Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


June 23, 2009

Illustrating Hardship, One Frame at a Time

After Katrina hit, graphic novelist Josh Neufeld went to New Orleans to volunteer. Two years later, he created a singular illustrated account of the disaster.

Max Lakin

Josh Neufeld draws comics. He's a cartoonist, as it were. But before your Marvel-movie-adaptation-conditioned mind starts conjuring images of spandex-and-ennui-saturated Americana, understand that things in Neufeld's cartoons revolve more around the human condition and global experience than back-alley crimefighting and utility belts. He's drawn about living in Central Europe and Southeast Asia in an award-winning novel, A Few Perfect Hours, and contributed to the inimitable Harvey Pekar's American Splendor franchise. Neufeld's most recent project, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, illustrates the lives of a handful of real-life Bayou State residents trying to piece their lives back together after much of it was washed away.

Josh Neufeld. Photo provided by the author
"I would love to see long-form comics accepted as legitimate reportage."

Josh Neufeld. Photo provided by the author

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Gelf spoke with Neufeld about the comic strip as storytelling, working in a post-disaster zone, and how illustration figures into the future of modern media.

Gelf Magazine: Why the "alternative" genre? Not satisfied with troubled men in form-fitting one pieces defending anonymous metropolises?

Josh Neufeld: Um, well said. My earliest influences were actually European comics like Hergé's Tintin and Goscinny & Uderzo's Asterix. In Europe, comics run the gamut from historical fiction to adventure stories—from slapstick comedy to science fiction. In fact, pretty much everything but superheroes. So in that context, superheroes would be "alternative."
Now, I did grow up in the US, so as a teenager I had a long superhero phase, and in high school I dreamed of drawing for DC or Marvel. But by the time I was in college, I was already losing interest in the superhero genre. In my mid-20s I was re-introduced to what we call "alternative" comics through the work of Harvey Pekar, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, and David Greenberger, and I've been working in that arena ever since.

Gelf Magazine: Sources tell me you're New York-born. How much has the Apple influenced your work, considering much of it centers on other cities?

Josh Neufeld: I was indeed born in New York, at Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side. I lived in NYC until I was about 18 months old, when my grad-school parents took me first to Urbana, Illinois, and then San Diego. I moved back to New York when I was 13, and went to junior high and high school in New York (at Music & Art, now called LaGuardia). Since I spent my teenage years here, I really do consider myself a New Yorker—though I think I still have a California accent.
New York has influenced me in so many ways that it's hard to pin down a specific element of my work. For one thing, my high school was incredibly diverse, as was the group of kids I drew comics with. I lived in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn, I went to school in Harlem, and I had friends on the Upper West Side and in the South Bronx. So I've always appreciated and treasured the multitude of experiences and cultures that life offers. I would say my interest in travel and the extremes of human experience come in many ways from those formative years. And one thing I've always drawn inspiration from is the energy of the streets. When I'm in other places (I've also lived in Chicago and San Francisco as an adult, among others), I really do miss the hustle-and-bustle of New York. It's a unique and invigorating blend.

Gelf Magazine: What was the impetus for your forthcoming Katrina-chronicle, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge?

Josh Neufeld: It's a long story, but I'll try to make it brief. Like most people, I was shocked and horrified by the events of Hurricane Katrina and what it did to New Orleans—as well as the abdication of responsibility by the local and federal authorities. In any case, shortly after the hurricane, I volunteered for and was trained in disaster response by the American Red Cross. I was deployed to the region in October of 2005, where I worked for three weeks in Biloxi, Mississippi, about 90 miles outside of New Orleans. While in Biloxi, I delivered hot meals to local residents who were trying to rebuild their homes.
Before, during, and after my Red Cross deployment, I blogged about my experiences. In early 2006, I self-published a book of my blog, as well as the comments and online conversations I had via the blog with my readers, local residents, and other volunteers. (The book was all words and photographs, by the way, not comics.) That book came to the attention of Larry Smith at SMITH Magazine, an online journal of personal storytelling. Larry was looking for a good candidate to do a comics story on his site about Katrina, and Larry and I talked about how to tell the story. He suggested finding real people from New Orleans as my characters, helped me find a good selection of potential subjects, and from there I took on the project, which became A.D. I serialized it in monthly installments on SMITH for about a year-and-a-half. It had great response and some nice press coverage, which led to my book contract with Pantheon. The expanded, hardcover edition of A.D. will be coming out this August, right before the fourth anniversary of Katrina.

Gelf Magazine: A.D. is reminiscent, to me at least, of fellow New Yorker Art Spiegelman's Maus in its illustration of complex social disaster. Do you count him among your artistic influences?

Josh Neufeld: Wow, that comparison never occurred to me before! To be honest, I hold Maus in such high regard that I would never compare A.D. to it. The complex and novelistic way that Spiegelman approached telling the story of the Holocaust in comic-book form is constantly astonishing to me. In my mind, A.D. is more specifically indebted to the work of Joe Sacco, who has made a fine career of exploring conflict in such places as Israel/Palestine and the former Yugoslavia. Sacco is like a combat reporter/photographer who just happens to be a kick-ass cartoonist. You should definitely check out his work.
I also can't talk about my artistic influences without mentioning Harvey Pekar. His autobiographical work in American Splendor was the major reason I started writing (and not just drawing) comics. His celebration of quotidian existence opened the door to me writing about my own experiences (and with A.D., writing about others'). And I've had the good fortune of being one of Harvey's illustrators on American Splendor for nearly 15 years, so I have continued to learn from him just through osmosis.

Gelf Magazine: The story is also legitimate reportage, following the lives of Gulf Coasters you met, literally, after the deluge. What has been their response to the project, and that on the part of New Orleans?

Josh Neufeld: A.D.'s subjects/characters have been great throughout, in terms of opening up their lives to me and buying into their comic-book portrayals. I've met them all in person, interviewed them, photographed them, used their blogs and journals as source materials, and otherwise made a pest of myself for the better part of two years. And they've been unfailingly receptive and welcoming of my dredging up their often painful memories. Leo, one of the characters, even mentions his role in A.D. in the signature portion of all his emails!
As far New Orleans as a whole, I've had some really wonderful comments come my way. A.D. on SMITH featured an active blog and a comments section for each new chapter. Many hurricane survivors and assorted friends and relatives posted comments praising the telling of their story and A.D.'s treatment of it. (They also offered corrections to some of my mistakes, which I was very grateful for.) I think more than anything people were just gratified to see the story of Katrina continuing to be told, and not just wiped away by the next flurry of the 24-hour news cycle.

<i>A.D.</i>: New Orleans After the Deluge

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. By SMITH Magazine

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of, something we've been interested in at Gelf is the evolution of modern journalism in its moderate-to-apocalyptic twilight. With the reception of A.D., do you see this form of storytelling as a viable addition-to/expansion-of classic reporting? Papers have always had single-pane political cartoonists, for example—how do you think cartoonists would handle a beat, and is that something that interests you?

Josh Neufeld: That's an intriguing question. The idea of a cartoonist "news beat"—using a form like Joe Sacco's or mine— is difficult to imagine, purely because of the time it takes to research, write, and draw a story. That's why single-panel editorial cartoons seem like a still-valid form. The closest I've seen to something like that, in terms of speed of response to the event, was last year after the devastating Sichuan earthquakes. Using a stripped-down style, Hong Kong-based Chinese cartoonist Coco Wang produced a series of strips on the quakes shortly after they happened. Her approach to the stories was less straight reportage, however, than a kind of amped-up tribute to the Chinese heroes and victims.
But getting back to your overall question, I would love to see long-form comics accepted as a legitimate form of reportage. I've long admired writers like Michael Lewis, Roger Angell, and Michael Herr, who write in a literary style about nonfiction topics. That is a space I think comics fit in very nicely, and in addition to myself, Sacco, and Pekar, cartoonists like Marjane Satrapi, Guy Delisle, Emmanuel Guibert, Peter Kupe r , and George O'Connor have been mining that territory quite expertly.

Gelf Magazine: You're actually not that far off —I read you're doing something with NPR about the news media itself?

Josh Neufeld: Yeah, I was just thinking Gelf would be particularly interested in my next project. I'm teaming up with NPR On the Media host Brooke Gladstone on a book about the future of media, called The Influencing Machine, scheduled to come out next year. I'm incredibly excited to be working with Brooke as she explores these very issues about how journalism (and books, and TV, etc.) must change with changing technology. Instead of lamenting a golden past, Brooke sees the whole history of media as being filled with these crises, and always being able to adapt. This time is no different; it's just maybe more dramatic in pace.
Brooke wants to tell the story in comic-book panels for a number of reasons, one being that she feels speaking through a comic-book avatar (a la Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics) is most akin to her radio voice; and also because she feels it is the best way for readers to take in her ideas in a fresh way. As an NPR- and media-junkie, I have as much to learn about this topic as anyone else.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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