[30 August 2010]
Five years ago, New Orleans was under water. Over a thousand people died in floods caused by hurricane Katrina, and over a million were left homeless. Depending on whom you believe, the Federal Emergency Management Agency—FEMA—either bungled relief efforts hopelessly, or else did its best under horrific conditions to grapple with a disaster of previously unheard-of proportions.
Other elements are mixed into this stew of catastrophe and blame: many of the worst-hit neighborhoods were primarily African-American, leading to suspicions that citizens were left to suffer due to their color and/or voting habits; some have said that the levees which failed and contributed to the worst of the flooding were intentionally sabotaged, sacrificing black neighborhoods in order to save wealthier white ones.
Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge attempts to encompass the whole of the disaster through a number of characters who live through it. In Vertigo Comics’ Dark Rain, Mat Johnson and Simon Gane use the storm-struck metropolis as a gritty backdrop to a tale of corruption and theft—an underwater Ocean’s Eleven, in a way.
Neufeld’s book is the more ambitious of the two, It’s longer, for starters — at 193 pages, it carries a substantial heft, as might be expected from such a weighty topic. Several characters are followed through numerous plotlines, all connected by the thread of the city’s experience. Denise tries to ride out the storm at home. Leo and Michelle abandon their small ground-floor house when the call goes out to evacuate the city. All they can hope is that their lifetimes’ worth of possessions will still be there when they get back.
The Doctor is an affluent middle-aged professional who shows his scorn for the storm, and the municipal authorities who urge him to flee it, by hosting a cocktail “hurricane party” as the weather rages on outside. Perhaps the most powerful story is that of Abbas and Darnell, two friends who suffer through the storm while guarding Abbas’ hardware store. As the water rises, the two friends climb higher, eventually winding up on the roof. It should be tall enough, but the water is still rising…
Neufeld’s art style is simple and cartoony, utilizing bright tints of varying colors in different sections of the book—lemon yellow, pale green, bright pink—which creates an indisputably dynamic visual effect but can at times feel needlessly jarring. One has to wonder about the logic of the color scheme. At first, I thought different characters were associated with different colors, but this is not the case. Then I thought that different days were represented by shifts in tint, but again, this is not consistent. Instead of adding to the unity and power of the book, the coloring acts as a distraction.
Dark Rain, subtitled A New Orleans Story, takes a different approach and is the more successful for it. Instead of trying to embrace the totality of the Katrina experience, from days before the storm to a year-plus afterward, Johnson and Gane try simply to tell a story that takes place during that time.
A portion of a panel from Dark Rain
Emmit and Dabny are a couple of hard-luck cases who have made bad choices that got them into jail. They aren’t criminals exactly, but they are ex-cons with limited options. As Katrina thunders into the Gulf of Mexico, the two are in Houston, where Emmit hatches a desperation scheme to rob the vault of the New Orleans bank where he used to work. Dabny has no interest in a life of crime, but convinces himself that if he acts as a cab driver for Emmit, taking him into the city, he can collect an extortionate fee and still keep his hands clean. Of course, he isn’t counting on the chaos that is soon to ravage the city.
Nor is he counting on his former army commander, Colonel Diggs, now running a private security firm named Dark Rain (think Blackwater). Diggs gets wind of Emmit’s plan and decides to take out the bank himself, adding another layer of danger to the already-tricky operation. Needless to say, complications ensue.
Simon Gane’s artwork is well suited to Mat Johnson’s gritty story. His fine-lined style, well complemented by muted colors and a wash a gray tones, bleeds the color out of most scenes and lends a grim edge that matches the story’s tone.
The real story in both of these books is that of New Orleans. Both contain scenes of large-scale destruction, and of outraged and desperate citizenry who believe themselves abandoned by their government. Both contain strong suggestions that race was a huge factor in the handling of the crisis; both contain scenes in which thuggish hoodlums rise to the occasion, distributing supplies and restoring some degree of order in the absence of any other authority.
The truth of such scenes can and no doubt will be debated endlessly. In these two stories they are, sadly, convincing.