Saturday, October 1, 2011

Josh Neufeld's Graphic Take on Hurricane Katrina

(Originally published in the Newark Star-Ledger in August 2009)

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans and towns on the Gulf Coast. The next day, the levees in New Orleans broke, flooding the city, killing more than 800 people and turning hundreds of thousands of people into refugees. On the fourth anniversary of the Katrina debacle, a monument to federal incompetence and callousness to American lives, the writer and illustrator Josh Neufeld has published his nonfiction comic “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge”(Pantheon, $25), a riveting account of seven lives surviving Katrina.

After Katrina, Neufeld volunteered with the Red Cross in the hard-hit Gulf town of Biloxi, Mississippi. A chapbook he published on the experience led to a commission by Smith Magazine, an online publication, to serialize an account of the effect of Katrina on New Orleans. Through meticulous interviews, Neufeld brings to life the stories of Denise, an acerbic social worker who is trapped in the now-infamous Convention Center, the convenience store owner Abbas and his fishing partner Darnell, who spent the storm in Abbas’ store and almost died in the process, and others. There are disgraceful stories, like a family with a gravely ill baby turned away from a hospital at gunpoint, and acts of heroism and grace amid the terror. Neufeld reveals both the horror and human toll of the aftermath of Katrina.

Neufeld, 40, is the author of “A Few Perfect Hours.” He met with freelance writer Dylan Foley at his home in Brooklyn, New York.

Q. How did you get involved in Hurricane Katrina relief?

A. When the hurricane hit, it affected me in a way that I can’t explain, seeing what happened to New Orleans, with poor and black people being abandoned by our own government, our own country. I trained with the Red Cross and five weeks after Katrina, I was sent to Biloxi, where I distributed meals. It was a powerful and exciting experience, and I blogged about it. My chapbook came to the attention of the comics editor at Smith Magazine.

Q. How did you shape your nonfiction comic about Katrina?

A. Larry Smith, the editor of Smith Magazine, wanted to focus on the story on New Orleans and Katrina, but wanted it to be more than just about the hurricane, following the characters to the present. Larry helped me identify the thematic element of loss, which is a simple concept, but you can do so much with it.

Q. How did you find your subjects?

A. I found Denise from hearing her on NPR’s “This American Life.” A journalist friend introduced me to others. I met Leo in the comics community. It was great that one of the characters in my comic was Leo, a comic lover, who lost all his comics in the hurricane, but had the comics community-at-large return them to him.

(An illustration from "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge"

Q. How did you handle the devastating scenes of a death at the Convention Center and working-class citizens turned into a panicked mob?

A. My instinct as a writer is to be very understated about really bad things, to just show them and to not put a melodramatic gloss on the material. As a “journalist,” it is very important to show the whole story. There were some stories from the Convention Center that were truly horrifying that I left out so the reader wouldn’t become desensitized. I had to pick events.

I didn’t want the book to have an agenda. I could have shown President Bush playing guitar at the San Diego naval base while Katrina struck. If I tried to direct readers to the outrage, I think that would turn readers away. I myself prefer books that let you draw your own conclusions. The stories my characters like Denise had to tell were so powerful. I wanted Denise to speak in an unfettered manner. Her words are exactly what she said. I’m not putting my spin on them.

Q. Abbas and Darnell decide to ride out the storm in Abbas’ store with disastrous and sometimes comic results. Why did you put them in?

A. They were an important relief from the more horrific parts of the story. Abbas’ sequence of decisions, which ended up with him being as screwed as he was was something I identified with. He wanted to test himself: “What is a hurricane like? I’ll stick it out.” At the end, he said, “I thought it was an adventure. I didn’t know Katrina would destroy the city I knew.”

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