 2008 as they return to the city to try and rebuild their homes and their lives. I know this might sound trivial to some, but Leo’s anguish at losing his comics collection hit home to me, as did the touching denouement as his treasures find their way back to him. And even Denise finally comes home again, bringing her counseling skills to help others like her.

Inspired by Hergé‘s precise ‘Clear Line’, Joe Sacco’s journalistic research and Harvey Pekar’s observant documentation of the so-called “everyday”, Josh Neufeld’s sensitive, humane graphic reportage guarantees that these survivors’ tales will not be forgotten and will touch many more people via the internet and now through this graphic novel. Four years on, this is one American nightmare that should never be forgotten, and never be repeated.

Posted: August 23, 2009

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A.D.: New Orleans
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