A.D. at St. Ed’s

A.D., Travel

A.D. event posterSt. Edward’s University chose A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge as its freshman Common Read book for 2011–2012, and last week they had me come down to speak about it. It was the first time I had officially presented A.D. in about six months, and I before I left I re-read it for the first time in a while. This turned out to be really useful — revisiting elements of the book I had long since thought “settled,” and appreciating things that worked, while cringing at things that didn’t. I’m sure the whole exercise will be quite helpful when it comes to future creative decisions.

I flew down to Austin, TX, last week, where I was met by my excellent host, Assistant Dean Jennifer Phlieger. She then set me up for my lunch with St. Edward’s students, a subsequent hour-long Q&A, dinner with some  faculty members, and finally an hour-long presentation for about 300–400 kids.

I didn’t know much about St. Ed’s before I got there, other than that it was a private, Catholic institution that had been founded by the same guy who founded Notre Dame in Indiana. I have to admit about being a little curious about the Catholic aspect, and there’s still a nun in charge of major decisions, but it was explained to me that the school’s religious underpinning is pretty downplayed nowadays. Some of the elements that still remain, admirably, include a requirement that students spend at least one spring break doing some kind of community service, whether it be working for a homeless shelter or helping to build houses in communities like the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. The school also does major outreach to the Latino community, offering all sorts of scholarships and the like, to the point that 25% of the student body is currently Hispanic. In most other respects, however, the school is a “typical” private liberal arts school located in the heart of Austin (which, as you may know, is not your typical Texas town).

The first official event was for me the highlight of the visit. About eight students joined me for lunch in the school cafeteria. They were mostly freshmen, and ranged from natives of New Orleans to students in a graphic novel class. We started off with questions about A.D. but soon branched off into the current state of New Orleans, race relations, and politics. I found the students incredibly engaged, not only with the book but with the world at large. They were opinionated, lively, and willing to challenge me about elements of the book. I really enjoyed our conversation.

From there I did a free-wheeling Q&A with about 150 students who had read A.D. I didn’t have a presentation prepared, but there was a video projector in the lecture hall, so I used the web version of A.D. to illustrate various points. In both this class and the lunch, the very question I was asked was about A.D.‘s unique color schemes, so I must make a note to myself to discuss that question in future presentations.

After a nice dinner with about six faculty members I headed back over to the university for my official presentation. As a result of my re-reading of the book, I also made a major revision of my usual presentation, and this was the first chance I’ve had to share it. (Because of a paper written by a U. of Chicago grad student, and my being asked to talk about the “Art of Catastrophe” as part of another event earlier this year, I’ve come to see that a major part of why I was so moved by Hurricane Katrina — from volunteering with the Red Cross to then doing A.D. — was because of emotional trauma I suffered from 9/11. Makes sense, but I never realized that until recently. Duh.) Anyway, the talk went well, though it was such a big venue (they repurposed the university gym) that I felt a bit disconnected from the audience. Still, there were a lot of great questions, and I must have signed about 100 copies of the book for eager (and patient) students afterward.

As always, I was struck and humbled by how A.D. has connected with so many people from so many different ways and stages of life. I really know what it means now when people say that as an artist all you can do is put the work out there. What the world does with it is, poignantly, beautifully, beyond your control.

Me and a few of St. Ed's students

Katrina, Year 6. Irene, Year 1?


In late August 2005 I was at Sari's parents' house in the Berkshires as Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the U.S. Gulf Coast. It was a frustrating, heart-wrenching time, made worse by our being so far "off the grid." As I wrote at the time, "We've got spotty radio reception, no TV, only the occasional New York Times, and a slow dial-up connection, so my ability to comprehend the enormity of the Katrina disaster is severely curtailed."

Last Sunday, Sari, Phoebe, and I came up to Sari's parents' place in Austerlitz, NY, or a two-week working vacation. Summer camp is out, Phoebe starts pre-K after Labor Day, and we've been enjoying the end of summer here in the "country." And now, with a new hurricane forming — ironically heading to my neck of the woods — it all comes around again.

The house still has no TV, but they've upgraded to DSL, which helps us stay abreast of things. Like the residents of the Gulf Coast back in '05, we're tuning into the latest developments, doing our own storm-tracking, and preparing for things like power outtages, flooding, and the like. But here in the Berkshires, Irene shouldn't be too bad, nothing how it could impact coastal areas from the Carolinas all the way to New York City. Our whole lives — our home, our friends, most of our family — are back there, and once again I'm absent — not there to experience the event for myself, to prepare, to help do what I can. And if the storm is bad enough here to knock out our electricity, I'll be just as in the dark (literally) as I was six years ago. Actually, more so!

As you know, the events of Katrina prompted me to volunteer with the Red Cross; which led me to getting trained in disaster relief; which led to me being deployed to Biloxi, MS; which led to Katrina Came Calling; which led (iindirectly) to A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. I'm glad New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, as they continue to rebuild from Katrina (and Hurricane Rita), have mostly escaped nature's fury since 2005; the fact is we on the East Coast are far less prepared than they were. And all we can do here is watch, wait, and hope for the best.

By the way, the upcoming anniversary has instigated a few journals to cite A.D. Here are a few recent mentions:

Check one off the bucket list: Brian Lehrer

A.D., Influencing Machine

I’ve been listening to the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC radio on a regular basis since I moved back to New York City in 2000. During that time — from the election fiasco of 2000, to 9/11, the war in Iraq, the 2004 elections, the ’08 elections, the "Ground Zero Mosque," "Wikileaks," and right on through the killing of Osama bin Laden — I’ve relied on Brian’s show for a fair, sober examination of the issues.

He’s always on top of the news and never strident in his opinions. He has a warm, easygoing manner, and is adept at asking his guests tough questions without resorting to cheap "gotcha" journalism. At first, his approach challenged my old way of looking at the world. I had been taught to demonize the "enemy" (whoever that might be), and although I haven’t moderated my own left-of-center politics, I’ve come to see that sometimes different political positions come from different philosophies, not necessarily evil intentions. (Though there are evil folks out there!)

To that end, I especially appreciate Brian’s ability to talk to pundits of all political stripes — and his ability to find areas of agreement between the poilitical right and left. (I know it’s all very "pie in the sky" of me, but I’ve come to believe in the "common ground" approach to real, everyday politics.) Some might find Brian’s show too middle-of-the-road, but, as Brooke Gladstone points out so eloquently in our book The Influencing Machine, there are a myriad of other options out there, from WBAI to Fox News, and everything in between.

I don’t want to go on too long here, but it’s not exaggerating to say that, through Brian’s show, I’ve come to a deeper, more sophisticated understanding of local, national, and international events — and hopefully become a better citizen of the world.

So it was all the more exciting for me to be a guest on the Brian Lehrer Show earlier this week. As part of WNYC’s pledge week, the show did a multiple-segment examination of The Influencing Machine — and on Tuesday I got to join in the conversation. It was truly thrilling to sit in the studio with Brian and Brooke and discuss the book and nonfiction comics. Brian was obviously prepped about my work, because he set me up with a couple of questions which broadened the discussion to include my previous book, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. I know A.D. appreciated the plug!

They’ve archived the segment on their show page; you can listen to it here: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2011/may/24/reporting-stories-and-influencing-people-5-media/

The Dragon A.D. podcast

A.D., Publicity

The Dragon, a retailer based in the Kitchener/Guelph region of Ontario, just posted a podcast about A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge — and much more. Store owner Jenn, who was recently in New Orleans on a Habitat for Humanity excursion, discusses the book and present-day NOLA with store manager Amy. The conversation then segues into a discussion of the recent Sendai earthquake and tsunami. It’s a wide-ranging and serious discussion of the topics — just the sort of thing I hoped A.D. would spark. Check it out; well worth it.

STATE OF EMERGENCY: Evolution of a Cover

A.D., Illustration

I’ve written previously about State of Emergency, Sari’s adaptation of both my A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge and Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun. Part of Scholastic’s On the Record series, the book is aimed at high-school “reluctant readers” (thus the appeal of the graphic novel format). I think Sari did a really great job of adapting and abridging the two books.

For me, it’s a thrill to be paired with Eggers. I really admire Zeitoun, and of course I’m grateful to Dave for his blurbing of A.D. And what makes this project even sweeter for the whole Josh & Sari family is that Scholastic asked me to draw the cover for State of Emergency. I was happy to oblige, and thought you might enjoy seeing how the illustration developed.

We quickly determined that they were looking for images of post-flooding New Orleans and "people helping people." So the first thing I did was come up with a few sketches:

State of Emergency sketches

Wednesday, Feb. 2: Walls & Bridges' "Catastrophe Practice"


This Wednesday evening I’ll be taking part in a round-table discussion at the New School on the political, social, individual, and literary imagination of catastrophe. Titled "Catastrophe Practice," the panel is part of the Walls & Bridges series, co-sponsored by the French cultural institute Villa Gillet and n+1 Magazine. Other participants will be French thinker Jean-Pierre Dupuy, American philosopher Jonathan Lear, French geographer Michel Lussault, and moderator Marco Roth.

To quote from the program description: "Catastrophes are the nightmare flip-side to the record of human progress and achievement. The idea of disaster haunts how we think about our lives on every level, from global planning to individual relationships. Could planning more for catastrophes help eliminate/neutralize them, or do already we give them more attention than appropriate? Will we, no matter our precautions, forever be victims of the vagaries of nature and existence in all its complexity? If so, how may we learn to live and think with and within the expectation of catastrophe?"

Pretty heady stuff — let’s hope I can keep up! I’ll discuss both 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, and will present a 10-minute slideshow of images to accompany my remarks.

The event is free:

Wed., Feb. 2, 7 pm
The New School – John Tishman Auditorium
66 West 12th St (btwn 6th & 5th Aves)
New York City
Click here for more info.


2010: Frequent Flyer Cartoonist


As the year draws to a close, the experiences that stand out the most for me were all the amazing travel opportunities I was afforded. Not only did I hit American locales like Manchester, NH; Philadelphia, PA; Dudley, MA; Los Angeles, CA; Chicago, IL; Chestnut Hill, MA; Madison, WI; and of course, New Orleans, LA; but I had some incredibly memorable foreign excursions as well: Burma, Australia, Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain, and Israel/Palestine. (I was also invited to Ravenna, Italy, for a comics festival, but had to turn it down because it conflicted with another, previously scheduled, trip.) That’s enough for a lifetime — and this was just one calendar year!

To this day, my backpacking adventures of 1992-1993 remain the most formative experiences of my "adult" life. I learned so much about myself and, of course, different places and cultures. When I was first began doing alternative comics, chronicling my backpacking experiences in Keyhole, The Vagabonds, and A Few Perfect Hours, I always held out hope that my work would get me noticed in a way that would enable more travel. Unfortunately, that never really happened.

Yet, somehow, thanks to A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, and a few lucky breaks, my long-ago wish is now coming true. A.D. has led to invitations to literary festivals (viz. the trip to Australia), academic conferences (Chicago), and college visits (Manchester, Dudley, Madison). And the book played a big part in my new part-time role as a State Dept. "comics ambassador" (Burma, the Middle East). It’s all too incredible for me to really process.

Besides getting to visit some really fascinating places, I’ve sharpened my skills as a presenter and workshop leader, met some really cool people, and most of all, been able to continue spreading the word about the people of New Orleans, post-Katrina. This is a story which continues to unfold, and will for many years to come. (Just today, I heard the news that the City of New Orleans is starting to crack down on residents who still have FEMA trailers parked in front of their homes.)

Next year I already know I’ll be visiting Atlanta, GA; Vancouver, WA; and Little Rock, AR; and if conditions are right, I hope to do another "ambassadorial" trip. I’m already excited about the places I’ll be visiting in 2011.

Happy New Year, everyone — and Happy Trails.

New Orleans K+5 Part 2


I never got around to posting about the rest of my trip down to NOLA for the Katrina five-year commemoration (and paperback release of A.D.), so here it is:

Saturday was when the rain really came, and given the occasion, I couldn’t help but note the appropriateness of the weather. On my way to Cafe du Monde for a morning order of beignets, I almost walked right into former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin in Jackson Square. He was just coming back from a "remote" interview, and I snapped a quick photo as I passed by. I dodged the drops back to my hotel before hailing a cab up to my first event of the day, a signing at the wonderful Octavia Books, where I had such an amazing event last year.

This time around the rain — and all the other anniversary events — conspired to keep the turnout for the signing pretty light, but that just gave me the chance to spend more time with the customers and staff. One guy I was thrilled to meet in person was G.K. Darby of Garrett County Press, publisher of Rob Walker‘s brilliant Letters from New Orleans. G.K. recently reworked my and Rob’s old collaboration Titans of Finance,  producing a vibrant color edition for the iPad — a steal at $4.

While at Octavia, I had a great conversation with co-owner Judith Lafitte and the staff about the excellent HBO series Treme. After initially being "scared off" of the show by of the somber intensity of the first episode, I was coaxed into watching the rest of the season, and ended up really enjoying it — and admiring its creators. To my outsider’s eyes, I thought Treme did a really good job of capturing something essential about New Orleans — especially post-Katrina New Orleans. I know that native New Orleanians usually cringe when they see their city represented on film or TV, but for the most part, the "Octavians" agreed with my assessment of Treme. The thing I think Treme show-runner David Simon does really well is capture the special moments evoked by NOLA’s unique intersection of people, history, culture, and place.

My new buddy Blake Boyd met me at Octavia and drove me to his place, located right near Commander’s Palace and eerily beautiful Lafayette Cemetary No. 1. From there, Blake, Ginette, and I grabbed a late lunch at one of my favorite NOLA joints, Juan’s Flying Burrito, where I gleefully chowed down on the Pork’n-Slaw taco. Mmmmm, mmm!

Then it was time to hit my second A.D. event of the night, the paperback release party at Crescent City Comics. CCC was A.D. character Leo’s comic shop of choice before the storm, but the hurricane and subsequent flooding ruined the place and forced it to close down. But last year, CCC reopened in a new Freret Street location — this time with Leo as a managing partner! It warms my hear to think that five years ago Leo lost his entire comic collection, and now he is co-owner of a comic book store. He and Michelle were at the store, of course, and the clouds parted just as the party began.

It was a great turnout, and I spent most of the two-plus hours signing books and chatting with readers. I particularly enjoyed talking to local cartoonist Caesar Meadows, who edited the excellent FEAST anthology which I had a piece in. I also got to meet in person Sean Mallin, whose academic article "Steps to Nowhere? Rebuilding Haunted Landscapes in New Orleans," inspired the piece I did for FEAST.

Blake and Ginette graciously drove me back to my hotel after the party, but as we were driving down Freret Street I noticed something: a boxing gym with apartments above. Suddenly, it struck me that this was the house A.D. character Denise lived in when the storm hit. Denise having told me in such exquisite and chilling detail about her traumatic experiences there during the storm, I felt like I knew the place even though I had never never seen it in person before. Not having photos to work from, and having drawn A.D. before Google Maps with Street View had made it to New Orleans, I had drawn it from my imagination. Of course the actual building was much cooler than what I came up with, damn it! (See photos below.) if I ever do a special anniversary edition, I’ll go back and redraw all the panels with exteriors of her place.

I spent a few minutes outside, peering up at the residential windows above, contemplating the scene and how it would have appeared back on August 29, 2005…

Blake & Ginette
Blake & Ginette

Denise's former house on Freret
Denise’s former abode

Denise's house -- A.D. edition
My lame imagining

A.D. Common Read wrap-up


The A.D./Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison Common Read program day went better than I could have ever expected.

After a causal breakfast at Chadbourne‘s well-appointed cafeteria Rheta’s, with members of the CRC Leadership Team, I had a little free time to walk around the campus a bit. Then it was back to the CRC cafeteria for lunch with some of my student hosts, as well as the awesome faculty director Caton Roberts. Caton explained that earlier in the school year, during Convocation, a grad student from Chicago delivered a nuanced and complex presentation on A.D. and its place in the realm of art created in the wake of trauma. (This bit of news was just another salvo in the whole visit’s continuing theme of blowing my mind that little ol’ me and my funny book were being given this sort of official academic acceptance…)

After another little break, I returned to Chadbourne to deliver a "slideshow" presentation on my evolution as a cartoonist, with the culmination of course being Hurricane Katrina and A.D. The talk was part of the CRC’s "What Matters to Me and Why" series, and quite a few people showed up — something in the realm of 75 students and staff. Then it was time fo the Common Read dinner, where hundreds of students sat around big tables and discussed the book and their reactions to it. As "guest of honor," I was ushered around, spending a few minutes with the students at each table, answering questions and so forth.

Finally, after scarfing down my own dinner, I took my place at a signing table, where a long line of kids queued up for autographs and sketches. I really enjoyed meeting the kids and talking to them. (It’s only been during this past year, as I’ve done a number of college presentations and events, that I finally feel "wise" enough to speak to students from the perspective of an "older person." I realize that I do have two decades’ worth of life experience to share — and for the most part they are interested to hear it.) Amazingly (to me), most of the students had no prior experience with comics, let alone graphic novels, but they seemed to really connect with A.D. and its stories of real people confronting disaster on such an epic scale. Hopefully, this experience helped to create a few new lifelong comics fans.

I am so grateful to CRC staff Caton Roberts, Sean Flyr, and Tonya Trabant for making this event happen, and for supporting graphic novels in the academic arena. (Plus, they’re three of the most warm and genuine people I’ve met in a long time!)

CRC students ham it up with A.D.

[See a selection of other photos from this event here…]

"A.D." door-dec


My hosts here at Madison took me into their administrative offices this morning to meet the staff, etc., and I noticed something on their doors that pricked at my subconscious. I quickly forgot about it, though, in the rush of meeting new people. But as I was brought around to their various offices, one of the staff pointed out his "door-dec" which I then realized was laid out to mimic the A.D. hardcover!

As you can see here, instead of the hurricane looming over New Orleans, it shows the CRC‘s main building, followed by the staff member’s name where the A.D. title would be. Then, where in my book are portraits of my protagonists, is a very clever gauge which the occupant can adjust depending on their mood, from "Category 1: Great," to "Category 5: Catastrophic." I love the way the sign refers to both the different categories of hurricanes but also ominously evokes the Homeland Security Advisory System "terror alert level" charts we all become so acquainted with during  those dark days after 9/11.

Door-decs (e.g. door decorations) like these are on each dorm room door throughout the CRC. I believe they are created at the beginning of the term as a community-building exercise. Pretty nice shout-out to A.D., and in my opinion a very clever way to add personality to the institutional university decor. I hope I get to meet the student who came up with the concept.

A.D. door-dec