For most of us, the collective damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina and its still-unfolding aftermath is incomprehensible; the cumulative impact of the destruction of a major American city lies far outside our cognitive range. We have a generation or two of processing ahead of us, and like the film noir line, “there are eight million stories in the naked city,” graphic nonfiction artist Josh Neufeld tells us five of them in his fine new “A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge.”
Neufeld, whose visual style will be familiar to those who’ve read Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor,” much of which he’s illustrated, came upon his profiles as part of his volunteering and blogging in the aftermath of the storm. Consequently, they have less of the sensationalistic drama that a traditional journalist approaching the story would seek and, improbably, that offers greater impact. For acts of extraordinary heroism or gut-wrenching tragedy evoke extreme emotions, but tales of “normal lives” upended as they were are things we can relate to on a personal level. Like Leo, who lost his comic book collection, or the cat that survived, or the evolving state of information uncertainty that plagued everyone and often resulted in faulty personal decision-making. Neufeld’s concerns are not trivial in comparision to the larger tragedies of lost lives, since the cumulative loss of a lost way of life is immeasurable. And his characters comment on the pathetic combination of inadequate government action and racially and socio-economic media and social reaction without being didactic. Like the scene where Denise witnesses firsthand the “looting thugs” at the Convention Center who were actually taking charge of a life-threatening situation and gathering resources and deploying them in a manner more socially responsible than those charged with such efforts. The cumulative effect of Neufeld’s book is to further our understanding of the power of personal bonds and the vitality of individual efforts to sustain basic human decencies in a crisis and to juxtapose that ironically with a larger social breakdown that was, in the end, as much human-made as an act of God.
Neufeld draws in a sort of cartoon realism; he takes great pains, for example to depict the actual book titles on Leo’s shelves before the storms. And though his use of a series of monochromatic color palettes in the book are interesting, his visual style tends primarily to serve the narrative rather than to stand on its own as something to be studied. But when the story is as powerful as this one, that’s not a bad thing. (Brian Hieggelke)
“A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge”
By Josh Neufeld
Pantheon, 193 pages, $24.95