It’s the same with A.D., the graphic novel, which portrays seven people from New Orleans who either stayed in the city during the flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or fanned out to other cities around the country, eventually returning to the city in dribs and drabs. A.D. emerged from another hybrid form, reported comic strips, and first appeared on the Web site Smith. It’s not the first book that has combined reportage with the graphic form. Joe Sacco helped pioneer the genre in the 1990s with his award-winning Palestine and Safe Area Goražde. And there is a host of excellent graphic memoirists, like Alison Bechdel and my friend Laurie Sandell, who wrote and illustrated The Impostor’s Daughter, about her con-man father. And don’t forget Waltz with Bashir, the animated film which was adapted into a graphic novel this year.
But A.D. is certainly one of the most rigorous in its storytelling and the most journalistic. Like Boal and Eggers, Neufeld is not “really” a journalist or “just” a journalist but something else: a nonfiction artist? A story architect? A.D. is “reality based,” formed from Neufeld’s interviews with the people of New Orleans, like Abbas, a small-store owner who wound up on the roof during the deluge; Denise, who was in the Convention Center where people were dying; and a comic-book collector named Leo, who left in the nick of time, abandoning his 15,000 books to drown at home. A.D.’s panels are brightly colored, from yellow to green to red, seeming to emulate the mental states of the characters as they intensify their struggle to survive.
According to a positive New York Times review, A.D. “is a novel, not a documentary: Mr. Neufeld edited parts of the survivors’ stories and combined some characters.” Larry Smith, publisher of Smith, who originally commissioned the strips for his online magazine that ultimately became A.D., argues against the Times’s reading, saying that the “categorization or description of A.D. as a ‘novel’ or somehow novelized is incorrect.” In Smith’s telling, A.D. is actually journalism in a new guise.
“We worked really diligently and methodically to make sure we got everything right,” Smith says. “I did the first interviews, in person, with Josh on our first trip to New Orleans. We recorded everything, and Josh double- and triple-checked his notes with the characters themselves before we put up a new chapter. A handful of times, a character would read the comic and say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t have worn that type of sweatshirt; it’s not my style,’ so Josh made the adjustment when it came time to make the book. Neufeld has said that he used whatever method necessary to make “the emotional truth of the stories much clearer” and was going for a novelish feel. Of course, the survivors’ tales were edited, with additional characters removed from certain scenes when the scenes became too confusing. That alone could trouble its position as simply nonfiction.
Still, in films like The Hurt Locker and books like A.D. and other reported graphic novels, we are seeing nonfiction freed from its rigid constraints. “I think it’s a journalistic sensibility, with a fictional aspect,” Boal says. He cites Eggers’s fictionalized nonfiction and journalistic fiction both as prime models. These may not always be purely “true,” but they are some of the most emotionally accurate stuff out there. It’s the mashup genre not just of the present, but also the future.