Josh Neufeld is the writer and artist of "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge" at SMITH Magazine, a nonfiction work about Hurricane Katrina that now stands as one of the most compelling achievements in the still-nascent medium of Web comics. "A.D." was the brainchild of Neufeld and Larry Smith, the founder of SMITH, who accompanied the artist into the disaster zone. The Hero Complex invited Neufeld to reflect on the project, which will be published next year in a print edition.
I recently finished serializing a 15-part nonfiction graphic novel about Hurricane Katrina for SMITH Magazine. Titled "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge," the comic follows the experiences of six New Orleanians before, during and after the Aug. 29, 2005, storm.
I volunteered with the Red Cross soon after Katrina (working in Biloxi, Miss., for three weeks in October 2005) and started the research on "A.D." in late 2006, and SMITH posted the first chapter — a prologue, actually — in January 2007. So "A.D." has been nearly three years in the making, and an intensely personal experience throughout.
Although we timed the ending of the online comic with the third anniversary of Katrina, it was pure chance that I was finishing the work just as another hurricane was building in the Caribbean. Attempting to focus on meeting my Aug. 28, 2008, deadline, I couldn’t help being horribly fascinated as Gustav inexorably mutated from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane, and then grew from a Category 3 to a Category 4 — all the while heading toward New Orleans. It was all so familiar, and I took time out from my deadline to check up on my subjects (most of whom still live in New Orleans) to make sure they had evacuation plans. (They all did, except for The Doctor, who has the good fortune to live on high ground, in the French Quarter — and is stubborn, to boot.)
A large part of my job as the writer/artist of "A.D." has been to act as a journalist, and SMITH editor Larry Smith and I have met with our subjects many times, including making a number of visits to New Orleans for face-to-face interviews and photo sessions. I’ve become quite close with "A.D.’s" subjects over the last two years, and by virtue of their involvement, a number of the characters have become closely attached to the project as well. As a result, I’ve come to more deeply understand my responsibility toward them personally and to the project as a whole.
By making "A.D.", I hope to forge a document of the storm, one version of history told from the perspective of six people who are still living it. It’s a history that I hope can stand alongside a canon of work that includes Michael Eric Dyson’s "Come Hell or High Water"; Douglas Brinkley’s "The Great Deluge"; Spike Lee’s "When the Levees Broke"; or Tia Lessin, Carl Deal, and Kimberly Rivers Roberts’ "Trouble the Water". Another part of my mission in doing "A.D." is to set the record straight, particularly the events which took place at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in the days immediately following the storm. Chapters 12 and 13 detail what the character Denise and her family went through while they were trapped there.
"A.D." has also been cathartic for me personally. As a New York City resident and a helpless observer of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and their aftermath, it was extremely empowering to be able to do something — no matter how small — to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina. And working directly on "A.D." for the last two years, and seeing the amazing response it has received from the people of New Orleans, has really helped me deal with the residual scars of 9/11.
All this brings us to Aug. 28, as I put the finishing touches on the "A.D." epilogue. The final panel shows Denise, settling into her New Orleans studio after a two-year exile from the city in which she grew up. Though she is relieved to be back home, she is fully aware of how irrevocably the events of Katrina changed New Orleans, and how mixed she is about the city’s “recovery.” As I worked on "A.D.’s" final panel, I remember feeling how inadequate my art skills were to the task of showing Denise’s ambivalence about the future. Most of all, however, I was excited to be bringing the story to a resolution. Not an ending, as the characters’ lives go on and on, but offering some closure to the readers who stayed with "A.D." for the last year and a half.
Thankfully, in the end, Hurricane Gustav lost power and missed a direct hit on New Orleans. (My heart goes out, of course, to the residents of Galveston and Houston, who are cleaning up the wreckage from Hurricane Ike as I write this.)
Now, with "A.D." complete on SMITH, I turn my attention to the book version, due out from Pantheon in 2009, right around Katrina’s fourth anniversary. Let’s hope that next year is a quieter hurricane season, and that the book will seem more a document of the recent past than a reminder of the frightening present. And, in its own way, a reminder that what happened to the residents of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a story that should be told and retold, in many shapes and forms, for all the years to come.
— Josh Neufeld
All images from "A.D." drawn by Josh Nefeld and courtesy of the artist and SMITH Magazine.