"Nine Lives" reminds us that New Orleans is much much more than Hurricane Katrina

Review

Nine Lives: Death and Life in New OrleansI recently finished reading Dan Baum‘s remarkable book, Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans. Published this past March (right around Mardi Gras), in alternating, rigidly chronological chunks, the book follows a diverse group of New Orleanians and their disparate paths through Hurricane Katrina. Sound familiar? Yeah, on the surface, the premise is similar to A.D.‘s, but Nine Lives is much more than a Katrina book.

In my career as a cartoonist I’ve come to treasure the many things that comics can do to bring a fullness to storytelling, that unique combination of words and pictures which bring a tale to life. When I took on A.D. I really felt that comics was a groundbreaking way to explore the Katrina story in a way that the magazine stories, photographs, news footage, and even documentaries could not. Fortunately, many have agreed, and in fact no less than Baum himself recently wrote about A.D. that “Who’d have thought that after watching all that video we’d come upon a fresh visual way to experience Hurricane Katrina? Josh Neufeld’s drawings — and his tender, dead-honest dialogue — brought it all back in a way that made me feel it in my gut."

Anyway, it’s my turn to repay the compliment. Baum, who was a New Yorker staff writer sent to cover New Orleans when Katrina hit (and who a few months ago posted a notorious post-mortem of his New Yorker career on Twitter), has talked about how he soon realized that "Katrina was not the most interesting thing about New Orleans, not by a long shot." No, rather it is the city itself — its history, its people, its communities, its soul — that made it so compelling. And by writing about his subjects in such a fully realized way, Baum really proves that point.

Nine Lives picks up the stories of its characters in 1965, right after Hurricane Betsy ravaged New Orleans, and takes us through the next forty years — and Katrina. With incredible skill and imagination, Baum evokes each of his subjects’ circumstances. Whether they’re the quirky county coroner, the Mardi Gras indian, the Ninth Ward union leader, the transsexual bar owner, the cynical white cop, or any of the book’s other wonderful subjects, Baum gets into each of their heads in an amazing way. He does this through novelistic techniques unusual for a nonfiction book.

And Nine Lives uses one distinct advantage of prose, the ability to really delve deeply and thoroughly into a topic. It’s a profound trip through these characters’ lives, as they grow from young men and women, succeed and fail, fall in and out of love, have children of their own, and grow old. The result is an amazing 40-year journey which brings real context to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and reminds us what a complex, contradictory, bizarre, infuriating, lovable, alien, and yes, unique, city, New Orleans was — and is. Nine Lives refuses to let tragedy be the final note. As Baum notes, his writing mandate for Nine Lives was "all happy endings. All nine of these people are, in their own way, heroes. And while [I] could have ended any of their stories on a down note, [I] instead end all at a moment of ascendance."

Thanks to Dan Baum and Nine Lives, we all have reason to hope the real story of New Orleans ends happily too.

[cross-posted to A.D. site]

Watching the "Watchmen"

Review

I went in to the Watchmen film with incredibly low expectations — and was very pleasantly surprised. My initial response to it was amazement at its faithfulness to the source, which was word-for-word in many parts — though of course the film left out some important parts, and radically changed the ending. That was a first. After all the previous fan-boy complaints about superhero films that made wholesale changes for the sake of “movie audiences,” this time there was nothing for the über-geeks to complain about!

Watchmen is definitely not a standard three-act structure film, and it breaks all sorts of film “rules.” It’s almost like an experimental film, and some of the things director Zack Snyder tried worked and some didn’t. I agree with many reviewers that the result is a rather embalmed or vacuum-packed experience. But overall the film gets the aura of the book exactly right: the campy/kinky pseudo-porno quality of the heroes and their costumes, and the pervasive the Cold War nihilism.

What it is sorely missing, unfortunately, is the regular human “bean” connection evoked by the news-vendor, his customers, and the comics-reading kid. But I hear all that will be back in the five-hour director’s cut!

Showcase Presents THE ATOM

Comics, Geek, Review

I just finished Showcase Presents: The Atom #1, one of those 500-page black-and-white reprint tomes put out by DC. (Don’t ask me why; I got it free last time I was at DC’s offices.) The book includes three issues of Showcase and 17 issues of The Atom‘s own title. All the stories are by Gardner Fox, with art by Gil Kane and inks by Murphy Anderson and Sid Greene.

Although it was a bit of a slog, there was something satisfying in really immersing myslf in DC’s Silver Age. I was never actually emotionally engaged with any of the tales, but they were fun in a goofy, kidlike way. One thing that really impressed me was the pure craftsmanship of the form back then. There was definitely a different standard for artwork back in the early-to-mid-60s, and you could see that professional pride in Fox, Kane, and Anderson’s work. And Fox was a true polymath: in the course of a couple years (1963–1965) of The Atom, he tackled the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the space race, 18th-century English history, miniature card painting, Norse mythology, and numismatics, just to name a few. You could enjoy these stories and actually learn something about the real world in the process. How quaint.

I'm a comic book character!

Comics, Review, Travel

Last night I was reading Gabrielle Bell‘s latest Lucky (vol. 2, number 1), and suddenly, there I was: a character in the story! This scene takes place as we were driving back from SPX 2006. It all seemed very familiar to me, but since Gabrielle had changed everyone’s names, it wasn’t until this panel (page 7, panel 5) that I realized it was me at the wheel! (For completeness’ sake, that’s joanreilly in the front passenger seat, and Gabrielle, Karen Sneider as “Edith”, and Jon Lewis [left to right] in the back. I’m not gonna tell you who “Julien” really is.) That was a fun D.C.-NYC trip: Karen kept us in stitches the whole way. IMHO, she’s one of the funniest people on earth — and her comix are the cat’s meow.

Lucky vol. 2,  no. 1, p. 7, panel 5

P.S. I really enjoyed that issue of Lucky (even tho’ Gabrielle drew me wearing a collared shirt, which almost never happens in real life). Gabrielle is quickly rising up the ranks to become a “top-tier” cartoonist. Her work is so delicate and understated, yet packs such a punch. Like great short fiction. The second story in this issue, “My Affliction,” is a wonderful, poignant, surrealist classic. And I love how Gabrielle had D&Q produce the book in essentially the same way she put together her minis when she was self-publishing Lucky for all those years.

Super… Bowl, Tuesday, Sons

Comics, Geek, Review

Saga of the Super SonsLast night I capped off this “super” week by finishing the Saga of the Super Sons trade paperback, a guilty pleasure of mine which came in the form of an X-mas gift. (Thanks, Sari’s mom & dad!) I actually own most of the original World’s Finest comics in which the Super Sons appeared (starting in 1973 and running sporadically until ’76), but it’s great to have them all collected in one volume.

As a kid, I loved Superman Jr. and Batman Jr. (“sons” of Superman and Batman, duh!), the titular heroes of the stories. Written by Bob Haney (with the best stories drawn by Dick Dillin), the Super Sons were obviously a misguided attempt to bring “relevance” (a big 70s term) to the Superman/Batman universe — without getting as hard-core or political as the now-classic Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow comics. The Super Sons were a perfect fit for my tastes at the time, as they combined super-powered adventures with a “hip,” boho-lite milieu similar to my own pre-adolescent life.

Even though the Super Sons exist completely outside normal continuity, DC refused to declare that their adventures were “imaginary stories”; a distinction I’ve always found hilarious — as opposed to the “real” adventures of the superhero in question?! In fact, Haney/Dillin always make a point of obscuring the sons’ mothers’ identities, which led to a number of stories where the kids get in arguments with their parents, with the moms’ faces always turned from the viewer or engulfed in shadow!

The stories usually involve the junior heroes riding around out West, Easy Rider-style, on a souped-up chopper or dune buggy, defying their parents’ wishes that they just settle down to “normal” lives. The tales tend to follow a predictable pattern: the boys get in a “generation-gap” argument with their dad and storm off together. They fall into some misadventure, jump to a number of conclusions, make some dumb mistakes, and are eventually bailed out of trouble by their stronger, wiser fathers. (In fact, they make a big point that Superman Jr.’s powers are only half those of his dad’s, seeing as how he has a mortal mother.) It’s abundantly clear what the editorial tone of these stories are: give kids room to rebel — a little — but make sure they know who’s boss in the end.

In my favorite story of the collection, “The Shocking Switch of the Super-Sons,” Bruce Jr. and Clark Jr. swap dads for a time, and then all four visit an encounter camp to “discover” themselves! The dialogue throughout all the stories is a hilarious pastiche of hipster/black dialect: Clark Jr. and Bruce Jr. never go more than a panel without proclaiming something “crazy” or “far out,” or calling each other “baby,” not to mention any nearby females “chicks” or “dolls.” It’s classic stuff.

The collection sort of comes out of left-field; I wonder what compelled DC to release it now? I can’t imagine that there’s a huge audience for the book, outside of folks like myself with an ironic sense of nostalgia. The book is nicely produced, with a beautiful Nick Cardy cover (was he was one of the all-time great cover artists, or what?!), and the addition of a couple of oddball Super Sons stories from the 80s & 90s (including one written by Bob Haney shortly before his death), as well as a cover gallery. But the one thing the book really needs is a foreword or introduction. The stories are just too weird to escape comment!

Josh… the film critic?!

Geek, Review

I’ve been a movie fan for all my life, dating back to when my university professor-mom would screen films on a bedsheet in our living room. Years later, when I was a college student, I took a number of film criticism classes, most notably one focusing on movies about the Vietnam War (which was a special passion of mine). I wrote a number of papers about those flicks. Then, in the early 1990s, I actually published some movie reviews, in the progressive weekly In These Times.

Recently, I stumbled across some of those old reviews and papers, which I’ve added to the "And…" section of my website. It’s funny, even though only half the reviews I wrote back in ’91/’92 got published, I really got into the whole "film critic" thing, and spent just as much time on the pieces  I knew would never see print — just for the fun of it. That was a period in my life when I was searching for my true creative outlet, having temporarily given up comics in disgust (before I discovered the wonderful — and lucrative! ;-> — world of alternative comix). I distinctly recall the passion I felt about film criticism. I loved unpacking the films, trying to read their subtext, judging their socio-political relevance — essentially treating them as works of art and not just "entertainment." The whole enterprise seemed like a big puzzle, and if I could twist my brain into enough loops, I could figure it all out: the films, the world, my life. No "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" for me — I pretentiously thought of myself as a critic; not a reviewer.

Of course, looking back on these pieces now, I fear they suffer from an overdose of PC moralism (I did go to Oberlin in the late 1980s, after all!). Nevertheless, I still feel they contain some degree of insight, and thus seem worth sharing. (The pieces on Full Metal Jacket, Eating, and Star Trek VI are probably the most interesting of the lot.) 

So if you’ve got a hankering to read about a random selection of almost-20-year-old movies, take a look…

TOP TEN MOVIES of… 1991?

Geek, Review

I just found this in some old computer files, so in homage to the de riguer tradition of year-end top ten lists, here are my…

TEN BEST FILMS OF 1991! (compiled in 1991, when I was 24 years old)

Barton Fink (dir. by Joel Coen)
Cape Fear (dir. by Martin Scorsese)
Cyrano de Bergerac (dir. by Jean-Paul Rappeneau)
Dead Again (dir. by Kenneth Branagh)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (dir. by Nicholas Meyer)
The Silence of the Lambs (dir. by Jonathan Demme)
The Double Life of Veronique (dir. by Krzysztof Kieslowski)
Thelma and Louise (dir. by Ridley Scott)
Truly, Madly, Deeply (dir. by Anthony Minghella)

I fancied myself a bit of a film critic back then, and even published a couple of reviews in the lefty weekly In These Times. All the same, my tastes were fairly unsophisticated  (as they still are now!), tending toward the mainstream.

Some of these films I hardly remember anymore, not having seen them in 16 years. But some – Silence of the Lambs and Thelma and Louise, for example — are considered modern classics. At least one film, Barton Fink, has not in my mind stood the test of time. I’m a big Coen Bros. fan, but that particular film doesn’t do for me what it did back then. (To give Sari her props, she hated it at the time!) And as a kid who grew up during the Cold War, I still love Star Trek VI, with its un-subtle allusion to Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

And, just to be fair, here are what I considered the…

TEN WORST FILMS OF 1991!

Blowback (dir. by Marc Levin)
Defending Your Life (dir. by Albert Brooks)
Delusion (dir. by Carl Colpaert)
The Doors (dir. by Oliver Stone)
Eating (dir. by Henry Jaglom)
The Fisher King (dir. by Terry Gilliam)
Green Card (dir. by Peter Weir)
Jungle Fever (dir. by Spike Lee)
The Last Boy Scout (dir. by Tony Scott)
Regarding Henry (dir. by Mike Nichols)

What’s notable about this list is how many bad films there are by good directors. Oliver Stone, Terry Gilliam, Peter Weir, Spike Lee, Mike Nichols — they’ve all directed many great films. But none of these are them! (And Tony Scott deserves mention just because his brother made the top ten list for that year, while he made the bottom ten.)

Seth is back!

Review


Forgive me if I’m woefully tardy here, but people: Seth is back! Like many of you, I’ve been turned off of the Canadian cartoonist of late because of “Clyde Fans,” the recent story arc of Palooka-ville. I absolutely adore his art, but the artic-like pace and depressing themes of “Clyde Fans” greatly diminished my enthusiasm for his work. Which is really sad because, in my humble opinion, It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken is one of the all-time great “graphic novels.”

Anyway, some time ago I bought Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World (Drawn & Quarterly), which sat around on my night table for quite a while. Finally, I got up the energy to give it a try, and it was a great decision. Supposedly taken from Seth’s sketchbooks, the book is a lively, jaunty, hilarious read!

Questions for THE DEPARTED

Review

So I saw Scorsese’s new film The Departed this weekend. Overall, I really enjoyed it. It was a kind of a cartoonish throwback to the macho, violent movies of the 80s and 90s that seemed to dominant theatres. I was fascinated with those films when I was in my 20s but felt over-saturated by them into my 30s. Also, seeing them in many ways through Sari’s eyes over the years made me see how myopic, cheap, and manipulative they could be. Nonetheless, there were definitely some terrific, lasting films from that era (many of them made by Scorsese).

Anyway, there was something fun about revisiting those films through The Departed. Plus, how can you resist that cast: DiCaprio, Nicholson, Damon, Martin Sheen, Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, and Vera Farmiga!? DiCaprio was particularly good at playing the tortured but well-meaning guy who just never gets a break. I was surprised at how powerful a performance he gives, especially in scenes he shares with heavyweights like Nicholson. Jack is pure Jack, gnashing up the screen in his best late-career devil-may-care way. (Sari summed him up perfectly in characterizing him as part algae and part wolf!) And Farmiga is excellent too as the only female character of note and in a very tough, pivotal role! The movie works really well in reminding us how similar the macho brotherhoods of cops & criminals are, while ratcheting up the action and suspense to the blood-soaked conclusion.

But that’s where I have some concerns and questions, and which I’d like to address after the cut…