I never knew that a person could actually be bored to tears until I read Josh Neufeld's new graphic book about Hurricane Katrina. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge follows five real-life storylines in the lead-up to, and immediate aftermath of, the storm. The illustrations are acceptable, the narrative structure is unimaginative, the characters merit only the briefest (often reductive) treatment, and I whipped through it in an hour. And yet I wept. Twice.
How could I not? A calamity like Katrina just oozes tragedy. Come to think of it, all the best graphic novels use this cheat, too: Art Spiegelman's Maus is a biography of his father's Holocaust epic; Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis chronicles her childhood after Iran's revolution; and Joe Sacco has carved out a specialty in ethnic-conflict comics, from Bosnia (three books) to Palestine (two by 2010). Behind them all is an implicit argument by their authors that disasters like these deserve art that is more cinematic than books, but more literary than film. And these works really do deliver.
Like them, A.D. is full of pathos. Even prosaic hardships—a couple anguishing over what to save and what to abandon from their Mid-City home—feel monumentally hopeless. Neufeld's most wrenching panels illustrate a frame in time, but they also evoke a more generalized horror. A two-page spread depicts the moment when several exasperated women—who rode out the flood in a city hospital—are deposited, along with thousands of other refugees, at the convention center. But the real pathos in the wide-angle panel is in feeling the resignation and panic that must have been seething through the homeless, dehydrated crowd, basting in sweat and hoping in vain for deliverance.
Yet if the gravity of A.D. comes just from retelling a well-known saga, does that merit a graphic treatment? The storm that devastated my hometown, like the Holocaust, is a heartbreaking story. Neufeld didn't discover this; he just put it to work for him. Is it any wonder, then, that none of the form's triumphs are about everyday life? There is no Updike of the graphic novel. The closest—Harvey Pekar, whose American Splendor series explores his pedestrian travails—works in vignettes because his life, without a built-in catastrophe, sustains only a limited narrative.
And so what Neufeld lacks in virtuosity or originality he has to deliver through verisimilitude: his graphic "novel" is really a piece of reportage. (Though, having shacked up with his subjects during reporting trips, he wouldn't have cleared NEWSWEEK's ethics policy.) Maybe in a vacuum that's good enough to make A.D. illuminating. But not on a subject that has produced pitch-perfect elegies like Dan Baum's Nine Lives, a history of Katrina victims that follows roughly the same conceit to infinitely lusher effect.
One reason the recent spate of graphic novels has produced little memorable work is that, well, comics are really hard to make. Spiegelman spent 13 years on Maus; Neufeld took three for A.D. (which first appeared in a series online). But it's not just about technical chops. The real problem is a shortage of introspection and metaphorical ingenuity. The central allegory behind Maus—the mice, who are both helpless pawns and open rebuttals to the Nazi suggestion that Jews were vermin—is what gives it genius beyond the predictable specter of genocide. In that way, great graphic novels, a form already much harder to produce, still have to match the achievements of imagination in other disciplines. No wonder there are so few.