Cartoonists around the globe responded swiftly to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Some artists focused on the political or scientific conflicts that swirled around these storms, while others focused on the disasters’ human dimensions. Now Maria has entered the fray. I am certain that these hurricanes will in time inspire longer graphic works, but this seems an unfortunately apt moment to look back as well as ahead, revisiting a graphic novel and a comic book written in response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. It too was a brutal category 5 force storm. First discussed in my December, 2013 blog post, these works yield relevant insight into this past month’s devastation and what hurricane survivors may experience in the months ahead. So today I am reproducing part of that earlier post, originally titled “Weathering the Storm.” Readers tween and up will be most absorbed by the details and language in the following works. They will also best appreciate the web-based sequel to one book I discovered while writing today.
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 successfully employed 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 was active in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, some focused on book collections, with projects extending into November, 2013. For the 10th anniversary of Katrina, in 2015, Neufeld also interviewed six of the seven A.D. survivors he had profiled for a web-based graphic feature article. In it, they discuss their lives during the past decade and their views about New Orleans’ future. Readers will appreciate this finely-crafted update, as well as how Neufeld depicts the physical changes an added ten years have brought to these folks! I also found Neufeld’s own September, 2017 blog post detailing similarities he sees between current hurricane news items and A.D. sadly fascinating.
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.
Clashing views about the origin and solutions to natural disasters continue today, in 2017, with at least one cartoon about Hurricane Harvey already drawing controversy. Does one wait for rescue by heavenly messengers or pitch in and help one’s neighbors? In the weeks and months ahead, people’s patience and goodness—and government leaders’ savvy and sincerity—will undoubtedly continue to be tested in these matters. Relief for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico has been dangerously slow and frustrating. These are tests we can ill afford to fail, particularly as other political disasters loom with growing, frightening frequency. Unfortunately, it seems that diplomatic wisdom remains in shorter supply right now than political trumpery.