A flood of emotions in a Katrina comics serial

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Times Staff Writer

The pen-and-ink drawings are clear, simple and so static in their muted colors that they suggest an airless calm -- but the real-life events in those drawings pulse with tension, confusion and fear.

“It’s an account of Hurricane Katrina by a small group of survivors,” artist Josh Neufeld said by phone recently, “but really, at its heart, it’s a story of loss and how we deal with loss.”

On Sunday, New York artist Neufeld posted online the sixth chapter of “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,” an illustrated work of nonfiction storytelling that springs from the tradition of comic books but, like so many similar projects these days, is poorly served by the clunky term.


Referring to “A.D” or one of Joe Sacco’s illustrated memoirs as a comic book is a bit like calling “Schindler’s List” a talkie.

“A.D.” tells the tale of the worst natural disaster in U.S. history through the experiences of six people: Denise, a poet and sixth-generation New Orleanian; Hamid, an Iranian-born father of two who owns an uptown market; Kevin, a high school student and the son of a pastor; a young couple, Leo, who works with developmentally disabled youngsters, and Michelle, a gymnastics instructor; and Dr. Brobson Lutz, a man about town and former health department official.

One person who is not in the story is the man holding the pen. Neufeld, 40, perhaps best known to comics fans as a frequent collaborator with Harvey Pekar on “American Splendor,” is the unseen journalist at work in “A.D.” But that doesn’t mean he didn’t witness the destruction of Katrina firsthand.

Neufeld was overwhelmed as he watched the media coverage of the hurricane and the destruction in its wake from his home in New York. After a few days, he had to act. He became a Red Cross volunteer and was shuttled down to the ravaged Mississippi coastal communities of Biloxi and Gulfport.

Neufeld blogged about the wrenching duty and also about the nature of being one of the few New Yorkers in the disaster area, where he learned lessons about race, class and human tragedy. “I learned a lot about our country, honestly,” he said in a solemn tone.

Those blogs caught the attention of Larry Smith, the editor of Smith Magazine, who was a fan of Neufeld’s “American Splendor” work and was looking for a follow-up to his website’s first serialized Web comic, “Shooting War,” which was met with sparkling reviews for its near-future vision of a blogger covering the still-raging war in Iraq in 2011. (The collected Web comic will be available this November at bookstores as a graphic novel.)


Despite the highly favorable reviews, Smith very much wanted a journalism-minded project to better fit the website’s nonfiction mode.

“I wanted something on Hurricane Katrina, and Josh was the ideal person,” Smith said.

But art-as-journalism and the Web-comic medium have not been without bumps. Smith was uneasy when Neufeld went back into an early chapter that was already posted and changed it after readers pointed out errors in the sequence of events. The artist and editor agreed in the end that “A.D.” was more artistic expression than strictly judged reportage.

“I had to set aside a bit of my journalistic notions, and the changes that were made were acknowledged in a comments section below the artwork,” Smith said.

Smith and Neufeld traveled to New Orleans to spend time with the people portrayed in “A.D.,” and the Web comic is accompanied by audio and video segments with the real-life characters and a “making of” video as well.

There’s also audience interaction. In one striking exchange, a reader (who happened to be Dean Haspiel, a noted comics creator) praised the project but said he winced at one piece of ripe dialogue that sounded contrived.

A response came directly from Denise of New Orleans: “That woman is me, and that is exactly what I was thinking at that moment and for many, many moments during the hurricane.”


That kind of response may represent some of the intriguing potential of the medium, but Web comics still have issues to sort out. Neufeld said the strictures of the computer screen limited what he could do with the flow, size and shape of frames.

There are also the differing points of view about all the bells and whistles. Smith wanted to tuck more digital content into the story (“How cool would it be,” he asked “if you could hear what’s on the car radio that the characters are listening to?”), while the artist blanched at adding any distractions that might crack the story flow.

“We’re still figuring these things out, and that’s exciting,” Neufeld said. “The main pressure I feel, though, is to get the story right.”

One fan of Neufeld’s is Pekar, whose upcoming projects include a graphic-novel biography of Lenny Bruce and a comics adaptation of Studs Terkel’s 1974 ode to the everyman, “Working.”

“Josh, he’s a real good storyteller; he’s very consistent,” Pekar said last week. “He blends the artwork in with the text very well. The combination of the two makes sense the way he does it. It feels right.”

Memoirs, meta-nonfiction and journalistic graphic novels are a robust scene right now. The bookshelf is large enough to fit underground rap heroes (MF Grimm has a gritty account of his street life coming Sept. 5 on the Vertigo imprint owned by DC Comics) and the two-fisted tales of an active-duty French antiterrorist cop (the adventures of Pierre Dragon are all the rage in Paris right now).


The push of graphic novels toward real life and away from caped crusaders isn’t new, of course.

The compass points for the field include the Holocaust account in “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” which won a special 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Art Spiegelman; Will Eisner’s semiautobiographical tales of New York in the 1980s; and Pekar’s long career using the pages of “American Splendor” as a cranky and meandering diary.

For Neufeld, the most compelling influence has been Sacco, the Maltese journalist and artist whose bracing 1990s illustrated memoirs were collected in “Palestine,” which won an American Book Award in 1996. The Guggenheim Fellow’s trip through the twilight of the warfare in Bosnia led to more comics-as-journalism, such as “Safe Area Gora{zcaron}de.”

“It was the work of Sacco that was my very specific influence, the one that made it very comfortable and natural for me to approach this as a logical way to tell this story,” Neufeld said. “The approach is one that takes less and less explaining to people. Which is good because people just focus on the story you’re telling.”