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A Short Interview With Josh Neufeld
posted August 16, 2009
 

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imageI've known Josh Neufeld for quite a while now. I believe we met while I was taking his picture at one of the Dying Chicago Cons, a few years before Wizard Entertainment took that show over, in the middle- to late-1990s. The fact that I can't quite remember exactly when I met him speaks to how long I've been aware of Neufeld's presence and his comics. Neufeld is equally well-known for his autobiographical travel comics and for his satires of financial world royalty and their excesses. At one point this was in publishing partnership with the popular and well-connected cartoonist Dean Haspiel, but both have been solo acts for so long it's almost strange to bring it up. He has more recently worked as one of the artists on Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.

A series of prose journal entries Neufeld put on-line about volunteering with the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina led the Brooklyn-based artist to take on what is by far the biggest project of his career -- a treatment in comics form of the stories of various New Orleans-based survivors of that natural disaster and its immediate aftermath. It was initially published on-line by Smith; a print edition from Pantheon is imminent. I spoke to Neufeld in early July on the subject of AD, New Orleans After The Deluge, because I'm not certain I would have been able to get him on the phone if I waited. The book drops this Tuesday with all the press you'd expect for this kind of big-publisher effort proximate to an event anniversary as a hook. Neufeld will also do a several-city book tour in its support. I hope he's enjoying the experience. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: When I told a few people I was going to interview you, a couple of them expressed a bit of confusion about your book's development. As I recall, you had done a story about working with volunteers in Mississippi, which led to the opportunity to do the serialized work, which led to the book.

JOSH NEUFELD: Yeah, that's pretty much it. I was a Red Cross volunteer first. I worked in Mississippi, about 90 miles outside New Orleans. I blogged about it while it was happening, and ended up putting a book together of all the blog posts -- with the comments included -- and sending it to the people that were part of the conversation. I just put that out myself.

It got written up in USA Today in Whitney Matheson's column, "Pop Candy." Then I got all these orders for it -- hundreds of orders from people I didn't know. I had to print up more of them and it became more of a widely-known thing. It wasn't a comic; it was just words. That book got into the hands of Jeff Newelt, the comics editor of Smith. Editor Larry Smith saw it and he wanted to do a comic to follow up The Shooting War, the graphic novel that Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman had serialized on Smith, and that's how AD came about.

SPURGEON: So there was never a comic version of what happened in Mississippi?

NEUFELD: No, I never did anything about my personal experiences. It just didn't seem appropriate to do something about being a volunteer. That's such a peripheral event in the story of Katrina. It just didn't seem right.

SPURGEON: Was there a part of volunteering, an orientation, say, that you think had an effect on AD in the sense that you might have created a different work if you hadn't gone to Mississippi?

NEUFELD: Yeah. It gave so much context. I think if I hadn't been down there to see what the hurricane did, and developed a spiritual relationship, I guess, with New Orleans and the people that went through the hurricane, I wouldn't have known where to start. Or that I was the right person. First it gave me that context. It also started me down the road to meeting the people who become characters in the book. The character Leo, the comic book collector guy, I actually did meet on-line when I was in Biloxi with the Red Cross. He told me his whole story, and when I finally figured out that I wanted to tell this story through the voices of people in New Orleans, I knew I wanted to make him one of the characters.

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SPURGEON: I'm interested with how you settled on the scope and focus of AD. Why only New Orleans? Why that specific kaleidoscope of characters? Why a focus on the events of the flood itself?

NEUFELD: I give a lot of credit to Larry Smith. Once we agreed in principle that I was going to do a serialized comic book about Katrina, I was still stuck on the autobiographical element of it. That's what my previous work has primarily been. I started realizing that that wasn't appropriate for reasons I was talking about before: I didn't want to put myself in the center of a story of this magnitude, that affected people from a totally different part of the country, people primarily from different racial and class backgrounds than me.

So I was struggling with that. I thought maybe I could make it about the people in Biloxi, or the volunteers I met through the Red Cross, that are more connected culturally to the experience. I was wrangling with all of this, and Larry finally said, "You know what? I think we need to focus just on New Orleans, because that's the place that most people think of when they think of Katrina. Getting into all this other stuff about these other areas in the Gulf Coast will dilute the issue. New Orleans is a big city, and it has a very specific story as relates to Katrina."

imageOnce he said that, it started to click for me. Let's make it about a group of people and their different experiences. A visceral image come to my mind, a swirling hurricane with many strands of clouds that formed that funnel. Each of those strands is one person's story, and as the storm gets closer and closer the storms converge until they become in a sense the same story. That got me really excited. I could get out of the whole autobiographical thing; just shut that down. And instead get into the idea of being a reporter, being a collaborator with these people.

It was a relief. There were expectations from friends of mine, Dean Haspiel and guys from ACT-I-VATE. "So when are you going to make your comic about this? When is the Josh-in-New-Orleans thing happening?" Everyone was assuming that that was what I was going to do. It was causing me a lot of internal stress. Like I was supposed to produce. It reminded me of being back in my post-college days, when I was still drawing superhero comics because I didn't know independent comics even existed. I was totally disengaged with the idea of genre comics, but it was all I knew how to do. So when Larry said, "Let's do it about real people, and let's focus on New Orleans," there was a great sense of relief. [claps hands] "Let's go. Let's do that."

I'm a huge fan of Joe Sacco, obviously. I have everything he's done. So I immediately had a model for how to do that. Safe Area Gorazde was an inspiration for me because of the way he told that story through the voices of all these different characters from one city, their experience during the Bosnian War. There were definitely models out there. I took to it really easily. Just on a purely boring comics nerd sort of thing, I had been looking for a way as a cartoonist to get away from using narrative captions. I was overusing them, essentially. When I was doing autobio stuff, I was doing a lot of "This is how I felt at the time," and explaining a lot of things, and using captions to cut from scene to scene and not do a lot of in-scene moments. I thought this would be a great way to try out this new writing style. It would be an action story with a lot of stuff happening minute by minute rather than week by week. I could really get into a different kind of storytelling.

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SPURGEON: Was there any sort of tone or goal that you established as you began to tell your story? I wondered if there was something you had in mind in terms of the commonality of the experience, maybe another element to those stories you feel hadn't been expressed and needed to get out there. Did you have goals at the outset?

NEUFELD: Very good question. There are two points to your question. One is that I did want to find a theme. One of the first things when Larry gave me parameters -- "let's do it about New Orleans; let's find a cross-section of people with a range of experiences" -- is that he felt we needed to have someone from the music scene and someone in their teens. I think his background as an editor and as a journalist for many years was this is how you do these kinds of stories. If you're going to do snapshots of people sharing one experience, you want to have this demographic range, and age range, and class range, and all that. Standard journalistic measures.

Once we started to get people together, I said to Larry, "I need to find the thing that holds this all together." What I was doing was not only journalism, but also art. I feel like I'm telling a novelistic story in addition to a journalistic one. I feel that there's something that's larger than these stories in the end. What we realized together is that these stories are about loss. Which is a very cliched thing, but with Katrina I feel that there are so many ways that loss is felt and expressed: on a personal level, on a community level, on a entire-city level, and even a national level when you think about what New Orleans means to us as a country. That was an important guiding principle for me. It helped me think about how I wanted to structure the story, which characters I wanted to use and how I wanted to focus on them.

imageGetting to the part of your question about the story that needed to be told. To me the two main characters are Leo and Denise. Denise is the one that was stuck at the Convention Center for three days. I came across her story on the radio program This American Life, in an episode that they did pretty soon after the hurricane. She talked about her experiences and they were so different about what the media was reporting about what happened at the Convention Center, basically turned it on its head. The stories around the Convention Center were that there had been these roving gangs and that they had been raping and killing people, and that they had raped a 13-year-old girl. That they stole people's water. That it was chaos, like a zombie movie or something. I guess maybe a month down the line those stories finally got corrected, and people started to talk about what had really happened, and how it really wasn't like that at all, and how it was about the authorities not being there and not providing any of the services they promised when they sent people there.

Denise specifically rebutted all of these things. She talked about how the gangbangers were actually a calming presence there. As scary and as crazy as those kids can be, they were organizing parties where they would go out and loot and bring stuff back for people. The gangs there made peace with each other and, in the interest of protecting people, agreed not to battle each other as they would usually have. They made sure that when evacuation buses came women and children would get on the buses first and there wasn't a mad rush or chaos. They took control in the absence of authority. The other stuff about people getting raped and all that, Denise insisted that was all hyperbole and typical racist fear-mongering, essentially.

I felt someone had to tell that side of the story. And it wasn't me doing that, but someone speaking in her own voice. You know I've always had certain politics, a sense that comics can speak to political realities and social realities -- that's part of my mission as a cartoonist. I didn't want to overstate that myself, but to have someone else do it was perfect.

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SPURGEON: When you have a story that runs counter to an already-established narrative, even when it's a narrative in which you might have serious doubts, do you do due diligence on that new story, or do you feel it's more important to present your subject's story unadorned? I'm not trying to cast aspersions because I thought she was credible, but I'm interested in the process and how you approach that kind of thing.

NEUFELD: I think by the time I talked to Denise and got in touch with her after I heard that radio piece, the news reports were starting to even out a bit. News outlets were printing corrections or retracting some of the things they said. Specifically they were saying they didn't think anyone was killed at the Convention Center. Certainly people died, but that was due to exposure and neglect, not anyone killing them. Actually, one person was shot by the cops, but that's another story. So yeah, things were starting to even out in the overall coverage by then.

Plus, Denise was so credible. She's so smart and articulate and with it, a rightfully angry person. She never told me anything that sounded one-sided. To be fair, if I were an actual journalist I might practice more due diligence, but I think I get a pass being somewhere between a journalist and an artist. Also, one other really important thing was each chapter of AD on the Smith site included embedded links to other on-line sources that supplemented the story. I found raw video feed of people talking to MSNBC at the Convention Center. They were all saying the same things Denise had. That made me feel much better.

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SPURGEON: Was there any temptation to profile any of the authority figures? The doctor comes somewhat close to being one of those kinds of figures, with access to resources others might not have. Was there any temptation to talk to, say, one of the soldiers or one of the government officials?

NEUFELD: I know it was something we talked about at one point. I think maybe Larry put in a couple of phone calls, or e-mails, and really thought about it, but nobody came forward. It's interesting because there was one element of the book that I was originally going to do but then I decided not to, a chapter that we were calling a frozen moment -- breaking out of this narrative and freezing the story on August 29 when everything was flooding, and cut to showing what Governor Blanco was doing, what Mayor Nagin was doing, what George Bush was doing, what Michael Brown was doing, how they were responding -- or not, as the case may be. Even the national guard soldiers from New Orleans that were in Iraq. There was a lot of interesting stuff I could have done.

Ultimately, I didn't want to insert much more of an editorial view on what I was already doing. I can see how that could have been an interesting perspective. This book Nine Lives, by Dan Baum, is in many ways is similar to my book, nine people's experiences during Katrina. One of the people he chose was a county coroner and another was a cop. It was interesting to read about people that have some authority, or that are supposed to, and how it worked -- or failed miserably -- from their end. Ultimately, there are only so many stories you can tell, and I chose to tell the stories of people who had no control over what happened.

SPURGEON: How far ahead did you work on the serialization?

NEUFELD: [laughs] I was never ahead, not even for a second. I think we started serializing it in January of 2007. In January of 2007 I was down in New Orleans with Larry meeting with many of the characters for the first time while I was posting this first chapter, these overhead shots of the hurricane coming to hit New Orleans. It didn't have to have any of the characters in it. I was literally posting a new chapter at the beginning of the month, then writing the material that would go in the next chapter in the first week after the last one was posted, and then drawing it over the least two and a half weeks, and then posting it as I finished the very last panel. And then same process over again. I was never ahead of it. Until, of course, when the web portion of it ended, and I had all of last Fall to work on expanding and revising the book for its print edition.

SPURGEON: Did that process have an effect on the work?

NEUFELD: Larry wanted me to post a new chapter every week. [laughter] Ultimately we would have gotten more traffic and more attention if we had done it more quickly, which is the way Shooting War was done. But there was no realistic way it could have been done in a week. I figured Larry knew my work before he hired me, and knew how much detail I put into every drawing.

Theoretically maybe we could have posted episodes every two weeks or have had shorter chapters with me skimping on backgrounds, and have those going up every two weeks. But I've never been able to work that way. [pause] It's professional pride. I don't know how to cut corners. I don't know what it would look like. Where would I draw something quickly and badly to make it work? I wouldn't want something like that up there under my name. You know? I was anticipating how much misery it would be if we turned it into a book, having to go back and re-draw stuff. I think that we found a compromise that worked out in the end.

SPURGEON: Were you getting feedback during serialization?

NEUFELD: We got great responses every time we put something up there. Those were really important to me from a creative standpoint, to have that kind of affirmation, a good response from people there. My first worry was that New Orleanians or people from the Gulf Coast were going to say, "Who is this Brooklyn guy having the balls to tell our story?" But right off the bat people from New Orleans were into it and so supportive. They were even acting as bulk fact-checkers for me. There were some things I had in the initial chapters where my initial time-line was off, the stuff about the advance of the hurricane and people preparing for it. Some of the responders pointed out some of those inaccuracies. I was able to fix a few specific panels and re-post them on-line without too much trouble. I was happy to get that criticism so quickly.

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SPURGEON: Was there anything that surprised you feedback-wise, either something you hadn't thought about or the degree to which one thing or another set people off or excited people?

NEUFELD: There's one scene where Denise is suffering through the hurricane at her apartment and things are totally going haywire and the ceiling is falling down all around her. She runs into the hallway and jumps on her bed and says, "I'm going to die in this bitch!" [laughs] That's a great line I would never in a hundred years have thought of myself. I'm not even sure I know exactly what it means. I remember Dean Haspiel posted on the comments board that "I didn't like that line where she said that. It made me feel that she was all ghetto. I didn't relate to that character anymore." I was like, "Well, that's what she told me she said." Denise was reading it on-line as well, she's very present on-line. She wrote back, "I am that woman. That's exactly what I was thinking and saying at that moment." What can you say at that point?

Someone else posted something like "I like this bitch." It got be a whole "bitch" thread, which is good.

In terms of surprise... I was just so gratified. I can't think of any meaningful complaints or negative comments that anybody had. It was so much about people being so into it and responding on such a personal level. As a cartoonist who works on these kinds of topics, to have that kind of response is like never having been kissed before. I was just thrilled that people were accepting this thing and taking it into their hearts and embracing it and sharing it with other people, and saying "this is our story and you're telling it." Wow. That's why I'm doing this.

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SPURGEON: That grid you're working with, which I assume is something that will look good up on screen. Was that different for you as opposed to a standard comics page?

NEUFELD: Yeah.

SPURGEON: You seemed more confident with it at the end than you were at the beginning.

NEUFELD: It did take time to get used to. You have copies of the book galley, so you can see there are times when I "explode" certain panels out into two-page spreads. There are other points in the book where I got out of the requirements of the on-line grid, which was a nice break after two years of drawing in that same space. Yeah, I would say I never grew to love that format. [Spurgeon laughs] But I understood why it works on-line, and I like how Smith set up that whole site, where you can click through each thing and there are also links and material around it, but you never have to scroll down. For a web-viewing experience, I think it is one of the better things I've seen on-line for reading comics. I'm of two minds. I'm really an old-fashioned cartoonist who still draws on paper with ink and doesn't use a computer for any element except scanning and very basic color stuff.

SPURGEON: You're comics Amish.

NEUFELD: [laughs] Maybe Mennonite.

At the same time, I realize there's a whole potential audience for comics on the web, and that's where a lot of comics will naturally go. There's something very organic to that process. Then there's the whole Scott McCloud question if it's still "comics" -- what about the gutters and the spaces between the panels and the gestalt page? It was like a constraint I had to work with, so I tried to enjoy it and make the most out of it. There's a part of me that like to have a constraint. I think comics themselves are a lot about being creative within tons and tons of constraints. The formalist side of me enjoys having those restrictions and then finding ways to be creative within them. I'm not a formalist in the sense that a lot of the visual experimenters are, but I think about it a lot. So it was a mixed blessing. It was nice to not have to worry too much about crazy layouts and doing all sorts of stuff like that when I was doing it on-line. But when I got to the book, it was really fun and challenging to take everything I had already done and see where I wanted to expand things, and what panels I wanted to feature and where that left holes in the narrative I had to fill. Then the writing and the art had to bounce off each other. It was a fun part of the process, for sure.

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SPURGEON: You mentioned Joe Sacco and Safe Area Gorazde earlier. One of the remarkable things about Sacco's book is the way he gets a sense of texture both out of the way he draws the place and by repeating visual motifs -- chopping and preparing wood is one of the things that's constantly in the background and provides context to what we're seeing. How did you develop the visual world in AD? For instance, I was taken with how you depict water.

NEUFELD: Joe Sacco is so brilliant, and as you say texture is so important to him as an artist. His ability to use cross-hatching and patterning is so beyond me. There was a point years ago where I tried to do some of the same things, and it just didn't jump off the page like his work does -- it made me appreciate it that much more. The style that I'm comfortable in now is much more stripped-down and streamlined, and it's about taking away detail as much as adding it. That was a challenge, because as you say New Orleans is a very specific place with its own visual character. Specific environmental elements were huge factors in the story, all the way through. You mentioned how I did water...?

SPURGEON: There's a malevolence to it. It's very dark and things cut across it in a way that makes the water still and heavy in a way that feels awful.

NEUFELD: That's what I wanted to do with the water more than anything else. The idea of always making the water black was a huge breakthrough for me. I was so happy at that moment. "That's it." I can't draw the water in a way that Joe Sacco might, to convey all the brackishness of it, or the way another artist who works in a "realistic" mode might. But if I make it black, who knows what's underneath there? It becomes this huge force that's everywhere. To get back to your original question, about narrative texture, I thought of the black water as something that tied all the characters' disparate stories together.

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SPURGEON: Another visual motif I thought was interesting was the way you drew crowds.

NEUFELD: I was trying to be very sensitive in my drawings. I didn't want to create stereotypical images of "scared black faces" or "angry black faces" or anything like that. There's such a history in comics of stereotypical presentations of black people. I used a lot of reference, photos of real people from the convention center and the Superdome. I tried to find individual people and put them into the comic. At the same time, I was having fun with the basics of comics storytelling, going back to my mainstream cartoonist past, or the exaggerated art of Tintin. I think there are times I get a little more cartoony in AD. I'm trying to do that for dramatic effect, because most of the time my work is pretty understated -- people having everyday emotions rather than extreme emotions. I wanted to convey to the reader with certain scenes that this is nothing like you've experienced.

imageSPURGEON: I want to discuss the end of the book, where you check back in with certain people as to their experience since the books' major events. First of all, I'd like to know why you did that section. Second, I'd like to know why you went with such a tight storytelling approach there.

NEUFELD: Did it work for you?

SPURGEON: Yeah, it did for the most part. I like the ones with the kid the most. I thought they added a lot to his story.

NEUFELD: That was my wife's input, her telling me we needed more of Kwame. I always thought of his character and the doctor character as standing in for a lot of people's experiences but they weren't so specific that I needed to visit with them a lot. Throughout the course of the book I would try to have certain character's experiences standing in for the rest of the characters' experiences. In terms of losing all your possessions or something, I thought it would be tiresome to go through a litany of all that was lost by all of these characters. So I tried to find the one whose story of lost possessions was the most interesting and imply the other characters had similar experiences.

With the stories that happened afterwards, again that was something that was important to Larry from the beginning. "Let's remember," he said, "this isn't a story only about the hurricane but about the whole city and life goes on and these stories continue. These people's lives shouldn't be marked just by their experiences by three days in August 2005." But how do you pick up your life after these experiences? Plus I grew to know all of these people so well by talking to them all the time and reading their blogs and their journals and telling their stories and getting to know their loved ones. I wanted to tell more about them, show they were not just victims. They're real people like you and me that just continued on with their lives.

SPURGEON: Why do you think there's been a dearth of material about this experience? You mentioned a blog book, but one would think that there would be a lot of books out there like yours. What is the nature of the reluctance to talk about that series of events? I remember visiting New Orleans a few months after the hurricane, and it was amazing how jacked up the city still was. It was like visiting a friend that you sort of knew went through a bad time and you visit them way later and expect them to have bounced back but they're still limping and puffy-faced. It seems there was a vacuum of testimony about the lingering effects.

NEUFELD: It's interesting that you say that, because I think that's true for most people, that there's not been enough interest and follow-up. I guess because I've been deep into it for four years now I feel like I've read a lot of books and articles, and seen a lot of documentaries, and heard a lot of NPR reports. But I'm totally aware that's not true for most of the population, that unless you're making a concerted effort you're not aware as to what's been going on.

This is why the book is coming out when it is, because around August 29th there's going to be a lot of coverage of New Orleans and the hurricane and where things are at now in the gulf coast. There will be a week of that and then it will disappear again. That's just the nature of the news cycle.

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SPURGEON: Do you feel more pressure to provide a document of that time period?

NEUFELD: I did on a personal level, almost a self-glorifying level. "I am now a documenter. I am a chronicler." [Spurgeon laughs] It gives you a bit of a good feeling about yourself, that you have a purpose beyond having a really good story and getting the chance to tell it. It really hit home to me two years ago around this time when I appeared on the syndicated NPR show News and Notes. I did it on Katrina's second anniversary, along with two of the characters, Denise and Leo. It was an existential moment. I was talking about AD, and they were telling their stories. I'm not sure exactly what she said, but Denise said something that made me realize how much she had invested in AD, how she trusted me with this story. She was now a character in this story and she trusted me to tell this all the way through.

That was a profound moment for me. This isn't bullshit. This really means something. This isn't just an artist playing with himself at home in his studio anymore. Now I have people that have trusted me with their stories, that believe I'm going to do right by them. That was sobering and a source of inspiration going forward. Even if it's just those five people. But I've found it to be many more. When I've appeared in New Orleans for publicity, people have come up and told me that they're following AD and thanking me for telling their story -- even though it's not their specific story. It's a new experience for me, let's just put it that way. After toiling in obscurity, this is a whole new thing.

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* AD, New Orleans After The Deluge, Josh Neufeld, Pantheon, 208 pages, 9780307378149, August 2009, $24.95

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* all images save one taken from the work; photograph by me at a MoCCA Festival.

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