Josh Neufeld created a book meant to illustrate (literally) the luck and horror that New Orleaneans experienced in the days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Posited as graphic journalism, A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge focuses on seven individuals -- real ones that Neufeld interviewed during the original making of the story as a webcomic. In archetypal fashion, they stand in for those who stayed and those who left; those who have and those who have not. There is, for example, the Arab-American shopkeeper; a black high school student; and the wealthy doctor in the French Quarter. (Either the doctor is the only wholly imagined character or Neufeld didn't like him much; he's the only featured person that Neufeld doesn't include in the book dedication.)
Neufeld's steady eye on these stories brings a compelling watchfulness to the tale, magnified by the hypnotic, gorgeous use of color. The author's passion for documenting these tales is evident, as is his honest concern for the failures that trapped citizens in a winless game of futility and danger.
But I don't really like the book he made.
Why? Something's flatlined about it. Something here never gains altitude. Neufeld seems unsteady in balancing these real-life stories as anecdote on one hand, and broadly, almost humorously, symbolic on the other. He wobbles in his effort to plainly chronicle stories of terror and, sometimes, comedy, while also overlaying the film of his point-of-view. It's not a mistake for Neufeld to have a point-of-view: he's right to be appalled by the suffering exacerbated by unequal, unfair, and incompetent services in the aftermath of Katrina. But taking these stories and inflating them to archetype ("look at the poor people! look at the rich people!") diminishes the book.
This is most evident in the dialogue, which brims with overdetermined plotting. One character evacuates with his wife and spends a long time telling her about how sorry he is to leave his 15,000-piece comics collection behind in their apartment, protected only by their cardboard boxes. Wouldn't you know it? Flooding destroys the collection. The reader is not surprised. (The epilogue of the story tells us how his collection was largely replaced by donations from good samaritans from around the world.)
This is the crux: Neufeld mistakes having a point-of-view on what's happening with the notion that only one thing is happening.
A.D. is interesting in how it develops the nascent field of the "nonfiction graphic novel" -- it's one of the only major books of its kind that doesn't tell history through the personal story of the author, but rather, through reportage. Unfortunately, though, A.D. doesn't reveal how complex and crucial illustrated journalism can be.
Speaking of reportage: Neufeld collaborated with Brooke Gladstone of "On the Media" for the meta work of illustrated journalism, The Influencing Machine. That's a great book, but there too I felt something limited in the art: the pictures illustrated the text of each box without demonstrating a broader, more revelatory vision for the overall book. I didn't hold much against Neufeld for this: the pictures were still great, and for a book that was so expository -- not to mention a collaboration with another writer -- I figured it for a difficult project where any artist would've hit limits.
A.D. is Neufeld's own work, and it hinges on an inherently dramatic story. But I feel the same flatness here. Reading him, I was reminded of my problem with the writer Francine Prose. Here's what I wrote about Prose's work:
For the lack of anything better, I have to call it insight. Prose's book is full of fascinating information, and its stance is original, but the narrative moves laterally and feels, ultimately, like a series of compelling anecdotes. I kept wanting Prose to dig deeper ... I wanted her to wrestle with contradictions, to get her hands dirty in this messy history, to embed herself within this narrative. But she only moves partway towards that ... not much beyond summary emerges.
And here's the thing I realized as I finished the book: this is my ongoing trouble with Francine Prose. The Anne Frank book is the fourth title by Prose that I've read; I've also read Gluttony; The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired; and Blue Angel. Again and again, I'm drawn to Francine Prose's fascinating ideas; I'm drawn into her clear way of presenting intriguing places and people and ideas. I will likely finish whatever book of hers that I pick up. But I will be somewhat disappointed that each book--at least drawing from what I've encountered so far--flirts with depth without actually diving in.
The trouble with Francine Prose is that there's no follow-through. She has the most wonderful ideas, she brings together far-reaching and thoughtful literary references, but it just doesn't go much further than "isn't it interesting." And it is interesting. Which is why I very well may read another Francine Prose book, despite what I discuss here. But if I do, I'll likely be nagged by the persistent wish that she'd push harder, that she'd analyze more, that she'd welcome more nuance head-on. I want her books to move not just laterally, but also longitudinally: multi-directional ideas rather than ones that flatline.
Prose is a very prolific woman, and an intelligent one. Maybe it is yet to be.
Retag that toward Neufeld, and that's where I'm at. Intrigued, but disappointed. Of an ilk with Neufeld's ideas, but uninspired.
There is nothing messy in A.D.. Curiousity is not the driver here. It is clear that what Neufeld believed about Hurricane Katrina when he began the comic is exactly the same thing he believed when he finished it.