“Weathering the storm” can mean surviving all sorts of difficulties—emotional as well as physical. Since last month’s Typhoon Haiyan seized the Philippines and tornadoes blasted through the U.S. Midwest, though, waves of wind and water have been uppermost on my mind. I tracked Haiyan particularly closely as my adult son was in the Philippine capital, Manila, while Haiyan raged through the island nation. Manila (and my son) were spared, but so many people were not… It is difficult to make sense of such tragedies and their aftermath. As a result, today I am writing about four graphic novels that feature monumental storms. These gripping books range from non-fiction to a fictional crime caper, both impelled by Hurricane Katrina, to the myths and tall tales people have created to explain drenching floods and deadly, dust-filled droughts. The Katrina books contain details and language that readers tween and up will absorb, while the other books will resonate with readers of all ages.
Artist/illustrator Josh Neufeld began A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (2009) after serving as a Red Cross volunteer with victims of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. In his Introduction and Afterword to this non-fiction book, Neufeld provides statistics about the impact of the devastating storm. He explains how he chose to “tell the story from the perspective of a range of real people…” as well as describing “certain key experiences” about “evacuating the city, facing the flooding, being trapped in the Superdome or Convention Center, and losing all your possessions.” Neufeld interviewed and kept in touch with seven adults who had lived through Katrina, vividly recreating their different personalities and experiences before, during, and after the storm. An underemployed Black counselor living with her extended, female family; a White, ‘Yuppie’ husband and wife; an Iranian-born shopkeeper and his Black, working-class buddy; a middle-class Black teenager, son of a pastor; an upper-class, gay White doctor: these are the real people whose lives Neufeld dramatically captures, the “beating hearts and souls of A.D.,” to whom he dedicates this book.
We come to know and care about these people through Neufeld’s sharp, skillful renditions of their words, deeds, and emotions. A.D. opens with a section about “The Storm” itself, zooming in from outer space with boldly-drawn, then finely-detailed views of New Orleans. We see Katrina’s dramatic impact on the cityscape, sometimes in powerful double spread images, before we ever meet its citizens. But how quickly we come to know them! Abbas and Darnell’s initial, cheerful determination that they can ‘wait out’ the storm is captured in their sparkling fist-bump, Darnell saying “Bro, we are all set. It’s gonna be just like ‘Survivor’!” Yet too soon we see in dramatic double spread images how shaken they and others are by Katrina’s incredible devastation. In the center of one dark-grounded double page, Darnell and Abbas are shown in chest-high muddy water, imagining lighter-colored snakes and alligators swirling around them. A few pages on, the real danger of mosquitos to them is suggested by another, atypically humorous double spread, with one page’s tiny “G’night” ironically facing the other’s image of a giant, buzzing mosquito. The next morning, the men are covered in bites.
Neufeld uses double spreads more often to convey painful realizations and realities. He depicts from an overhead, distant perspective the horde of homeless victims waiting to shelter in the city’s Convention Center. In close-up, Neufeld later shows the anguished faces of these people, with their escalating, rumor-fueled fears captured in three word balloons widely-separated across the pages: “There ain’t gonna be no buses comin’!” “They gonna open the floodgates and drown us!” “THEY BROUGHT US HERE TO DIE!” The two-tone contrast used throughout A.D. heightens the impact of such scenes. (The reason for shifting from one color combo to another, though, is not clear.) In smaller panels, color contrast also conveys Denise’s silent, bleak anger as her extended family is turned away from its promised shelter. Her articulate bitterness bursts out later, during Katrina’s immediate aftermath, in a word balloon superimposed over a desolated neighborhood, when she remarks, “This isn’t my life. This is the life of someone I wouldn’t even want to shake hands with.” Neufeld then shows us Denise herself, her hand covering a probably tear-filled face, as she goes on to say, “I think a big part of me was swept away in that hurricane.”
A.D.’s concluding section, titled “The Return,” updates readers about its protagonists and New Orleans’ efforts at recovery through 2008. That remains a mixed success. As Denise, now employed successfully full-time notes, “I am home. But it’s not over.” A large panel depicting the FEMA trailers that were supposed to be temporary shelters contains Denise’s final remark: “We’re not all home yet.” That is the last, powerful image in Neufeld’s book. Yet he and his seven protagonists have remained in touch; A.D’s Afterward describes some of their activities through 2010. There are even more recent updates. In blog posts, New Yorker Neufeld describes how—after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy blasted the Northeast—some of the seven contacted him to see how he had weathered that storm. Neufeld himself is active in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, some focused on book collections, with projects as current as last month.
Another graphic work springing from Hurricane Katrina further shows how monumental storms bring out both the best and worst in people. Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story (2010), written by Mat Johnson and drawn by Simon Gane, with Lee Loughbridge providing grey tones and color and Pat Brosseau the lettering, is a well-done fictional crime caper. Its central plot is a bank heist made possible by the chaos Katrina causes. The book’s events include episodes of violence—with dramatically lettered sound effects such as “BANG,” CREEACK,” “BRAKA BRAKA,” and “BOOM”—typical in action-packed comic books. Similarly, its ex-con hero and its villains—a brutal mercenary soldier named Colonel Driggs and a self-satisfied, snobbish bank manager—are familiar types we have met before. (Ex-con Dabny, the book’s hero, has only broken the law once before, to raise money for his young daughter. This former customs inspector gets involved in the heist when an old cellmate asks for a ride.) Yet the fast-paced action, expressive drawing, shifts between wide and close-shot images, and dramatic use of a limited, dark color palette elevate Dark Rain beyond a typical crime comic. It tells its tale so very well. Sophisticated readers may anticipate much of its outcome, including Dabny’s romance with a strong-willed woman he rescues and his reunion with his daughter, but seeing how the story lines develop and how characters cope with Katrina’s dangers and difficulties hold our attention enjoyably.
Nearly half of Dark Rain’s focus is on the hurricane’s impact on its protagonists and the ordinary citizens of New Orleans and neighboring communities. Some of these communities welcome refugees, while others turn them away. Poor, Black citizens of New Orleans, already an underclass in ‘the Big Easy,’ fare worst in the days following the storm. Yet Johnson and Gane also show how some characters defy stereotypes and expectations. Young gang members help the ill and elderly suffering outside the Superdome, even as their gang clothing and rough appearance cause more conventional citizens to fear them. Katrina’s ‘dark rain’ is brightened by the goodness of some people, even while it foils some of the worst aims of Colonel Driggs and his mercenary force, itself ironically named “Dark Rain Security.”
One character in Dark Rain remarks about a wrecked neighborhood, “It ain’t right.” Dabny replies, “Not a matter of right or wrong. It’s a hurricane. It’s a flood. It’s not a question of right or wrong, it just is.” Yet Dabny’s view of natural disasters—a view many nowadays, including most scientists, share—has not always been the dominant one. Cultures world-wide have created myths or used religion to explain the occurrence of torrential rains and floods. Three of these ancient explanations are highlighted, others more briefly mentioned, in a recent, beautiful graphic collection of myths. The only ugly thing about this book is its awkwardly long title: Some New Kind of Slaughter—or—Lost in the Flood (and How We Found Home Again) Diluvian Myths from Around the World (2007).
Illustrator MP Mann and author A. David Lewis focus on Zizundra, the ark builder in the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh; Noah in the Judeo-Christian tradition; and Da Yu, who controlled floods in Chinese legend. Mann and Lewis weave these stories along with their own creation of a modern “eco-warrior,” a scientist racing to save her U.S. coast family from an approaching Force Four hurricane, into a blended quartet of tales. Organized by a timeframe of “Warnings,” “Preparations,” “Deluge,” and then “Aftermath,” these four main flood stories sometimes converge on pages with four, rectangular panels, each panel illustrating a different flood. At other times, the majestic words of an ancient epic or Bible appear inside modern flood panels. Sometimes, images from different time periods appear within the same large panel.
I particularly enjoyed such a full page spread early in the “Warnings” section. It depicts underwater the bare legs of an ancient prophet alongside the swimming sea turtle of many legends as these foregrounded figures approach the sunken ruins of four different cultures. A full-color palette is used to great effect throughout this book. Older readers will appreciate the overlap and blending of stories here, including the dreams and adventures of the modern, heroic scientist/mother, while younger readers may take more pleasure in the ancient stories, including the brief accounts of Native American, African, and Australasian flood legends.
Readers of all ages will enjoy author/illustrator Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn (2009), centered about a different kind of disastrous “rain”—ongoing dust storms. These caused “dust pneumonia” and even “dust dementia” during the prolonged 1930s drought that turned parts of the U.S. and Canada into a savagely poor, barren “Dust Bowl.” Phelan’s swirling lines and muted water color tones, along with a multilayered storyline, have earned this book many kudos, including the 2010 Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction, the American Library Association’s designation as a Notable Children’s Book, and a YALSA accolade as a Great Graphic Novel for Teens.
We quickly come to care about Jack Clark, Phelan’s 11-year-old protagonist, as he copes with bullies, harsh events such as the mass clubbing of rabbits, and the frightening mystery of a looming figure in the barn. Is Jack himself suffering “dust dementia” when he sees this eerily rain-drenched figure—or is this a supernatural creature, one who has been keeping needed rain away from the area? Maybe a friendly shopkeeper’s tall tales about heroic “Jacks” who defeat gigantic Kings of Blizzards and Northeast Winds have led a sick Jack to imagine a terrible “Storm King” who is malevolently holding rain hostage. Or perhaps this really is an encounter with the supernatural, akin to the world-wide myths about floods described in Some Kind of Slaughter. Phelan begins the novel with an epigraph (from a scientific manual, no less) which supports that possible interpretation: “Every theory of the course of events in nature is necessarily based on some process of simplification of the phenomena and is to some extent therefore a fairy tale.” The many wordless panels support both possibilities—a supernatural encounter as well as illness. The varying size of the panels also make readers aware of how time seems to slow down for people awaiting a terrible event and speeds up for those trying to flee it. The Storm in the Barn concludes with Jack Clark’s father acknowledging the way his son has faced down his fear, whatever its cause, and giving Jack the increased responsibility and respect he has earned.
Just as Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami, combined with the resulting nuclear power plant accident, have inspired some manga about those disasters, I expect that Hurricane Haiyan, the inspiration for this blog post, may feature in future graphic works. As for me, I am anticipating a late December visit from my son. I can only hope that, having avoided Haiyan, he is not delayed by any of the blizzards or ice storms winter brings us here in Minnesota! I would rather weather those storms after his safe, timely arrival.