New Orleans has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling there on a few occasions and have loved it each time. The city has been lit up this week (in more ways than one) thanks to its legendary Mardi Gras revels.
As one of America’s oldest cities, it’s one of the country’s claims on history, troubled though some of that past may be. It’s a tale of European colonial settlements, indigenous and migrant peoples, and a tradition of slavery dating back to the early 18th century. It’s a crossroads of transplanted cultures that somehow did not dilute and wash away as they did in so many places elsewhere—if anything, the influences that arrived in the area seem to have amplified each other and grown stronger. And New Orleans is famously a locus of spiritual traditions that give outsiders a real chill, not least of them Voodoo, an enduring fascination of mine.
In our century, the city is inseparable from the memory of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the region in 2005, the sixth most intense Atlantic hurricane ever, and the fifth deadliest in recorded history to make landfall in North America.
The scope of the disaster was enormous. As politicians created a mockery of rescue and relief efforts (and celebrities made a mockery of the politicians, and themselves), tales of poorly aging infrastructure and heartbreaking class distinction became national issues. Most of America may have known that New Orleans is located on the Mississippi River, but few knew anything about the levees that protect it from flooding. Some of the levees were natural high ground; the man-made ones were build in 1965 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers indicates that roughly half of New Orleans is under sea level already, and continues to sink thanks to a combination of factors referred to as subsidence.
So when Katrina hit in 2005, the precarious combination of outdated water pumps, crumbling levies, and a half a city somewhere between 1–7 feet below sea level was no match for the tall waves, hurricane winds, and deluge of water.
And a deluge it was. Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29, eventually killing more than 1,500 people and driving survivors to the Superdome. The Biblical quality of the disaster was not lost on Brooklyn-based cartoonist and graphic novelist Josh Neufeld, who worked as a Red Cross volunteer post-Katrina in Biloxi, Mississippi. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (2010), Neufeld’s chronicle of Katrina and its aftermath, focuses mostly on the accounts of New Orleans residents, but also touches upon all the areas most drastically affected by Katrina.
Biblical language and concepts thread together A.D. This structure, along with a strictly maintained timeline, add a sort of clinical and journalistic order to what would otherwise be accounts of an incomprehensible level of suffering and tragedy. Originally published as a serialized web comic on SMITH Magazine, A.D. was eventually collected into book form and got a well deserved round of awards and nominations. It also made the New York Times bestseller list, always a triumph for an illustrated work.
Drawn in Neufeld’s signature high-contrast, woodcut-like linework (with underlays of a misty light green color), the book has a very distinctive look and a draftsman-like precision well suited to the subject matter. Neufeld did a great job of making the artwork get out of the way, showing equal facility with enormous scenes (including a number of cityscapes and images of the enormous storm bearing down on New Orleans) and with small details. Human figures are at first almost absent as we follow the path of the storm toward landfall, but they become more present as we’re drawn into the words of Neufeld’s subjects.
The story isn’t entirely journalistic; it includes more than a dash of Neufeld’s own views, including searing indictments of the bumbling FEMA Director Michael Brown (of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job!” fame) and BP CEO Tony Hayward. Moments like these help give the story a safe emotional core, as do touches of humor and Neufeld’s approximation of the New Orleans drawl, a device he also uses to signify some of the class elements behind how the Katrina disaster was mishandled at the municipal, state and national levels. While the French Quarter was up and running three weeks after the disaster, the Ninth Ward remains a ghost town.
One of the liabilities of being a graphic novelist is that I often find myself unable to read a book and instead pick apart its writing and artwork. I found A.D. a difficult read because of the terrible events it describes, but the craftsmanship was precise enough that I didn’t find myself thinking, as I normally do, of the mechanics of how the story was composed. It’s a testament to Neufeld’s abilities that he wove such a mass of facts—and events affecting so many people—into a narrative that was not only cohesive and informative but well paced. The artist’s own experiences as a volunteer worker are well represented in the story.
All of A.D. is available in web comic form on the SMITH Magazine site, but I strongly recommend that you buy the book for the full experience. I will be thinking of A.D. when I am next in New Orleans, never forgetting, despite the wonderful food and music and atmosphere and everything else that draws outsiders like me to it, that it was (and, in parts, still is) a place ravaged by one of the worst disasters to befall the country.