Believe it or not, it will be five years this Sunday that Hurricane Katrina swept New Orleans. Josh Neufeld, author of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, took a break from his latest project to answer some questions for us. Josh talked about his experience as a Red Cross volunteer in Katrina’s aftermath, the difference between webcomics and their paper counterparts, and his main artistic influences.
A.D., which has been nominated for the Eisner and Harvey awards, is out in trade paperback today from Pantheon Books.
Q: What originally inspired you to write about Hurricane Katrina? You served as a Red Cross volunteer for three weeks in Biloxi, Mississippi — tell us about your experience in New Orleans.
A: A few days after the storm, I volunteered with the Red Cross. I was shocked that our government wasn’t able to take better care of its own people, but I realized that there was something I could do: volunteer and help somehow. One thing led to another, I was trained in disaster response, and six weeks after the storm I found myself in Biloxi, Mississippi (about 90 miles outside of New Orleans), working on an Emergency Response Vehicle (ERV). The ERV looks like an ambulance and is designed to carry hot food and supplies to areas where people don’t have the ability to feed themselves due to lack of running water, non-functioning kitchen appliances, and/or because they’re living in tents. I worked on the ERV for three weeks, delivering lunches and dinners to people in the Biloxi area.
Before I got to Biloxi, I had some awareness of how badly the hurricane had hit the Gulf Coast, but I didn’t appreciate the full extent of it until I witnessed it for myself. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. The region looked like a bomb had hit it, with many homes just leveled by the 30-foot storm surge brought on by the hurricane. Oftentimes, all you would see of where a house had been was a set of steps leading up to an empty slab, with debris scattered in every direction.
Despite what had happened to their homes, however, the people who remained were some of the most upbeat, positive folks I have ever met. They were really grateful for the assistance of the Red Cross and other relief organizations, and really dedicated to rebuilding their communities.
Even though I wasn’t working in New Orleans itself, one day I did get to visit the city. It was shortly after the water had finally been pumped out, and the residents of the flooded areas hadn’t been allowed to return yet. New Orleans was like a ghost town. I’ll never forget the water lines ten feet high or more on the sides of the buildings, or the code marks left by the search teams which had gone through the flooded city looking for trapped people or dead bodies. The eerie quiet and emptiness of the city was extremely unsettling because I had visited New Orleans a few years earlier, and remembered it as such a lively, energetic place. I wondered if it would ever recover…
Q: What was it like going from a webcomic to a physical book?
A: The web version of A.D. (still online at http://www.smithmag.net/afterthedeluge), though significantly shorter than the book, is presented in a way that allows for a multilayered experience. It is seeded with links to podcasts, YouTube videos, archived hurricane tracking reports, and even personal details, such as the Doctor’s favorite mixed-drink recipes. The platform that SMITH built for A.D. is a very nice interface for reading comics online — one tier of comics presented at a time and each page clicking to the next. A.D. on SMITH also features a comments page, video and audio interviews with the characters, a Hurricane Katrina resource list, and an active blog.
All the same, when comics are presented on the web — often one panel at a time — something of the gestalt of the comic book is lost: the interplay of the tiers of images on a page; the way a two-page spread can work to frame and augment the drama; aspects of timing, meter, and rhythm; and even details, such as how you use the final panel of a right-hand page to lead into the physical act of turning the page. All that is missing — or changed in important ways — when reading comics on the Internet. And of course, the physical book is missing: the feel and weight of it in your hand, the dust jacket, the texture of the paper, and the other design elements that make a book into an “art object.”
I had always planned for the webcomic to be become a “real” book, so when in the summer of 2008 Pantheon offered to publish it, I couldn’t wait to get to work on reformatting and expanding it. Converting A.D. to print — and significantly revising and expanding its content — took about five months. In the end, the book edition has about 25 percent more story and art than what appeared online; I also made significant changes and revisions to large chunks of the original material. That, combined with the different reading experience between online and print, in my mind makes the A.D. book a completely new animal.
In the end, I feel very fortunate that A.D. has benefited from both “content delivery” forms.
Q: Who are the greatest influences on your art? Who inspires you?
A: My earliest influences were Hergé’s Tintin and Curt Swan & Murphy Anderson’s Superman. Now that I’m a bit older, it’s real stories that interest me most, and I try to use the comics form to explore “unconventional” subjects. Cartoonist Joe Sacco, and comics writers Harvey Pekar and David Greenberger have strongly influenced me in that regard. Sacco’s work showed me that comics journalism was a powerful tool, and Pekar and Greenberger taught me to treasure the strangeness of real life and appreciate the little details of daily existence. I’m also constantly inspired and motivated by contemporaries like Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Jason Little, Jessica Abel, and other cartoonists who I work and socialize with here in New York City.
Q: If you had to name 5 graphic novels that you think should be required reading, what would you pick?
A: Wow, It’s very, very hard to limit myself to five, but these are books I can read over and over and over again, and always discover new things to admire: Tintin in Tibet, by Hergé (really the whole Adventures of Tintin series, but I’m limiting myself to my favorite one); City of Glass: The Graphic Novel, by Paul Auster, Paul Karasik, and David Mazzucchelli; Safe Area Gorazde, by Joe Sacco; Maus, by Art Spiegelman; and Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud.
Q: You wrote a book based on your experience in Biloxi called Katrina Came Calling. What did you find most different about writing a graphic novel versus a regular book?
A: Soon after I returned from my Red Cross deployment I put together a self-published book about my experiences in the Gulf Coast. Entitled Katrina Came Calling, it was taken from my online journal and illustrated with photographs. Being a public forum, my blog was read and commented on by people from all over the spectrum: not only by my friends, associates, and regular readers, but by other Red Crossers past and present, and by Biloxi-area survivors and former residents. Many of those comments (and my responses to them) are included in Katrina Came Calling, which is sort of a unique marriage of print and the ongoing conversation of the Internet.
Putting together and producing K.C.C. took about three months; and soon after it was complete I got caught up in the second issue of my solo title The Vagabonds (published by Alternative Comics). So the idea of doing a graphic novel treatment of Hurricane Katrina was still very much of in the back of my mind. But quite a few of my readers expected a Katrina comic to emerge eventually. For me the debate was how to tell stories from that event without repeating elements of K.C.C. and/or making myself look “heroic.” It’s one thing to show myself backpacking haphazardly around the world with my girlfriend as I did in my book A Few Perfect Hours, it’s another to portray myself as some sort of hero just because I spent three weeks with the Red Cross.
But when SMITH magazine approached me about serializing a Hurricane Katrina graphic novel on their site, and then suggested I use real people from New Orleans as the subjects, it was the perfect solution to my storytelling dilemma. From the beginning, I knew it was important to represent as wide a range of experiences as possible, from those who evacuated to those who stayed behind, people who lost everything they owned to those who salvaged almost everything.
Given those parameters, preparation for A.D. was quite different from my previous work — from visiting the area, to interviewing folks in-depth about their lives and experiences, to doing extensive photo research, to weaving multiple storylines together into a coherent narrative. And fortunately for the benefit of the project, my subjects’ experiences were so compelling that it made my job as “writer” very easy.
Q: What is your favorite part of the creative process and the publishing process?
A: My favorite part of the creative process is penciling a page, watching it come to physical life from the amorphous and sketchy origins of the script and thumbnail layout. That’s when I really feel alive as an artist and watch the page slowly take shape before my eyes.
My favorite part of the publishing process is interacting directly with my readers. I love presentations and signings, and getting a chance to hear my readers’ stories. Many of them have had personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina, and it really seems in some way that A.D. has been cathartic for people in helping them to process those dark days.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: My newest project is The Influencing Machine, a book-length collaboration with National Public Radio’s On The Media co-host Brooke Gladstone. The book examines media’s past and future, and its effects on society. It’s been called a mix of Scott McCloud and Marshall McLuhan. The Influencing Machine is due out from W.W. Norton in 2011.