Post-Katrina Depicted in Comic Strips

Brooklyn-based artist Josh Neufeld talks about his first Web comic series, A-D: News Orleans After The Deluge, which chronicles the lives of six real-life survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Two characters whose lives are depicted in the series, "Denise" and "Leo," talk about their portrayals.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

If you go online, you'll find news reports, blogs, and a comic series about Hurricane Katrina just for the Web.

It's called "A.D.: News Orleans After The Deluge", and it illustrates the struggle to survive in the Big Easy during and after the flood. Brooklyn-based artist Josh Neufeld created "A.D." It appears on the Web site, smithmag.net. And he's created his own comic and also works with Harvey Pekar, the legendary comic creator who inspired the film "American Splendor."

In his new project, he tells the story of six real people in New Orleans, and two of the characters - if you can call them that - are Denise and Leo. Denise is a hurricane outreach organizer for a battered women's program in Baton Rouge, and Leo is editor and publisher of antigravitymagazine.com, a Web magazine about New Orleans' music and culture. We've got Denise, Leo and Josh. Welcome.

DENISE (Hurricane Outreach Organizer, Baton Rouge): Hi.

Mr. JOSH NEUFELD (Creator, "A-D: News Orleans After The Deluge"): Hi, there.

LEO (Editor and Publisher, AntigravityMagazine.com): Hey.

CHIDEYA: So, Josh, let me start with you. What inspired you to create this series?

Mr. NEUFELD: Well, it was when I - it all started when I was a volunteer for the Red Cross and I went down to Biloxi, Mississippi shortly after the hurricane. I blogged about my experiences down there and ended up compiling those blogs into a book - not a comic book, but just a record of my blogs and the comments that I received. And because I've had a history of doing comics on nonfiction topics, I got a lot of encouragement from people to do a comic about my experiences.

However, I was hesitant to do a comic about myself because I just didn't feel like that was appropriate for the subject matter, being that I was just a volunteer and not really, you know, someone who's directly affected by the hurricane. So…

CHIDEYA: So let me ask you how you found Leo, Denise and the other folks that you profiled.

Mr. NEUFELD: Well, when I finally did hit on the idea - thanks to Barry Smith, the editor of SMITH, where the comic is running - of doing the comic about real people who lived in New Orleans, we basically went on a three or four-month intensive search to find people that we thought would be great characters, subjects for the comic. And that's how we came across Leo and Denise.

CHIDEYA: So Leo, you are one of these real-life characters. What do you think about being portrayed and perhaps exposed in this way?

LEO: Oh, I love it, you know? I've made no secret when Josh approached me about being a character in the strip that it was my lifelong dream to be a comic book character. I've, you know, grew up reading comics. That's how I learned to read, and I've collected them very, very avidly since I was about 12 years old. So you know, that - my passion for that could actually be, you know, kind of brought to life in that way. It was, you know, something very appealing to me.

CHIDEYA: Denise, what about you? Do you feel like this is really your life? And if so, if not, why?

DENISE: Oh, I believe it's a combination of things. It's my life and Josh's interpretation of it.

CHIDEYA: And how do you feel about it?

DENISE: Well, it has allure. It has (unintelligible). At first, I didn't want to be a comic book character. But I thought it was an opportunity to get some truth out about Katrina because there were so many lies.

CHIDEYA: And when you think about what's gotten out, do you ever - do you guys ever discuss and say, well, you know what, this is not the way that I would like this portrayed? And how do you negotiate with Josh about what appears?

DENISE: Well, Josh and I talked on the front end, and I was kind of critical about the way my character could possibly be perceived. It seemed to me that my character will fall easily into stereotype and I was upset about it. But what I liked was that Josh didn't have a knee-jerk reaction to my criticism. And instead of becoming defensive, he listened to my concerns and he allowed me greater involvement in the process. So right now, I'm really pleased with how things are going.

CHIDEYA: Josh, how do you deal with people who, obviously, you have to have a relationship to them, saying, you know what, that's just not right, especially if you've already gone to press? I'm going to use that word, virtually, because it is the Internet. Do you say, oh, gosh, I made a booboo?

Mr. NEUFELD: Well, I don't know if it's reached that point. I think Denise, after she saw her representation in the first chapter, where I sort of introduced the character, she, you know, very rightfully had concern about being portrayed in sort of the stereotypical way of an African-American woman. And, you know, it was definitely a combination of me listening to her concerns and thinking about that. And then also we agreed that for future episodes, it just works better all around, I would show her the script before I - you know, I would show her any script that had her scenes in it, and she could sort of (unintelligible) it and help me, you know, correct details and help with language and all sorts of things that can only make the strip better. So I was really happy to have that kind of exchange.

CHIDEYA: Leo, you're someone who's a big fan of comics. You said that this was your dream.

LEO: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Why do you think a form like this can tell a story as serious as Katrina, when a lot of people say, you know, comics are for kids or comics are for entertainment?

LEO: Well, I think part of the reason why Josh chose me to be one of the characters is because of my connection with comic books in general and just my long-term love for the medium. You know, quite simply, when you see my apartment, my old apartment in the comic strip, it's so full of comics and so full of, you know, different paraphernalia and different belongings that I had that, you know, you just see that as, like, such a love for me that it actually tosses the reader into it because, you know, like, well, if this person loves these things so much and I'm reading a comic strip about them, you know, why not take it seriously? It's obviously something that people do in real life. So you see those things very, very vividly.

Mr. NEUFELD: If I can just jump in on there too. I mean, there is a long tradition in graphic novels and comic books of tackling, you know, very serious subjects from Art Spiegelman's "Maus" to Marjan Satrapi's "Persepolis" to Joe Sacco doing comics about the war in Yugoslavia and conflicts in Israel and Palestine.

So you know, for me, it's just the - it's just continuing that tradition and helping to hopefully educate Americans that comics are as valid a medium for telling these sorts of stories as any other one.

CHIDEYA: Denise, I'm sure that not your whole life will get to be told because this is going to go on for a few more episodes. But what are you doing now in terms of your professional life? And also how are you feeling, personally?

DENISE: I'm still struggling with a lot of Katrina-related issues and post-traumatic syndrome and anxiety and stuff. But I worked with battered women who are also survivors of Katrina. So they've gotten a double whammy. And it helps to get outside of your own myopic view of your problems. And I really like the work that I'm doing now. We're educating women about domestic violence and even on the impacts of Katrina and trying to facilitate them, getting their needs met while creating citizen activists who will help each other, particularly in the isolated areas like the trailer parks.

CHIDEYA: And, you know, Leo, do you feel like this is helping you process in any way, you know, being able to look at what's happened to you on the page? Does it help you emotionally?

LEO: Yeah. In a lot of ways, it does. I know - when the comic strip first started, and particularly, I think it's chapter three, which portrays my then girlfriend and I leaving the house, you know, right before Katrina, you know, it actually brought a lot of things back for me. Like, I really remembered, like, those last moments before we left and kind of how tense they were. And in some ways, I got to know if it helps me get over it, but it does help me remember it, and that puts things now into perspective. You know, just as far as making sure that I do appreciate everything that I have in my life now and how easily that can all be taken away.

CHIDEYA: Josh, just finally, what are you up to next with the series?

Mr. NEUFELD: Well, we're - I'm just finishing chapter six now, which is going to be debuting on Sunday on smithmag.net, and that's going to be halfway through the whole thing. And we've got six more chapters to go after that, where we're going to learn about what happened to the characters after the hurricane, and sort of take you up to the present day.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, it sounds like you got a lot on your plate. And Josh, Denise and Leo, thank you so much for coming on.

DENISE: Thank you.

Mr. NEUFELD: Thank you, Farai.

LEO: Thanks.

CHIDEYA: Josh Neufeld is the writer and illustrator of "A.D.: News Orleans After The Deluge." The Web comic can be viewed at smithmag.net. And Denise and Leo are both real people having their Katrina experiences scripted into the comic. Leo spoke with us from WWNO in New Orleans, Louisiana.

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