Comics we like: Remembering Katrina
The end of August marked the beginning of the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. That “beginning” is a worthwhile distinction, because it wasn’t just a one-day event. The cataclysmic storm's arrival in the Gulf on August 28, 2005, was just the start of the devastation. The worst chaos came in the following days after the levees broke—and the governmental response did, too.
Although they don't contain any references to the infamous “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job" moment, two very different comics provide a look at that catastrophic time in New Orleans. Both are filled with stunning details about surviving the flood and the chaotic human response. (More than once, people seeking help were turned away—from hospitals, from bridges—by men with guns.) The just-released Dark Rain, a gripping graphic novel by Mat Johnson and Simon Gane, examines the event through the lens of a fictional heist story, with two-ex cons aiming to rob a flooded bank. The other, earlier work is A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld, which began as a webcomic and was published as a handsome hardcover one year ago. Neufeld’s comic is a feat of journalistic cartooning; he spent many months interviewing his subjects, using their words and likenesses to tell the Katrina biographies.
When we spoke to Johnson recently, he pointed out something that most of us who don’t live in the Gulf region wouldn’t know. “Everybody has a story, you know? It’s like asking where you were when Kennedy was shot,” he says. “You never ask people what it was like. You ask them, How did you move forward?”
Johnson began working in earnest on Dark Rain two years ago, after he and his family evacuated Houston for two weeks because of the threat of Hurricane Ike. He admires Neufeld’s accomplishment, although he didn’t look at it while he was writing his story. “I was scared I was going to steal from him, so I didn’t read A.D. until I was done,” he says.
A published author in more than one medium — he’s written novels and nonfiction prose, as well as graphic novels — Johnson can cite a wide variety of literary influences. The list includes comics writers Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis, and old-school “genre” novelists Edgar Allen Poe and Mary Shelley. (Johnson’s such a Poe fan, his next prose effort—Pym, due out in March—is a sequel to Poe’s only full-length novel.) But he knew all along that his Katrina story had to be told as a comic.
“It’s one thing to say, ‘The house is flooded.’ It’s another thing to see it,” Johnson points out. “The graphic format lets the reader replay it and feel it. ... I wanted people to really feel those moments.”