A Graphic Depiction of the Flood

We are quickly approaching the four year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.  I was living in Charlottesville, Virginia, at that time and was forced to keep up with those tragic events from news accounts and phone calls with family and friends.  The images on the screen and the stories I heard seemed literally otherworldly…the storm and broken levees things from a Roland Emmerich film.  Moreover, the inept leadership at the city, state, and national levels before, during, and after the storm seemed otherworldly as well…perhaps from Idiocracy?  These several years later, many people still struggle to make sense of it all, even those who have returned to their homes and some semblance of a normal life.  At the same time writers and artists struggle to make sense of and recall this terribly tragedy in works of fiction, non-fiction, film, and the visual arts.  Later this month, a new graphic novel, A.D.:  New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld, will introduce another art form into the conversation.

Neufeld is not from New Orleans or the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  He lives and works in Brooklyn.  After Katrina struck, he spent three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer in Biloxi.  To process his thoughts and experiences, he began creating an on-line comic published at smithmag.net.  A few years later, he embraced the opportunity to collect and expand on these for an entire novel.  A.D. is the true story of six hurricane survivors who all shared different experiences.  Denise, a guidance counselor who lives in MidCity, Abbas, an Uptown convenience store owner, and his friend Darnelle all decide to stay and ride out the storm in the city.  Doctor Brobson, a French Quarter resident, stays as well and even hosts a hurricane cocktail party.  Kwame, the son of a pastor from New Orleans East, flees with his family to his brother’s dorm room in Tallahassee, Florida.  Leo and Michelle, two twenty-somethings who grew up in New Orleans, flee to Houston.  Though they have different stories, each of their lives was forever changed throughout the course of that week in August/September 2005.

While Neufeld’s stories offer welcome contributions to the on-going discussion and remembrances of Katrina, the genre in which he chooses to work is a treasure because it allows readers to stop and meditate on images that often passed by so quickly on the news or in documentary films like Trouble the Water or When the Levees Broke.  The crowds in front of the Superdome or the convention center often “fell victim” to the fly-by helicopter or drive-by tracking shot.  Viewers could barely distinguish individuals in the huddled masses.  Unintentionally or not, news coverage often grouped images of looters with those who were simply trying to provide for or rescue friends or family members.  Thankfully, we can linger here on these images of suffering and/or heroism in ways that the rapidity of other media do not allow.

Neufeld’s book, by focusing on real people and slowing down these experiences, helps concretize what so many lost in the experience, both emotionally and materially.  From belongings to personal feelings of value and dignity, the victims of this storm will strive for the rest of their lives to piece together what they, perhaps, once took for granted. As if this wasn’t an indicator of the spiritual nature of this tragedy, an element of faith creeps in Neufeld’s book as well.  Neufeld opens his novel with an image of the earth seen from outer space.  As he zooms in on the planet, we see the storm clouds grow larger and larger.  As a result, he paints (or rather draws) this event as a global/human disaster, not just an American one.  Humanity, not just Americans, has suffered.  Moreover, Kwame’s family and the conversations in which they engage also bring in elements of faith.  On their way to Tallahassee, his father tells him and his brother, “It’s all in the Lord’s hands now.”  This represents a popular theology in much of the South that was made manifest in statements like these that would be taken to their unfortunate limits by the likes of Jerry Falwell who saw Katrina as God’s punishment on a wicked and perverse people.

Many of the stories that Neufeld heard, some of which he included, helps right the media wrongs that surrounded the coverage of the event.  I am mindful of the Katrina film, Trouble the Water, in which people who no doubt would have been portrayed as looting thugs were actually helping their neighbors survive.  One of the people in Denise’s story says, “Without these ‘thugs’ we’d be even worse off.”  In response to his work, critics have referred to Neufeld’s graphic novel as “comics with a social conscience.”  Yet again, we are reminded that FEMA and other government officials failed the living and the dead, black and white, rich and poor.  Of course the effects of this government failure at all levels impacted some worse than others.

A.D.:  New Orleans After the Deluge will be available from Pantheon on August 18, 2009.