A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Pantheon)

ad-header.jpgJosh Neufeld gets to the heart of what happened in New Orleans post-Katrina by making things personal.

 

 

197 pgs. FC; $24.95

(W / A: Josh Neufeld)

 

If you’ve seen Spike Lee’s wrenching documentary When the Levees Broke, you know all about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the failure of the levees, and the ineptitude of the Bush administration’s help efforts. You’ve seen the visuals—New Orleans looked like Beirut fresh from a bombing, the buildings razed, the survivors with very few options.

What you haven’t seen is Josh Neufeld’s graphic-illo take on the 2005 tragedy, which, in its way, does what Art Spiegelman’s Maus did for the Holocaust. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge makes the disaster personal, with a compelling visual narrative that stays with you and brings back all the horror, outrage, and awe for nature’s fury.

In the style of Moises Kaufman’s drama The Laramie Project, A.D. turns a series of factual interviews into a work of art. Neufeld spoke with seven Katrina survivors he read about in the media, following each of them through their ante-, inter-, and post-Katrina stories.

The cover to A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld. Click for a larger image.There is Leo, who, in deciding what to take on his evacuation, chooses to leave his collection of 15,000 comics in his home and let Fate take the wheel. As a (comic) collector, your heart just goes ker-thump—you know what’s coming. There is Denise the sharp-tongued nurse. Angry with the hospital for reneging on their promise of a room for her, she stomps back to her apartment. The winds promptly collapse her roof onto her cat, breaking its leg. Then there are Abbas and Darnell, a pair of friends who decide to have a manly adventure by staying behind to guard Abbas’ bodega, fully stocked with beer, water, food, etc. At one point Darnell is nearly crushed by a falling shelf in the flooded-out shop, and they wind up stranded on the roof.

The ominous tone of the story, with the tension ratcheting up as the hurricane approaches and hits, the levees burst, and FEMA lets those stranded in the city deal with utter anarchy, really hits you. Neufeld draws the suffering of those waiting in the heat for days, people turned back at a bridge by misguided soldiers, the starving young, the dying old. He depicts the drunk, armed thugs offering equal measures of terror and organization, and the boats—and bodies—floating through disease-infested waters in the streets. Rats, seeking higher ground, take to the trees in a squealing horde. It’s surreal. People simply cannot imagine this sort of apocalyptic, Biblical calamity until they find themselves desperately trying to cope with it.

Neufeld’s style is clean and meticulous. His drawing is simultaneously crisp, warm, and evocative, and reminded me of work by Ellen Forney. Each page is one vibrant accent color—chartreuse, periwinkle, pink, etc.—and a darker base color. It helps, what with all these urban spaces, that he can draw in sharp perspective like an architect.

Telling these stories graphically really enhances the telling. The whole package is easy on the eyes, socially significant, and sure to garner awards. Honestly, they should use this as a textbook in schools.

By focusing on the stories of seven survivors, Neufeld humanizes the Katrina disaster, much as a war correspondent brings the battle home by interviewing a single soldier. The ending is one of guarded hope, with comments on how a city must be rebuilt, one returning family and one rebuilt structure at a time. | Byron Kerman

Head to http://www.smithmag.net/ for an abridged version of the book, but with hyperlinks to podcasts, videos, etc.

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