When cartoonist Josh Neufeld refers to his webcomic A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge as "a complete sensory experience," he's not far off. Serialized by the online magazine Smith from January 2007 to August 2008, A.D.'s one- and two-color panels — which depict the days surrounding Hurricane Katrina's landfall through the eyes of seven real-life New Orleans residents — amount to more than a passive comic strip. A pre-Katrina gig by the rock band One Man Machine sends readers to MySpace for song clips. Warnings of the approaching storm lead to a National Hurricane Center archive of its warpath. A meal at Galatoire's links to the restaurant's Web site, then to a history of the Sazerac one character sips. The only thing missing is the whiff of Herbsaint.
"It's something beyond journalism," says Neufeld, 42, from his home in Brooklyn. "My intentions were to be as truthful and well documented as I could, while still trying to tell an engaging story with real, human characters."
Now a hardcover graphic novel — courtesy of Pantheon Books, which also published Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical 2000 account of the Iranian Revolution — the 13-chapter volume is being held up as one of the definitive accounts of the catastrophe, both by the media and the story's subjects. Novelist Dave Eggers, who spent much of the same period researching and writing his own Katrina report, Zeitoun, called A.D. "one of the best-ever examples of comics reportage, and one of the clearest portraits of post-Katrina New Orleans yet published."
For Neufeld, a more succinct review by a lesser-known critic is likely to mean just as much. "He nailed it," says Denise Moore, one of three primary figures in A.D. Moore, a poet and counselor, has perhaps the book's most traumatic story arc: staying behind with her mother (a nurse), niece and grandniece at Memorial Baptist Hospital, only to have their room taken away; braving the first night by herself in a Freret Street apartment that begins to collapse above her head; being shuttled first to an overpass and then to the Convention Center, where she realizes she is stranded and people begin to die around her.
"It's difficult for me to even look at it," Moore says, though she still plans to attend the Maple Street Book Shop signing. "Even talking about it, thinking about it. I cannot get past the day in my room. And I'm a writer. It's bizarre."
Neufeld's handling of the Convention Center debacle may be the book's greatest deviation from mainstream media coverage. Based on Moore's account, the desperate scene shows "thugs" looting Walgreens for water and organizing a distribution scheme in which the sick and elderly are first in line. He also paints Moore as increasingly dejected and bitter, a truthful but tricky representation the two sides worked together to balance.
"She (initially) thought that was a stereotypical portrayal," Neufeld says. "I think she called it 'an angry black bitch.'" I could see it from her point of view. She said, 'I went through a major trauma, and the person that you know now, who you met after Hurricane Katrina, is a very different person than before Hurricane Katrina.' As a storyteller, it's an important thing to remember: that characters need to change."
"There was so much entangled in there: race, class, sex," Moore adds. "He could've come from the usual perspective, and he did not. I appreciate that more than anything."
Moore wasn't the only A.D. character to take an active role in assuring the book's accuracy. Neufeld commissioned another of the book's players, Leo McGovern, publisher of Antigravity magazine and founder of the Alternative Media Expo, to snap reference shots of another subject's store in the weeks after the storm. McGovern says he also reviewed rough drafts and offered input: "[He'd] send me scripts sometimes, like, 'Read this and let me know if there's some kind of dialect or phrasing that we got kind of iffy. Make sure it's right.'"
In one early sequence, residents are seen streaming out of the city on I-10. "And it was people leaving on one side," McGovern recalls. "That day, it was contraflow, and I was like, 'You should show people leaving on both sides.' He went back and redrew that panel so it shows all that."
The attempts at absolute faithfulness are imperative in Neufeld's mission: for A.D. to touch those outside the traditional comics audience. It's already been assigned in storytelling courses at Loyola University and the University of New Orleans, and he hopes it goes on to have the same educational impact as Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust memoir Maus: A Survivor's Tale and Satrapi's film-adapted Persepolis. "[The latter] was used for college freshmen as a classwide assignment," Neufeld says. "The academic marketing guy at Pantheon was telling me he had really high hopes for the same thing for this book.
"So many people in America still have this very retrograde idea of what comics can be: basically Archie or Superman. Just getting another book out that people look at and take seriously is striking a blow for all my compatriots who are doing this kind of comics."
While effusive in her praise for the project, Moore offers an important footnote: "This is still an artistic rendition of the truth; it's not the absolute truth. It's based on the truth. ... But I like the way Josh ended the book. What people don't understand is, even with the population increasing, those are not natives. The truth is, a quarter of a million people are still gone. And that's a conservative number."
An even tougher critic than Moore was won over by Neufeld's work. Moore says her mother had "strong reservations" about A.D. "The publisher gave her a copy. She looked at it at one of the gatherings at her house, and she said that it was 'pretty good.'
"That's high praise," Moore adds, laughing. "She said, 'He got you, Denise.'"
A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge Launch Party
6 p.m. Fri., Aug. 21
Canary Collective, 329 Julia St., 208-3882; www.thecanarycollective.com
1 p.m. Sat., Aug. 22
Maple Street Book Shop, 7523 Maple St., 866-4916; www.maplestreetbookshop.com
3:30 p.m. Sat., Aug. 22
Octavia Books, 513 Octavia St., 899-7323; www.octaviabooks.com