Josh Neufeld: Exploring Narratives Beyond the Traditional World of Comics

The costliest hurricane in US history, causing an estimated $161 billion in wear and tear, approached the Gulf Coast as a Category 5 storm. Thrashing the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana, it forced itself through embankments in New Orleans. Many people of colour, who lost jobs and lacked insurance, savings, and family resources, encountered a trying recovery.

“My intention as a comics journalist is to treat these people’s experiences with seriousness despite portraying them in the comics form,” says Josh Neufeld. The Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist, widely known for his comics journalism, Palestine (1996) in particular, Joe Sacco, first opened to Neufeld the true scope of comics journalism as a powerful tool for storytelling. Neufeld’s cartoons address the extremes of an altogether different world – our own. For Neil Gaiman, best known for his Sandman series, Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge reveals the strength of comics to depict real-life tragedy.

“I look for characters that will stick in the minds of readers,” he says. Drawing from first-hand experiences, Neufeld talks to his subjects about their private lives, relationships and emotions rather than their career accomplishments and public appearances alone. The relationship he builds with them, in the process, expresses the intimate personal nuances of what happens in their social lives. What results is a relationship based on trust. Gaining access to intimate testimonies, giving ample space to nuances and details, Neufeld mingles his art with multiple perspectives, a method of storytelling that is overlooked even by the best of headlines.

Josh Neufeld. Photo: Goodreads/Twitter

He listens to the people he meets and makes copious notes on how they sit, walk, and clench their fists on recalling a tragedy that has befallen them in the recent past. Neufeld’s art portrays the same. The faith in his people’s house hinges not on political promises alone but on an artist who authenticates their stories through the graphic reportage.

Hailing from New York City, Neufeld earned his BA in Art History from Oberlin College. “As a 2012–2013 Knight-Wallace Fellow in journalism, I took courses at the University of Michigan,” he says. For Neufeld, non-fictive art encapsulates all manner of research gymnastics – research, and what it denotes in the creative, expressive reportage. “I work very much the way other journalists work. I try to get as many primary sources, fact-checking, references and interviews as I can. I talk to people, take pictures, sketch and write a script based on what I accumulate and record before starting to think about structuring it as an actual comic.”

The character’s life has several little moments portrayed where Neufeld gets to decide what clothes they are wearing while drawing them. While Neufeld’s readers understand that the facets of his portrayed characters are filtered through the subjective interpretation of the artist, they trust his art with maintaining the truth of the key events revolving around his characters.

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“I have lots of reference images that I collect and as I’m drawing, I have the reference images taped up on my table so that I can constantly refer to them,” says Neufeld. As an artist, he never misses out on the quirky, remarkable environment he chooses for his characters. Be it their office desks, the types of computers they have, the way their desks are organised, Neufeld notices it all. “All of these things bring me closer to the subject that I’m drawing,” he adds.

In 2009, Pantheon Books published an expanded hardcover edition of Neufeld’s A.D., which became a New York Times bestseller. They released the paperback edition of A.D. in August 2010, before the fifth anniversary of Katrina. A.D. is available in French and Dutch translations.

Neufeld recalls all his work as nonfiction. He spent the 2012–2013 academic year at the University of Michigan honing his craft, learning from journalists and academics. His comics and illustrations have appeared in daily newspapers, alternative weeklies, financial magazines, literary journals and museum exhibition catalogues.

In A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Neufeld presented parts of the survivors’ stories combined with his visual narrative storytelling techniques. He depicted what happened before and after the storm. From Denise, a sixth-generation New Orleans resident, experiencing the chaos of the Superdome to the Doctor, whose home becomes a refuge for those whose houses the storm had broken. These people cope with the outcomes and the decisions that the politicians, the police, and they made, and the lives they no longer have no control over. The graphic novel throws light on all the truths, triumphs and survival strategies of these people. Neufeld did whatever worked to make the emotional truth of the stories much clearer. His graphic novel depicts the magnitude of the catastrophe on a personal level.

As different as he is from the characters he illustrates, Neufeld feels a strong sense of oneness with them, their subtle tones of grief and how they change with every recalling of experience. There were many little things people did during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, from giving away food after the storm and bringing bottles of water to stranded neighbours. “Readers must get a sense of how serious the storyteller is in their process of storytelling, in representing another real-life character,” he says.

Chokita Paul is a journalism student who is keenly interested in arts, culture, books and cinema.

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