housands upon thousands were affected byHurricane Katrina, which struck Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005. The magnitude of the catastrophe is depicted on a personal level in the new graphic novel “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge,” written and illustrated by Josh Neufeld and published by Pantheon. The book [...] tells the story of seven survivors who w ere living in and around New Orleans, and is based on research and interviews conducted by Mr. Neufeld. It is the latest example of the expansion of the graphic format to include nonfiction and reportage as well as superheroes and fantasy. The cast of real-life characters includes Abbas, the owner of a convenience store that he abandons only when floodwaters force him onto its roof; Leo and Michelle, a couple who find themselves adrift after they leave the city; and Denise, who survives the brutal conditions and scarce supplies at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. “All my comics are reality based,” said Mr. Neufeld, who lives in Brooklyn and has long contributed art for “American Splendor,” the autobiographical comics written by Harvey Pekar. Mr. Neufeld has also chronicled his own travels in “A Few Perfect Hours … and Other Stories From Southeast Asia & Central Europe” and illustrated “Titans of Finance,” true tales from the world of business, written by Rob Walker.
The winding road leading to the New Orleans novel began when Mr. Neufeld signed up to work with the Red Cross after the hurricane hit, serving as a disaster response worker in Biloxi, Miss., for almost a month. He said the catalyst for volunteering was 9/11. “Having been in New York when the towers fell, I remember that overwhelming feeling of helplessness and displaced anger,” he said. “When Katrina hit, I saw what was happening, and I realized that I, as a single person, could somehow help.” Mr. Neufeld blogged about his experience and self-published a collection of his dispatches called “Katrina Came Calling.” That book got into the hands of Jeff Newelt, the comics editor for Smith, an online magazine with a focus on personal narratives. “I met Josh for coffee, and we started talking, and it evolved from there,” said Larry Smith, the magazine’s editor and founder. “Panel for panel, moment by moment, there’s nothing I’m more proud of on Smith. Josh stretched himself as a reporter. It’s authentic. It’s honest.”
Together Mr. Neufeld and Mr. Smith decided to focus on New Orleans rather than on the whole Gulf Coast and to look for a broad range of people with different experiences. “There were a couple of story lines that I knew had to be there to represent the New Orleans experience for what it was: the flood waters, the convention center, the Superdome,” Mr. Neufeld said. “We put out a lot of feelers, read a lot about the storm and listened to the radio. I found Denise through a radio program talking about her experiences in the convention center.” A relative of Mr. Neufeld’s led him to Abbas, while his alumni magazine connected him to Kwame, the son of a pastor from New Orleans East, who had moved to California after the hurricane. “He fit so many characteristics,” Mr. Neufeld said of Kwame. “We were still looking for a young person. He’s African-American. His house was flooded.” Mr. Neufeld said he thought Kwame’s story captured the post-Katrina diaspora, chronicled in the book’s second-to-last chapter.
Some of the survivors were reluctant at first to have their stories told. Mr. Neufeld said that Denise thought the project, because it was a comic book, would somehow be funny. “Hers was the typical reaction from someone who doesn’t read comics or graphic novels,” he said. “We explained that they tackle weighty subjects.” Kwame was in high school at the time, so his father asked that the Web version use pseudonyms. “When they saw how it looked online, and saw how sensitively we were treating it, they allowed us to use their real names in the book version,” Mr. Neufeld said.
The Web version includes audio and video interviews and a message board, which allowed Mr. Neufeld to respond to feedback. But the printed version has expanded chapters in which the characters talk about their lives after the hurricane. “That’s been the most interesting part to me: Have they been able to rebuild their lives?” Mr. Neufeld said. “What do they think of the city now?” Mr. Neufeld deploys color to strong effect: it resonates like the soundtrack of a film. “I tried to use the colors to help the readers through, to create mood,” he said. The bright gold of an early chapter conveys the glory days of the city, when it was still about “great food and booze and jazz and people partying,” he said. Sickly greens convey the march of the storm and a soft crimson is used during the days of unending heat and threatening violence. The normally two-color art shifts to three in the final panel, which includes a Mardi Gras flag with its purple, gold and green hues.
[...] “A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge” is a novel, not a documentary: Mr. Neufeld edited parts of the survivors’ stories and combined some characters. “I did whatever worked to make the emotional truth of the stories much clearer,” he said. “It’s what makes a certain scene emotionally satisfying in a way that makes the whole book add up to a novel.” ( By George Gene Gustines )