I know we promised you webcomics earlier this month, but you’ll have to forgive us. Webcomics creators are largely doing a lot of work they aren’t getting paid for, so they’re all pretty busy.
Josh Neufeld, the creator of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, took on a subject near and dear to my heart. I went to college in New Orleans, and though I left before Hurricane Katrina hit, I still consider New Orleans a huge part of me and my life. I appreciate someone taking on the stories of diverse New Orleans voices and presenting them in a new, creative and compelling manner. In addition to the comic, which will be published in print form soon as well, there are audio and video podcasts on the site and plenty of other supplemental materials, showcasing the possibilities for comics on the Web. Please check out A.D.–it gets my sincerest endorsement.
Josh took a few minutes to give me some answers about A.D. and about webcomics in general, so please, read on!
Blog@: Can you tell Newsarama readers a bit about A.D. and how you decided to do this story? What’s your connection to New Orleans?
Josh Neufeld: A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge is about escaping and surviving Hurricane Katrina — and what happens next in the lives of a cross-section of Crescent City residents. It tells the story of Katrina and its aftermath from the perspective of real people still dealing with the storm each and every day. A two-part prologue sets the scene and shows the storm. In chapter one, I introduce A.D.‘s characters, who include a sixth-generation New Orleanian with a Master’s Degree in counseling; a medical man-about-town based in the French Quarter; an Iranian-born owner of a family-run supermarket; the teenage son of a pastor from New Orleans East; and a twenty-something music ‘zine publisher and his girlfriend.
The complete A.D. webcomic — the 2-part prologue, 13 chapters, and an epilogue — is hosted on the SMITH Magazine website, which also features audio & video interviews with the real subjects, a Hurricane Katrina resource list, and an active blog. We also do something pretty unique in the webcomic, which is provide links throughout the comic to podcasts, YouTube videos, archived hurricane tracking reports, and even personal details like The Doctor’s favorite mixed drink recipes. So as you’re paging through the story and you see a link, you can follow it to find out more about the character or event I’m portraying. It’s like “American Splendor 2.0″!
Before Katrina, I had very little personal connection to New Orleans, other than the fact that my wife and I had visited the city for about a week in 2003. Then, when the hurricane hit, I was so affected by the tragedy that I volunteered with the Red Cross. Before I knew, I had been trained in disaster response and was deployed to the Gulf Coast. Six weeks after the storm, I landed in Biloxi, Mississippi (about 50 miles from New Orleans), where I worked for three weeks on an Emergency Relief Vehicle, bringing hot meals to affected residents of the area. While there, I got a chance to see the devastation the storm wrought not only on New Orleans but the whole region. It was quite shocking.
Blog@: I think the story of Hurricane Katrina is one that has much more impact when told with visuals, but can you tell us more about how you found the stories used in A.D. and the difficulties of adapting true stories?
JN: My first role as writer/artist of A.D. was that of a journalist, as SMITH editor Larry Smith and I worked to assemble a team of possible subjects for the story. We wanted to represent as wide a range of perspectives as possible: well-off and poor, black and white, young and old, gay and straight, male and female, those who evacuated and those who stayed behind, people who were greatly affected by the flooding and even some who weren’t. So we talked to friends — and friends of friends — from New Orleans. We spoke with people who ran regional nonprofits and other local organizations. We tracked down accounts of the storm and its aftermath on the radio, in magazines and newspapers, and on the Internet. And we made lots of phone calls and sent lots of emails.
After a long process of identifying and contacting potential subjects, seven people emerged as the main focus of A.D. Denise, Leo, Michelle, Hamid, Kevin, and The Doctor each had something compelling about their story. They all dealt with loss of one kind of another, but I also felt that each of them offered something unique, as well as something important to me personally. Leo, for example, was a reader of the blog I kept as a Red Cross volunteer. And when I then read his blog, and learned of the loss of his comics collection, I knew he and Michelle would make perfect subjects. After hearing Denise describe her ordeal at the Convention Center on a radio program, I felt she would be vital to the project. The mainstream media, in the days following the storm, inaccurately reported roving gangs, shootings, rapes, and murder at the Convention Center. Denise witnessed what really happened and I knew it was important for me to present that. I learned of Hamid’s story from a mutual friend, and totally identified with the decisions that led to their waterlogged misadventures. I read about Kevin in my alma mater’s alumni magazine. Having led a peripatetic childhood myself, I related to his tale of multiple cross-country displacements. And The Doctor, of course, is a great raconteur — as well as being a key participant in the post-Katrina relief and recovery efforts.
Finally, in January 2007, Larry and I flew down to New Orleans to meet our “characters” in person. There I did extensive photo research and we conducted more interviews, including driving out to Baton Rouge to see Denise in her Habitat for Humanity house. After that it was up to me to weave the characters’ stories together in comics form, while periodically fact-checking with them and keeping up with their changing fortunes. Throughout A.D., I try to hew as closely as possible to the actual events the characters lived through. However, there were times when I made certain editorial decisions about compressing events, combining characters, or other relatively minor details (for instance, at “Kevin’”s request, we changed his name for the purpose of the story), in order to make a scene work. What was most important to me — and always is in my nonfiction comics — was to remain faithful to the emotional truth of the events, and to my subjects’ experiences. All the same, I feel my main burden is to get to the essence of the story, the emotional/psychological/spiritual “truth” of it — as opposed to being obsessed with the literal truth. That said, I am doing my best to get the basic facts — as well as the details — right.
Blog@: Why did you decide to tell this story as a webcomic rather than in print? What are the differences in making comics for the web? Formatting, artistic choices, etc. and the advantages?
JN: There were so many things about this project that made it a perfect marriage between myself and SMITH. First of all, SMITH’s motto is “everyone has a story,” which dovetails perfectly with my aspirations for A.D. I was also extremely excited about the platform that SMITH built for A.D., a very nice interface for reading comics online, with one tier of comics presented at a time, each page clicking to the next. It’s very clean, with no scrolling required.
And as I mentioned before, SMITH makes the A.D. experience feel complete, with a F.A.Q., the blog, podcasts, video, the resource guide, and so on.
I also love the immediacy of webcomic “publication,” the cutting out of the middlemen of publisher, printer, and retailer. Finally, feedback of any kind is really important to me, and doing A.D. on the Web made it so much easier for creator-reader communication to happen — as well as for readers to provide helpful responses and corrections that I used when I began work on the print version.
On the other hand, when comics are presented on the web like this, one tier at a time, you lose something of the gestalt experience of the comic book. I’m a bit of a formalist, so I’ve always enjoyed the interplay of the tiers on a page, or the way a two-page spread can work to frame the material. Even details like how you use the final panel of a right-hand page to lead into the turning of the page. Things about timing, meter, and rhythm. A lot of that gets lost — or changed in important ways — when looking at comics on the Internet. And of course I’ll always treasure the feel and weight of a book (or pamphlet-style comic) in your hand — the texture of the paper, the other design elements that make the book into an art object.
So I’m really thrilled that the book edition of A.D. will be coming out from Pantheon this summer, right before the 4th anniversary of Katrina. It’s significantly expanded from the version on SMITH, with 25% more story and many other changes and improvements. In the end, I really feel lucky that A.D. will get the benefit of all the “content delivery” forms our culture currently provides.
Blog@: Where do you see webcomics going? What’s the future, particularly when it comes to making a living as an artist?
JN: Even though I did premiere A.D. online, and I’m a proud founding member of the ACT-I-VATE webcomics site, I’m embarrassed to say that I’m no webcomics expert. Between working on my comics projects and being a dad, I don’t have as much time for reading comics as I would like, either in print or online. However, webcomics are clearly a growing segment of the comics world, with even the Eisners and the Harveys starting to recognize them during their award presentations. Mainstream outlets like the New York Times and NPR are also starting to feature stories on webcomics projects like ACT-I-VATE and Achewood. So that’s great, because it legitimizes a form of presentation that’s open to a lot more cartoonists than only those who are able to find a “real” publisher.
The big question, of course, is how to “monetize” webcomics in a way that will enable cartoonists to make a living. Right now — and A.D. is a perfect example of this (as was its predecessor on SMITH, Shooting War, or Nick Bertozzi’s Salon) — the route is for a webcomic to originate on the web and then find a print publisher. But in essence that requires that the creators be willing to do the whole thing on spec, which a lot of people can’t afford to do. So this is a question still to be answered.
Fortunately, webcomics are not alone in facing this challenge, as basically the entire Internet is struggling with it. Personally, I’m torn, because as a “consumer” of the web, I treasure the concept of a free Internet. But as a creator, I certainly feel that it’s only fair to be remunerated for one’s hard work. If nothing else, it’s thrilling to be part of a medium in such transition!
Thanks, Josh, for all your input. Also, check out Chris Arrant’s interview with Josh (almost exactly a year ago!) for Newsarama.