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Influx interview- josh neufeld- creator of a.d.- new orleans after the deluge

May 24, 2007

A few days ago Influx wrote about the A.D. comic strip that tells the story of the Katrina disaster. We tracked down the creative genius behind the idea, Josh Neufeld, for a quick interview.

1. Tell us a little about your background?

I am the author of the Xeric Award-winning A Few Perfect Hours (and Other Stories From Southeast Asia & Central Europe), a graphic novel collection of real-life stories about my travel experiences. I am the creator of the comic book series The Vagabonds, and the co-creator of Keyhole (nominated for an Ignatz Award) and Titans of Finance: True Tales of Money and Business. I am a long-time artist for Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor. Besides being a Xeric Award recipient, I’m also an Ignatz Award nominee. in 2006, I self-published Katrina Came Calling, the story of my three weeks as a Red Cross volunteer following Hurricane Katrina. In addition, I am a founding member of the online comix collective ACT-I-VATE. I have contributed to anthologies published by (among others) Vertigo, Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Top Shelf, StripBurger, and SPX. My comics and strips have also appeared in daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, financial magazines, literary journals, museum exhibition catalogs, and many other venues. I live in Brooklyn, New York, and make a living mixing my comics work with freelance illustration and design.

2. How did the A.D project come to fruition?

Soon after I returned from my Red Cross deployment I put together a self-published book about my experiences in the Gulf Coast. Entitled Katrina Came Calling, it was taken from my online journal and illustrated with photographs. Being a public forum, my blog was read and commented on by people from all over the spectrum: not only by my friends, associates, and regular readers, but by other Red Crossers past and present, and by Biloxi-area survivors and former residents. Many of those comments (and my responses to them) are included in Katrina Came Calling, which is sort of a unique marriage of print and the ongoing conversation of the Internet.

Putting together and producing K.C.C. took about three months; and soon after it was complete I got caught up in the second issue of my solo title The Vagabonds (published by Alternative Comics). So the idea of doing a graphic novel treatment of Hurricane Katrina was still very much of in the back of my mind. But quite a few of my readers expected a Katrina comic to emerge eventually. For me the debate was how to tell stories from that event without repeating elements of K.C.C. and/or making myself look “heroic.” It’s one thing to show myself backpacking haphazardly around the world with my girlfriend as I did in A Few Perfect Hours, it’s another to portray myself as some sort of hero just because I spent three weeks with the Red Cross.

But when SMITH editor Larry Smith approached me about serializing a Hurricane Katrina graphic novel on his site, and then suggested I use real people from New Orleans as the subjects, it was the perfect solution to my storytelling dilemma.

3. What’s the reaction been?

The response I’ve received so far has been almost unanimously in support of the project. A.D. has been favorably mentioned in Rolling Stone magazine, Wired.com’s “The Underwire,” and most of the prominent New Orleans blogs. In addition, much of the response on the site has been from people from the Gulf Coast. I’d like to think that New Orleanians and other Gulf Coast readers touched by the hurricane will feel that I am representing their story well. I want A.D. to reach readers all over the country (and, dare I say, the world), to remind them that the story of Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans is not over. The fact is that the eyes of the world were on the region for a time in the fall of 2005, but as other news events, both large & small, enter the landscape, people inevitably begin to forget. For anyone living in New Orleans, the story of Katrina will play on for generations. That’s a lot of people, and a lot of lives, in turmoil. My goal is for A.D. to be a document, however humble, of this period.

One of my biggest fears was that the people who are our characters would take issue with their representation in A.D., but to the contrary so far everyone’s thrilled.

4. Do you think “factual” comics could have a bigger role to play in communicating news and events?

A.D. is the first nonfiction graphic novel I’ve embarked on which focuses mostly on “news” and other people’s experiences. (In my previous work, I either told my own stories or illustrated Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical tales in American Splendor.) It’s long been my belief that real people’s stories are inherently dramatic, and that it’s important to celebrate real life in comics as much as fantasy/fiction. With an event as monumental as Hurricane Katrina, the burden of A.D feels much larger. And given the subject matter, there’s a lot of extra emotional weight involved. But I’m really excited about it, because it’s testing my limits as a storyteller, and because it’s such an important story to tell.

5. How about for nonprofit groups to communicate their issues to a broader group of consumers?

Coincidentally, I am currently working on a side project for the American Friends Service Committee, a one-page comic about Colombia, the U.S. war on drugs, and the Free Trade Agreement. So the AFSC clearly thinks comics are a new, legitimate way to spread their message. For me, it comes down to the old debate about whether or not these “educational” comics are good or not; i.e., are they well-done and effective as comics, not just blatant propaganda…

6. Do you have any new upcoming projects that you are on the horizon that are similar to A.D.?

I’m slated to draw a Harvey Pekar story or two for the next set of American Splendor comics from DC/Vertigo, but other than that, and a side illo here or there for editorial clients, it’s A.D. 24-7 for the next six months or so, and probably longer.

7. Who’s  influencing and interesting you at this moment in time- “artists”, “authors” , “bloggers”, “film makers”?

Current artistic influences include fellow cartoonists like Dean Haspiel, Nick Bertozzi, Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco, and Dan Goldman. Other artistic influences include Banksy and Martha Rosler. Authors who interest me at the moment include Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Ayun Halliday. I read blogs by Rob Walker, Karen Ahn, Heidi McDonald, and a bunch of people on LiveJournal. And filmmakers who excite my cinematic imagination are Alffonso Cuaron, Peter Jackson, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, and Michael Mann. And don’t forget TV: My favorite current shows include “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” and “Deadwood.”

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