Tag Archives: graphic novels

Review: Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: NEW ORLEANS AFTER THE DELUGE

This review was written by contributing writer, Thuy Dinh, my resident expert on graphic novels.—PCN

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a.d. coverIn A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, Josh Neufeld presents a graphic journalistic account of six survivors’ real-life experiences after Hurricane Katrina. Neufeld based his stories on first-person interviews, photos and other on-location research he conducted while volunteering with the Red Cross. Though he has a sure hand with the visual medium, his reluctance to subject his own views on the matter somehow dilutes its emotional resonance.

His visual style is poetic and powerful in rendering the horrors of Katrina: the gigantic mushroom-shaped storm rising from the New Orleans skyline like a vision of latter-day Hiroshima; the Biblical water full of rats after the levee broke; a non-functional public bathroom at the Convention Center filled with trash, human waste and broken stalls that signifies a complete breakdown of the social order. But he’s at his most eloquent when he renders his panels in virtual silence; the symbolic effects of Katrina are most deeply felt when there is little or no intrusion of verbal caption.

Before A.D was reformatted and expanded into book form (the book has 25% more story and art than its online version), it first appeared in 2007 on the SMITH magazine website (still available here). The characters—Doc Brobson, a well-off white male; Denise, a financially strapped black female; Abbas, immigrant entrepreneur; Gen-Xers Leo and Michelle; and Kwame, a middle-class high school student—were chosen to represent a cross section of the wider populace affected by the storm.

In its current form, most of Neufeld’s characters don’t quite register. To make sure Denise, an African-American social worker, can tell her own story without racial and gender bias, it seems Neufeld gave her script approval. While his need to respect Denise’s suffering is understandable, his cautious treatment of her anger and self-loathing distances us from her plight. I wish Neufeld had explored with Denise the “many things that FEMA didn’t understand” about struggling, unmarried, professional black women living in untraditional households who feel they were grossly under-compensated in the aftermath of Katrina.

Neufeld seems much more comfortable in portraying Leo, twenty-something comic book collector and publisher of the New Orleans music webzine Antigravity. In treating Leo’s loss of his valuable comic book collection as a symbol for all the random losses in his life, Neufeld captures in Leo’s story what he couldn’t do in Denise’s case—the sense that Katrina represents the sheer mystery of destruction, a godless force that irretrievably deletes one’s recorded existence.

If Neufeld had explored his connection with Leo as a way to bring in his own subjective viewpoint, it would have helped A.D. pack a bigger emotional punch. In a March 2007 interview published in Antigravity, Neufeld, a Brooklyn resident who called himself a “helpless observer” of the 9/11 attacks, said that while 9/11 had national and international impact, its physical effects were largely limited to Ground Zero. Katrina, on the other hand, as “a toxic combination of nature and government incompetence, directly affected far more families than 9/11.”

This perspective, had it been included in A.D., would have shown how poverty and apathy are both more banal and yet insidious than any planned terrorist attack. Neufeld would have brought home the dire message that in this day and age, our citizens are still living in an Old Testament world, waiting Godot-like for the coming of  progress.

Review: David Mazzucchelli’s ASTERIOS POLYP

This review was written by contributing writer Thuy Dinh, an editor of the webzine Da Mau and my resident expert on graphic novels. —PCN

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Mazzucchelli-Polyp

As children, my cousin Allan and I would spy on Mrs. Seven, the mean lady who lived next door to our grandparents. She would pray to God then curse at children and beggars. We drew comic strips about Mrs. Seven, putting her in situations that literally exposed her hypocrisy, like having the wind blow away all her clothes on her way to church, leaving her naked, or her long wig snatched and eaten whole by another neighbor’s giant German shepherd.

Because I had so much fun drawing these strips with my cousin, I never thought they touched on anything serious. Later, when I grew older, I felt traditional comics—with their static panels of images and silent dialogue encapsulated in bubbles—were poor relatives of multi-sensory moving images in films.

And yet, I was completely blown away by Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s latest “comic book,” a pull-out-all-the-stops package that’s funny, poignant and deep, with panels of thoughtfully shaded images that form a visual novel, a paper movie, and finally, an existential meditation on things that matter to us: religion, art, science, love and memory. In other words, Asterios Polyp manages to embody Up; Synecdoche, New York; and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button without losing its fluid eloquence or sly sense of humor.

At the beginning of the book, Asterios Polyp’s apartment is struck by lightning and, like ancient Troy, goes up in flame. His beloved wife, Hana Sonnenschein (whose Japanese-German name means Flower Sunshine), is nowhere to be found. The book, with flashbacks interspersed with the present, shows Asterios’s progress from hell and back. He is both Ulysses and Orpheus, someone who has to find his way home.

For a work presumably focused on images, Mazzucchelli has a lot of fun with words. Asterios is of Greek descent. His fancy name suggests a polarized nature: star and anal wart (“asterios” means “star, “polyp” can mean a rectal cyst). His dead identical twin, Ignazio, narrates the book and constantly reminds us that our hero is physically and metaphysically divided. Asterios, an arrogant and famous architect, creates buildings that are only models on paper because they have never been built (thus, he’s not unlike a comic book artist, whose world is rendered in two-dimensional images).

ap & hana

via Comic Book Resources

Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel is also a cosmic quest for beauty. The book is full of contrasting visual shapes, text fonts and color tones, with each form/palette tailored to the personality and philosophical outlook of each character. Asterios is often drawn in linear, geometric form, awash in cool blues. His wife Hana, on the other hand, is often depicted in softer, rounder lines and in warmer coral or pinkish tones.

Another character, Ursula Major (a pun on the constellation Ursa Major), who is like Ceres in Homer’s epic, is often rendered in bright yellow or deep purple squiggles as she represents a mystical earth mother type. This traditional cartoon technique of employing form and color to denote character was most recently seen in the movie Up, where the rounder, more exuberant form of the boy Russell is contrasted with the blocky, rigid lines that make up the old man Carl.

In essence, a story told by Asterios to Ursula Major serves as the main theme of the book: A wooden Shinto temple in Ise, Japan, originally erected in the 7th century, has since been ritually torn down every twenty years and rebuilt, and yet the Japanese would tell tourists the temple is 2000 years old. The riddle suggests that human existence, like a building that’s constantly being destroyed and recreated, must yield to larger forces in the universe.

Asterios, in his lofty reach toward the stars (toward perfection and permanence), doesn’t realize that stars, though lasting thousands of years, can also self-destruct. His search for the meaning of life, like his search for Hana, resonates via the myth of Orpheus—presumably, Asterios must go forward and never look back. The controversial ending of the book makes one wonder if Asterios has indeed gone forward.

Similarly, David Mazzucchelli’s ambitious effort, while shredding the comics/cosmic barriers, is a look back toward the traditional purpose of comics, the ability to wield simple lines and forms to capture—or destroy—everyday reality.