Drawing Troubleby Christopher Michel
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, By Josh Neufeld, Pantheon (2009)
Since their inception, comics have always had a few practitioners who pushed the medium past its expected limitations. In the early 20th century, it was Windsor McCay and Hergé, writing Little Nemo and Tintin respectively, who pushed past the setup-and-punchline format, playing with the sequential picture’s ability to create and defy expectation (a child’s sneeze destroying the frame, for instance), or to develop complex relationships between characters (Tintin’s friendship with the brave, bumbling, drunken Captain Haddock).
In the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, artists and writers like R. Crumb and Alan Moore first defied the prevailing sense of comics as a medium for children, and then began to explore the idea, inspect it, and eventually explode it. They were followed by a veritable army of comic-creators: James Kolchaka, Gary Trudeau, Harvey Pekar, Grant Morrison, and Aaron Diaz—to name a few working across the spectrum, in a variety of styles and formats, who push the medium into every literary genre, even developing new ones, always on the look out for stories that comics can tell.
One of these experimentalists is Josh Neufeld, a self-described creator of “nonfiction comics” who has just released a new book entitled A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. The book describes Hurricane Katrina’s effects on New Orleans through the stories of five different survivors: Denise, a 6th generation New Orleanian; Leo and Michelle, a young couple; Abbas, a grocery-store owner and his friend Darnell; Kwame, a high-schooler; and Brobson, a doctor who lives in the French Quarter. The characters represent a cross section of the experiences and choices New Orleanians faced before, during, and after the hurricane. Some of them end up leaving town more or less permanently, some get stuck in the tragedy at the Superdome, some are stranded on their roofs, and some ride out the storm with relative ease and then spend time helping others.
A.D. begins with a prelude, a section titled “The Storm.” It is a powerful opening sequence of mostly wordless drawings: eighteen pages spanning from “Monday, August 22, 2005” to “Wednesday, August 31.” The pictures are large-scale, wide-angle shots in which the city and surrounding areas can first be seen in the relative peace and calm, before Katrina hits. Then the storm approaches. The freeways jam. A massive funnel of clouds dwarfs the city. Wind tears trees out of the ground and blows cars across the road. Finally, the water begins to wash what seems like everything away. It ends with the city flooded, columns of black smoke rising into the air, and the Superdome beaten, its roof nearly destroyed.
This is easily the most commanding part of Neufeld’s book, and it shows off the potential of the comic-book medium to tell a story like that of Katrina in a way that no other medium has—or perhaps even can. It’s been more than four years since the hurricane hit, and video and photos of post-Katrina New Orleans are, by this point, burned into our collective consciousness. But Neufeld’s drawings make them new again—and bring back some of the shock and tragedy of the moment. The intimacy of the drawings, the small details Neufeld inserts in the background— a wheelchair, some friends hanging out, a street sign caught in the wind—humanizes and personalizes the tragedy in ways that photographs, with their apparent objectivity, can’t always do. Flattening out the nine days into a handful of images also forces the reader to ponder the relative weight of each image. When the original news footage played, it was an overpowering barrage of video and photographs. But “The Storm” recounts the period with just 37 drawings. Each picture, then, is allowed the full gravity of the scene it depicts. A particular view of the levy wall breaking, or of a body floating face down in the water takes on the reverence of a still-life. It is more potent because of the thousands of different images it represents.
The book has four subsequent parts: “The City,” “The Flood,” “The Diaspora,” and “The Return.” These sections form the primary narrative, and are where Neufeld introduces us to his characters and their personal experiences before, during, and after the hurricane. Oddly, instead of becoming even more powerful, this is where the book begins to fall flat. Though they are real people, with complex lives and situations, Neufeld’s main characters are, in odd ways, caricatured. The people have been flattened out into types—the hipster couple who collect comics; the angry black woman suspicious of authority; the Iranian convenience-store owner who stays to defend his store from looters; the blithe Southern doctor calmly riding out the storm in his dapper house.
Neufield doesn’t complicate our understanding of the characters or challenge our assumptions of who they are or what they are like. In fact, he borrows heavily from comic-book tropes and often relies on a hijinks-style of art. This turns the people into characters in a book, lessening, rather than heightening the sense of tragedy. Katrina, and the massive governmental ineptitude that followed it, becomes, in the worst sense, a comic-book story, with sprawling pratfalls, yowling cats, sound effects, and characters jumping in the air when surprised.
The book is not all farce and there are moments (most notably at the Superdome) when starvation and death appear in sobering ways. When the book works, it forces an uncomfortable intimacy between the reader and the subject, reminding readers not just of the grandiose levels of the New Orleans disaster, but of the human-scale suffering and the pervasive sense of loss in late August 2005.
What works about comics is that the form organizes a story into a series of moments—the eye notes the frame, and inside the frame are all the elements of one instant, fraught with tension: the water flooding a city street, buildings cracked, car roofs peeking out above the waves, and in the distance, a small motorboat filled with people, approaching. Then the eye moves to the next frame: the boat is drawn up next to the protagonists, who are chest-deep in dirty water. The eye notes the tattered clothes of the people, sees the bat in the hands of a character. It reads the variety of looks on everyone’s faces, perhaps a few words exchanged in bubbles above heads, but the story is formed in the mind of the reader in the space between those frames. In a story or novel, the writer has the liberty of taking a few moments from the narrative tension to set up a scene—to describe the setting or character in some detail. A comic-book artist doesn’t have that luxury—each image must have a fresh tension, must move the story forward, if only a little.
A story like Hurricane Katrina lends itself to grandiose emotion and action, but in the comics format, this is a drawback, not a strength. A truly great account of Katrina will need to avoid the grand and easy tales of woe in favor of the more nuanced tragedies that inevitably linger long after the operatic action is over. Neufeld’s book is fascinating, and worth a read, for the first 20 pages if for no other reason. And his work in the still-young field of nonfiction comics reportage is worth keeping an eye on. He’s a strong contender in a field that has the potential to make stories fresh and compelling enough to move people to action—to do, in effect, what nonfiction reportage has always strived to do.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.