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Thursday, August 20, 2009

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge: Josh Neufeld Q&A

Posted By on Thu, Aug 20, 2009 at 4:55 PM

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Josh Neufeld (American Splendor, The Vagabonds) arrives in the Crescent City to launch the nationwide signing tour of his graphic novel A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. (Read Gambit's stories about the book here and here.) Originally a serialized webcomic, the 13-chapter volume is drawing praise for its informed, unflinching depiction of seven evacuation and survival accounts. There are four events this weekend associated with the book's launch, each of which should feature Neufeld and at least one A.D. subject: a kickoff party Friday night (6 p.m. to 9 p.m., now at Republic New Orleans), two signings on Saturday (1 p.m. at Maple Street Book Shop and 3:30 p.m. at Octavia Books) and one on Sunday (1 p.m. at Beth's Books/Sound Cafe). Neufeld spoke with Gambit about the recently completed project, which has consumed most of his past four years.

This is a very loving transfer. How involved were you?

I basically did all the production for the book. They let me do anything I wanted: stock, dust cover, the boards, end papers, all that stuff. That was the deal from the beginning when Pantheon signed me. They always do really amazing treatments of their graphic novels, and I wanted to be part of that tradition. It was very personal.

You’ve spent just as much time thinking about Katrina as those who lived through it.

This project has been about two-and-a-half years. But if you count the research, the volunteering, the Red Cross experience and all that stuff, New Orleans has been on my mind for close to four years now. It’s gratifying to have a product after spending that much time digging into something.

Is this the longest project of your career?

Longest, for sure. All those steps, thinking each stage along the way, “How is it going to work in this contest?” Doing all the background, acting as a journalist, and then trying to take all the information I had and crafting it into something that felt more like a novel. I reported like a journalist, but then I told the story like a novelist.

How often would you communicate with the book’s characters?

I’ve been in constant contact with the characters since three to six months before the book started. Someone like Leo, I was in touch with almost from the moment Katrina happened. Maybe a month and a half afterward. After a while, when you start to get to know the people on a human level, you stop even thinking about it as interviewing, and you’re just talking. Most of them we got in contact with initially by email and phone, then we came into town in January 2007, (Smith editor) Larry Smith and I, and met everybody in person. Which is really amazing, because I don’t think all five of the main people have been in New Orleans at the same time since then. We did in-person interviews with everyone; I took photos of everyone. We did some audio (recording), which was great for me to have.

Would you say Smith had the most input on the project?

Oh yeah. He had kind of a vision for some of the key points in the book from before, maybe, I even came onboard. That he wanted to tell it with a cross-section of people; that he wanted it to be about more than just a hurricane, but about a continuation of people’s lives and the city’s life. He was really helpful in terms of helping me find the entry point as an artist. Every scene in the book was something that I came up with, but the whole thematic approach to telling the story was very much a collaboration between Larry and me.

When did you finish uploading the material?

It was the third anniversary of Katrina when I posted the last chapter. I was totally exhausted, just mentally drained after finishing it. The hardest part was dealing with various deadlines. There was a big deadline around the second anniversary — chapter six. We got a big press push, and Larry had promised a bunch of reporters that they would get access to the new chapter before anybody else. That meant that I had to finish one of the most complicated and dramatically involved chapters on a really tight deadline, right after my daughter had been born. That’s fun to look back on, but it was sort of a nightmare.

How difficult was it to get everything together in time for printing?

Finishing up the online version, I couldn’t not put in all these things. There was so much material I had to get in, and it ended up being the longest chapter in the book. It had a lot of exposition stuff and scene changes, visually very dense. That was another crazy process at the end of last summer. Took about three weeks (off). The book was printed in Singapore: four-color with hand stitching, hardcover, dust jacket. It was cheaper, but the deadline was earlier (end of January). I just started writing in the fall. Probably wrote solid, working on the script for the book portion, linking all the other stuff together, for a month to six weeks. I had my wife edit it very carefully.

A lot of it was almost like doing complicated math, because there was a lot of material that I had already drawn, but that for various reasons needed to have fill-in elements — panels that would link this previously drawn piece to that (one). There might be two panels in between, or there might be pages. That was a solid three months of drawing. On the last day of the deadline (end of January) I had to pull an all-nighter. The joke is, I didn’t know this, but deadlines in the book industry are kind of soft deadlines. I don’t think anyone expected me to meet the deadline.

What aspects of the transfer are you most pleased with?

The stuff that I did the most new material was in the epilogue, the last two sections. I like the new coloring schemes. I especially was really happy, because it was literally on the last day of corrections that I came up with it, with the coloring for the last section, which I based on the New Orleans city flag colors. The one thing I wished I’d been able to do more was do things in the art that really spoke of New Orleans — somehow get that in there without being cheesy, only having shots of jazz trumpeters or Bourbon Street or whatever. I felt like I evoked that with the color scheme.

How have all of the characters responded to their depiction?

The one thing I love about Brobson (Lutz) is that he has the strongest views of anyone I’ve ever seen. I think he’s such a wonderful character. I never worried about how he’d react to anything, which is really nice.

In one section, you have him saying that one of the great grievances since Katrina is Galatoire’s no longer hand-peeling their shrimp.

I think I got that from the last time I was there — he insisted on taking Larry and me to Galatoire’s. He ordered the shrimp appetizer and sent it back. [Laughs] But with a smile. And the waiter just rolled his eyes. I tried to get that rolling of the eyes in that panel too.

With Kwame, I wasn’t so much worried about what he would think, but his father sort of chaperoned him the first time I met him. At that point I hadn’t done anything yet, so there was no way he knew what we were going to be doing with this comic, or how we would be exploiting it. When the comic ran online, Kwame [had] a pseudonym (originally called “Kevin”). We changed the name of all the family members. Around the second anniversary, I caught him on the phone, and I asked him point blank: “What do you think of the [comic] and the representation of you?” He said, “I love it, my whole family loves it. We show it to everybody.” When it came time to do the book version, I asked how he felt about using his real name, and he said, “Go for it. Everybody in my family is behind it.”

The only thing I can say about Leo is, early on he started signing his emails with “Character, A.D.” He said, “I finally got to be a sweating guy in a comic book!” This archetypal image.

The character I had the most trepidations about was Denise, because there are so many issues involved: a black woman, a white guy telling her story. She’s also such a unique person; you know that the instant you meet her. My art is so broad — I’m not a great master of likenesses. I told a lot of the stories in short snippets where you had to infer a lot about the characters from just a little bit of information. So there were worries on both of our parts that I wouldn’t be representing her in a way that she felt was fair. That was something we talked about openly. She came to me and said, “I have issues with this or that,” and I tried to not be defensive and really pay attention to her concerns.

What were some of her concerns, specifically?

Her first appearance in the book, I guess she came across as caustic or foul-mouthed. Negative, in a knee-jerk way. She thought that was a stereotypical portrayal. I think she called it “an angry black bitch.” I could see it from her point of view. She said, “I went through a major trauma, and the person that you know now, who you met after Hurricane Katrina, is a very different person than before Hurricane Katrina.” As a storyteller, it’s an important thing to remember: that characters need to change. One of the things I ended up doing, from then on, whenever I had her as a major player in a scene, was to literally run the scripts by her. I don’t think she ever really changed anything; she just made things better. She gave me edits that captured her particular dialect or the vocabulary she uses. I think of her, Leo and Abbas (Hamid) as being the “stars” of the book; they’re the ones who have the most screen time.

Were you talking to them on a weekly basis?

Weekly, daily. Leo actually went to Hamid’s store and took 50 or 60 reference photos that were incredibly helpful for me. So many people on the A.D. message boards were like that. It’s something beyond journalism; it’s a complete sensory experience.

What kind of responses have you gotten from New Orleanians?

Wow, it’s been amazing. I’ve been completely overwhelmed and so gratified, because basically, it’s been like a group therapy session. People who either are from the city and went through the hurricane, or have relatives from there, just have constantly written in, either directly to me or on the A.D. message boards, talking about how they cried when they read the book; how reading it all over again was such a powerful experience and it was really helpful to them, thanking me for telling the story. I get the sense that a lot of people from your city feel that it’s already forgotten about, or that the rest of the country has moved on and they sort of need to keep talking it out. And that my book is fulfilling that function. That’s exactly why I wanted to do it.

Nothing negative? Sometimes the natives can get a little restless.

I’ve been surprised by how little negative reaction I’ve gotten. I keep waiting for that: “What is this f**king Brooklyn guy who never even lived here (doing), telling our story?” My intentions were to be as truthful and well documented as I could, while still trying to tell an engaging story with real, human characters.

Has there been any movement on the educational front?

The academic marketing people at Pantheon are definitely really excited about the potential for the book to be a teaching guide. Persepolis was used for a freshman classwide assignment. The academic marketing guy was telling me he had really high hopes for the same thing for this book. So many people in America still have this very retrograde idea of what comics can be: basically Archie or Superman. Just getting another book out that people look at and take seriously is striking a blow for all my compatriots who are doing this kid of comics.

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