"I'm gonna die in this bitch!" screams Denise, a sixth-generation New Orleanian who clings to the bed she has wedged into her hallway to ride out Hurricane Katrina. This sure isn't a CNN special report to honor the two-year anniversary of the storm. It's the fifth chapter of a 12-part non-fictional Web comic called A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, written and drawn by American Splendor illustrator Josh Neufeld. With monthly installments being published online at SMITH Magazine, A.D. tells the personal stories of six Katrina survivors exactly as they saw it.
Hurricane Katrina was the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. It destroyed one of America's most beloved cities, wrought $80 billion in damages, killed over 1,400 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. In the process it also exposed the economic and racial inequalities that have long plagued our nation. Perhaps it's fitting then that one of the most unique takes on the disaster and recovery process comes in the form of a quintessential American art form, the comic book.
A.D. presents a cross-section of New Orleans, featuring people who hail from diverse ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds. "Every single person in New Orleans has an incredible experience of the storm," Neufeld told me by phone. "It's important to portray a sampling of different experiences and not those that have coalesced into iconic moments."
To that end, we get characters like Hamid, an Iranian father of two who weathers the storm in his supermarket waiting for looters; the Doctor, a white man-about-town who later sets up a free medical clinic outside his unscathed French Quarter home; and Denise, an African-American poet who chooses to stay home after the notorious Ochsner Baptist Memorial Center proved too crowded for her and her mother.
Neufield masterfully weaves back and forth between his characters' stories using muted, two-toned colors that underscore the mounting onslaught of the storm. By sticking with the intimate lives of these characters and avoiding the iconic images of the storm (with the exception in the Prologue's illustrations of the Superdome's ripped roof and the city skyline ablaze), Neufeld engrosses us in six tales of survival. Of course, what is all the more extraordinary about these characters, their dialogue, and depictions is that they are all real. A.D. transcends a genre typically relegated to fantasy.
The idea for A.D. arose from Neufeld's three weeks spent as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., where he worked in an emergency response vehicle delivering hot meals to those in need. "That scene there was overwhelming," said Neufeld, a Brooklyn-based artist. "It looked as though bombs had been blown up along the shore for miles in both directions."
Neufeld began blogging about his experiences, which he subsequently turned into a self-published book, Katrina Came Calling. His blog caught the attention of Larry Smith, whose non-fictional storytelling forum SMITH had published Katrina-related essays in the past, along with Shooting War, an acclaimed Web comic that envisaged a futuristic dystopia for the Iraq war. Smith had been a fan of Neufeld's work on American Splendor and Rob Walker's Titans of Finance, and suggested the idea of a Web comic about Katrina. "We were looking for a chicken's-eye, little-guy view of Katrina," said Smith, who regards Neufeld and A.D. as the intersection in a Venn diagram consisting of Spike Lee, This American Life, and American Splendor.
Since neither Neufeld nor Smith wanted to have Neufeld in the role of protagonist, they both returned to New Orleans in search of potential characters and to conduct extensive interviews. According to Smith, while someone like Leo McGovern, the editor of Antigravity magazine who eventually became Leo in the series, was enthused about the project from the beginning, others needed a lot of convincing. "Denise just wouldn't have agreed to do A.D. over e-mail," said Smith.
Kevin, an African-American high-school student who is the son of a pastor, was also a bit skeptical of having such a personal experience portrayed in Web comic form. "At first I was a bit hesitant about sharing my story with someone else's input, but Josh has done an amazing job of capturing the essence of the our situations," Kevin explained by e-mail. "These stories represent real events and, to me, the best therapy for people who were a part of the suffering is to tell their stories."
A.D. owes a lot to non-fictional graphic novels like Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, though it more truly follows in the footsteps of Joe Sacco's journalistic comics Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. And yet Smith has even taken the notion of a journalistic Web comic to new heights with A.D. To enrich Neufeld's project, SMITH Magazine added links to Web sites containing everything from the Katrina storm tracker to hurricane preparedness information to local New Orleans restaurants like Galatoire's. In one of the eeriest scenes, Hamid goes outside early on August 29, 2005 to capture images of the storm on his handheld video camera. We see a storm-battered street in his LCD monitor along with Hamid being blown backward by the gale-force winds. Then, a link below the chaotic panel connects to pre-dawn flood footage on YouTube -- a chilling effect that causes Hamid's plight to come alive.
SMITH has also added video and audio clips with the real-life people depicted in A.D., along with a library of resources and a blog in which readers weigh in on everything from the importance of a Web comic with such gravitas to the believability of its dialogue. Denise's exclamation, "I'm gonna die in this bitch!" prompted graphic novelist Dean Haspiel to write in suggesting the line felt forced. Denise responded, "That woman is me, and that is exactly what I was thinking at that moment and for many, many moments during the hurricane." Rarely can a character from a Web comic defend her own words without the artist as an intermediary.
"We are trying to broaden the Katrina storytelling canon by offering a richer, more personal Katrina tale in a highly-energized environment," said Smith, who hopes that people who are uninterested in another lengthy magazine feature or New York Times op-ed about Katrina will be turned on by the multimedia appeal and forward-thinking style of A.D. He added, "And we don't need to make a broad political statement to do it."
There is a paucity of political jabs in A.D., which is surprising given the fact that Katrina was a major black eye for the Bush administration and the rebuilding efforts continue to be botched at the local, state, and federal level. According to Neufeld, "No one can deny that the government failed miserably in its obligations to look out for the well-being of its citizens, but my focus was on the human level." Neufeld didn't want to alienate his audiences by skewing the images in A.D.; he would prefer the stories speak for themselves. That said, Neufeld plans to stop time in a later chapter and show snapshots of where Bush, former FEMA director Michael Brown, and others were at the exact same moment when the characters in A.D. and the people of New Orleans had their lives irrevocably altered by the storm.
This week, the national spotlight has returned to New Orleans for the two-year anniversary of Katrina. The mainstream media is once again airing heartbreaking tales of recovery and fault-finding reports that highlight the government's failure to restore the region. Several 2008 presidential hopefuls have toured the city, spouting "never again" rhetoric and campaign promises to rebuild New Orleans and its woefully inadequate levee system.
Even President Bush was back, reassuring the people of New Orleans that Washington hasn't forgotten them. "It's one thing to come give a speech in Jackson Square," Bush said. "It's another to keep paying attention whether or not progress is being made. And I hope people understand we do, we're still paying attention." This was the second time Bush visited the city since the one-year anniversary last August (he visited fourteen times in the first year after the storm after not responding initially). Katrina didn't even warrant a mention in Bush's State of the Union address this year.
Perhaps Leo McGovern put it best when he summed up the situation: "People here are still in their FEMA trailers, desperately fighting for money to rebuild. They will be long after Time does their piece and leaves. They're depending on each other now for help and to get their stories heard."
Meanwhile, Neufeld honored the two-year anniversary by releasing the sixth chapter of A.D. As we get further from the anniversary and Katrina coverage dissipates much like it did last year, Neufeld will remain diligent in creating the remaining chapters of A.D., in which he and his characters will tackle the recovery.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)