Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Review: New Orleans AD by Josh Neufeld

Though I haven't yet reviewed any on this blog I spend a lot of time reading the form of literature I believe we have begrudgingly come to accept as being called graphic novels (I recently learned the term "comix" and though I can't wait to bust it out in a Scrabble game I don't plan to ever use it in polite conversation.)  The premise of my reviews in particular is the same as my blog in general: to challenge myself to write often and post it for public scrutiny.  This is why I have written reviews of books that came out before I was born.  I am not a reliable source of literature information, unless you want to know my thoughts on whichever book I last decided to read through my relatively aimless selection process.  Imagine how jumbled it would be if I included books that only take a few hours to read and that I read multiples of per week.  Chaos, surely.  But I've been reading some really quality work that deserves discussion and recognition, so I want to highlight one of them.

A week ago I read One Soul by Ray Fawkes, which wowed me more than anything in any format has in a long time.  I almost reviewed that but it's so particular and its narrative (if you can call it that) so unusual that it's difficult to review.  Really the only way to review it is to describe its premise and then write "READ IT!" like that, in all capital letters with an exclamation point.  I'll save you a step and cut out the synopsis.  Just go read this book as soon as you can.  If you don't want to drop $24, most libraries have a graphic novel section now.  If you read it and hate it call me and I will personally apologize for wasting your three hours but I really don't foresee that being a problem.

The next week I did finally discover a graphic novel that would be suitable for a written review: AD: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld.  Released in 2009, it's a published collection of Neufeld's webcomic which aimed to form a historical record of Hurricane Katrina.  It takes the lives of seven New Orleans residents (three individuals and two couplings) and follows their five storylines from hurricane prep to their living situations years after.  Neufeld mentions in the Acknowledgments section that he sought to represent all facets of the population, and he does so in a nuanced way.  He does not take the stereotypical groups you expect - one rich white protagonist, one poor black protagonist, etc.  This is not the movie "Crash."  You actually feel like you are getting a realistic cross-section of residents, and that is the first strength of this book.

The second and biggest strength of this book is in the visuals.  One important measure of the quality of a work of art is its use of the medium.  In comics this means telling a story that is best told as a comic or that can only be told as a comic.  This is so true of Neufeld's work.  Pages are fully saturated in one color, for example:
The only example I could conjure was a drawing of a radio.  Whoops.
You may say to me, "Well, Kevin that just seems like lazy illustration.  Like maybe he didn't want to hire a colorist."  Well you're wrong.  It's actually a very effective decision, in many ways.  It creates a feeling of unity or shared experience among all the characters, as they all seem to be drifting in the same colorless world.  It also helps emphasize certain moods with certain colors (no, it's not blue/green for the entire book).  Finally it comes in handy when Neufeld uses it to highlight important points or characters by putting them in white on a color background.

The first 20 pages of this book are fantastic and worth the price of admission alone.  You could click over to the webcomic version and read through to get a taste but it's not the same experience.  In the book version Neufeld really knows what he's doing with the power of page layouts, specifically in the massive 2 page spreads.  A series of wordless images sets up the story of the hurricane easier than any prose could.  I'll attempt to describe it, but it's something you can't really feel until you just read it.

Top half: A view of Earth from space
Bottom half: A closer view of Earth, emphasizing the Gulf of Mexico

A two page spread of the New Orleans skyline, with residential neighborhoods in the foreground.  All one color, the surest image of stillness and calm.  In the upper-right corner the sun beats hot on the world.

Page is divided into corners, showing aerial shots of various New Orleans neighborhoods.  Bourbon Street, a cathedral, a neighborhood, the levees.

Same as page 4 but set in Buloxi.

Top half: Gulf of Mexico.  Clouds swirl east of Florida.
Bottom half: Same frame, slightly zoomed in.  Storm has grown and moved west over the gulf

Top half left: Stream of cars lining the highways out of New Orleans
Top half right: Crowds of people filing into the Superdome
Bottom half: Same frame as page 7, the hurricane has grown to take up the entire frame.

PAGE 8-9
Two page spread of New Orleans, now with a massive swirling storm behind it.

The next pages or show the course of destruction, all wordless, all in one color, with very few humans afoot.  It is quiet and chilling and powerful and it could only be done in a comic.

So there you go.  Now I understand that this review is a bit bonkers.  It must be as difficult to visualize a comic by reading text descriptions of it as it is to write those text descriptions.  More reason to read it then, right?  If you want an accurate and human account of Hurricane Katrina, give a comic book a chance

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