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Home » Books & writing

Review: Josh Neufeld's A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE

Submitted by on August 17, 2009 – 9:43 pm 4 Comments

This review was written by contributing writer, Thuy Dinh, my resident expert on graphic novels.—PCN

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In A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Josh Neufeld presents a graphic journalistic account of six survivors’ real-life experiences after Hurricane Katrina. Neufeld based his stories on first-person interviews, photos and other on-location research he conducted while volunteering with the Red Cross. Though he has a sure hand with the visual medium, his reluctance to subject his own views on the matter somehow dilutes its emotional resonance.

His visual style is poetic and powerful in rendering the horrors of Katrina: the gigantic mushroom-shaped storm rising from the New Orleans skyline like a vision of latter-day Hiroshima; the Biblical water full of rats after the levee broke; a non-functional public bathroom at the Convention Center filled with trash, human waste and broken stalls that signifies a complete breakdown of the social order. But he’s at his most eloquent when he renders his panels in virtual silence; the symbolic effects of Katrina are most deeply felt when there is little or no intrusion of verbal caption.

Before A.D was reformatted and expanded into book form (the book has 25% more story and art than its online version), it first appeared in 2007 on the SMITH magazine website (still available here). The characters—Doc Brobson, a well-off white male; Denise, a financially strapped black female; Abbas, immigrant entrepreneur; Gen-Xers Leo and Michelle; and Kwame, a middle-class high school student—were chosen to represent a cross section of the wider populace affected by the storm.

In its current form, most of Neufeld’s characters don’t quite register. To make sure Denise, an African-American social worker, can tell her own story without racial and gender bias, it seems Neufeld gave her script approval. While his need to respect Denise’s suffering is understandable, his cautious treatment of her anger and self-loathing distances us from her plight. I wish Neufeld had explored with Denise the “many things that FEMA didn’t understand” about struggling, unmarried, professional black women living in untraditional households who feel they were grossly under-compensated in the aftermath of Katrina.

Neufeld seems much more comfortable in portraying Leo, twenty-something comic book collector and publisher of the New Orleans music webzine Antigravity. In treating Leo’s loss of his valuable comic book collection as a symbol for all the random losses in his life, Neufeld captures in Leo’s story what he couldn’t do in Denise’s case—the sense that Katrina represents the sheer mystery of destruction, a godless force that irretrievably deletes one’s recorded existence.

If Neufeld had explored his connection with Leo as a way to bring in his own subjective viewpoint, it would have helped A.D. pack a bigger emotional punch. In a March 2007 interview published in Antigravity, Neufeld, a Brooklyn resident who called himself a “helpless observer” of the 9/11 attacks, said that while 9/11 had national and international impact, its physical effects were largely limited to Ground Zero. Katrina, on the other hand, as “a toxic combination of nature and government incompetence, directly affected far more families than 9/11.”

This perspective, had it been included in A.D., would have shown how poverty and apathy are both more banal and yet insidious than any planned terrorist attack. Neufeld would have brought home the dire message that in this day and age, our citizens are still living in an Old Testament world, waiting Godot-like for the coming of  progress.

4 Comments »

  • Reader#9 says:

    I’d heard about this piece, but purposefully avoid the subject of Katrina as much as possible. I know people say New Orleans is back to normal and all, but it just doesn’t seem to be the case. Don’t think it ever will return to the fun town I remember. It was such a tragic and sad moment for us and our government. Shouldn’t have happened.

  • le0pard13 says:

    Great review, PCN. I wonder if the graphic medium really lends itself to this kind of examination of such a real, visceral event that so many saw across their TV and computer screens, in real time. I don’t know. I was there and got stuck in NOLA for what turned out to be the Katrina practice run, Hurricane Ivan. So, when HK hit almost a year later, I watched in captivated horror and anger at the lack of help that’s been so well chronicled. I likely will need to read this to come to any real opinion. Thanks for this.

  • Thuy Dinh says:

    Thank you, le0pard. I think the graphic medium at this moment is an especially effective tool to capture real-life events. Art Spiegelman (author of Maus, a comic memoir about the Holocaust) remarked that since photographs now can be digitally altered, journalism has once again become fresh and more “truthful” when it reexamines the comic form as a relatively low-tech and non-mediated way to capture reality.

    But the point I was trying to make in my review is that, choosing a non-fiction, serious subject matter is not in itself sufficient. Katrina or the Holocaust alone won’t necessarily make a work of art compelling. I think the artist or writer still has to tell a good story, and that means using techniques normally employed by fictional novelists to translate a historical event into concrete, immediate experience. Maus proves that the graphic medium is a powerful tool because Spiegelman used an emotionally effective technique to tell his own story. Spiegelman’s “mice” work as a deeply trenchant metaphor for the human condition. I think Josh Neufeld’s work could have been more gripping if he had allowed himself more freedom to explore comic’s limitless possibilities.

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