Sunday, August 30, 2009

Survival & Alienation: A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge

Rob reviews the updated and revised edition of Josh Neufeld's first-person accounts of Hurricane Katrina: A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE (Pantheon).

I reviewed the work to-date of Josh Neufeld's A.D. back at about a year ago; alas, the links to that site still aren't operable. I noted at the time that this could be Neufeld's masterwork, and after seeing the finished product published by Pantheon, I think this is definitely the case. The attention he's receiving for this project has made him something of a 20-year overnight success, a fact that has made a number of his long-time fans (of which I am one) especially delighted. Neufeld put all of the skills he developed as a storyteller to excellent use in A.D., especially in how he is able to tell someone else's first-person story. Years of being one of Harvey Pekar's go-to illustrators combined with his own instincts as observer and reporter in his own autobiographical stories was a perfect training ground for an enormously complex and ambitious narrative.

Being a freelance illustrator meant that Neufeld could take time to volunteer for the Red Cross in Biloxi after Katrina hit in 2005. He blogged about the experience, drawing comments from locals and others who appreciated hearing his perspective and getting a chance to share theirs. Those blog entries turned into a zine (not a comic), and that zine drew the attention of Publisher Larry Smith knew that he had found an artist who could help tell the stories of survivors of the storm, and Neufeld diligently went about finding people who wanted to share their experiences.

The best thing about this comic is that Neufeld errs on the side of restraint at all times. His work has always had a certain quietude to it, and that stillness turned out to be a perfect match in depicting a raging storm and the hellish conditions that followed it. He rarely played up horrific images for shock effect, instead forcing the reader to understand that the suffering felt by his subjects was constant and unrelenting--even as they found a way to struggle through it. Neufeld also clearly labored to stay true to the tenor of each person's own narrative. Each person had greatly different experiences and their emotional response in recalling the tragedy also varied as a result.

Neufeld noted that he made sure to select as wide a cross-section of experiences as was possible. There was Kwame, the African-American teenager who evacuated the town and was forced to view its destruction and reconstruction from afar. There was The Doctor, a wealthy white denizen of the French Quarter--an area of the city that was mostly untouched by both the storm and the ensuing flood, but who was a big part of its recovery. There were Abbas and Darnell--a shopowner and his friend, both determined to ride out the storm, who faced the most hellish of life and death experiences. There were Leo and his girlfriend Michelle, two more residents who left the city and who had to cope with the treasured memorabilia of a lifetime destroyed. Finally, there was the book's emotional core: Denise, who felt the sting of abandonment by her government the most acutely when she was stranded at a convention center. The seven people who wanted to tell their stories were a cross-section of race, gender and class, but all of them loved their city.

While some of the narratives are more compelling than others, Neufeld wove them in and around each other so as to provide relief for the heavier stories and context for the lighter ones. For example, the Doctor had been through any number of storms, so he calmly hosted a hurricane party and cleared out storm drains when the eye of the storm passed over. After the storm ended, he went from building to building looking after potential patients and set up an "impromptu clinic" to provide care to all in his neighborhood. A fixture in a town where time usually stands still, his biggest woe was that the shrimp at Galatoire's weren't as good as they used to be. It's obvious that Neufeld was deliberately juxtaposing the experiences of the Doctor against those that suffered life and death consequences, but he carefully restrained himself from making any judgments of his own.

That said, the Doctor received far fewer pages than either Denise or Abbas & Darnell. For the former, she experienced nearly getting killed in her own apartment by the storm and then waiting as buses that were supposed to carry everyone to safety never showed. Thousands of survivors outside the convention center and Superdome were left in unsanitary, harrowing situations as they had to deal with a government that was both corrupt and incompetent. She and her family only managed to escape through luck, but Denise took it upon herself to note that the reports of roving gang violence were not only not true, but that many gang members took it upon themselves to give food, water & medicine to those who needed it the most. Abbas & Darnell had to contend with a flood of noxious waters, mosquitoes, rats in nearby trees swimming after them, and the brutal August sun in their bid to ride out the ordeal and protect Abbas' store. Here, Neufeld used his most dramatic imagery: dark floodwaters pooling ominously, the specter of disease embodied by mosquitoes and rats, and the oppressiveness of the heat & humidity.

Leo & Michelle and Kwame all left the city, leaving behind all they had. These stories are also comparatively minor beats, with Leo (an avid comic book collector) coming to grips that everything he had was destroyed. Kwame grew accustomed to being away from home as he finished high school in Berkeley, college in Ohio and then spent a semester in London. For both, an eventual return home was essential. Denise embodied the idea that part of the spirit of the city died in the experience as so many were left without lives or homes. She eventually went back despite that despair, but noted that "we're not all home yet" and was in no mood to party in a city known for its laissez-faire attitudes.

In terms of the visuals, Neufeld used a single-tone color field for most of the different sections. This helped highlight different parts of the narrative, but also added a subtle hint of emotion. Most of the colors in the early part of the book are somewhat cheery: sea foam-green, a bright yellow, a light lavender, etc. As the story proceeds, the colors become darker and more sickly, culminating in bruise-purple and jaundice-yellow for the scenes depicting disease and mayhem. In the scenes after the storm, the spotlighted characters are all a different color from everything else in the panel--a notation that they have been marked by this experience and that they are no longer quite as home amidst their surroundings. Neufeld's line is supple--just realistic enough to depict these events, but rubbery enough to make the pages breathe a bit. He takes advantage of the book format with several dramatic two page spreads, the most dramatic of which was the "they brought us here to die" crowd shot.

This book isn't about innovation, but rather the urgent need for people to tell their stories in as direct and open a manner as possible. While Neufeld does weave stories in and out effortlessly so as to move the reader's eyes from page to page easily, there's very little artifice to be found in A.D. Neufeld has always had a way of asking complicated questions in a straightforward manner, and this book is his most ambitious display of his natural curiosity and empathy. It's a story that needs retelling, especially given that we're four years out from the storm and the city is still struggling, especially its poor. The real tragedy of Katrina is not the storm, nor the flood, but the alienation felt by its citizens in the wake of the event. For a city that is a national treasure and one of America's few truly unique cultural outposts, there was frequently a startling lack of empathy for the dispossessed. This was a moment of national shame, a time when everyone knew that the government at all levels failed its people, and Neufeld simply gave a voice and a face to those affected by the experience in a way that anyone could understand. A.D. is really the best kind of political work: one where the author can make a point without bludgeoning the reader and let the reader decide what's right and wrong.

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