Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A.D.'s Josh Neufeld on Comics and Collaborations

“What’s wonderful about comics is the freedom and power that you have as the individual cartoonist to shape every element of the story that you’re telling,
to put so much of yourself into it,” Josh Neufeld reflects from the Brooklyn apartment he shares with his wife and daughter. We’re sitting in the living room that also houses his art table and several bookcases crammed with books. ‘It’s not only reportage, but it’s also art. I love that combination, and trying to find the right balance between the two. What I want to do with A.D. is say ‘Here’s the story of Katrina through the real people who experienced it. This is what their city went through. Let’s not forget about this city and what an important part of America it is. This hurricane was such a profound event that happened to it.’ I want A.D. to be another document of a very, very important historical moment in our country that had repercussions that could be felt all the way through Obama’s election. I look at what happened after Katrina as the beginning of the downfall of the Bush administration, with his popularity taking a nosedive from that point on. But that’s not even my agenda: even though I was never a Bush supporter, I don’t personally like comics or any other form of art that have any really strong didactic messages that try to teach you or tell you what to think. Even though I think, by reading A.D., you can glean that I didn’t approve of how the various government agencies handled the post-Katrina situation in New Orleans, I wanted to have the characters say that, and have their experiences show you that, rather than my writing a story in a certain way that an agenda became clear.

A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, is Neufeld’s graphic novel about the natural disaster that struck the legendary city in 2005 through six of the survivors. A.D. is told in a narrative style that crosses documentary with drama, Neufeld’s crisp and clean linework with the words of the actual survivors. It was inspired by his volunteer work with the Red Cross and is gleaned from a series of blogs and interviews from the survivors.

Like the graphic novel Shooting War, A.D. started a serialized online life at SMITH Magazine website, and has been reformatted for a hardcover format. Neufeld, whose career has mostly consisted of short stories and anthology contributions, found the discipline of a webcomic refreshing.

“It’s impossible for me to imagine doing it [all at once] because I’d never taken on a project that was this long before…I don’t think I was capable of conceiving and writing what was essentially a novel, and draw it, in two years,” Josh admits. “Even though doing it online and serializing it that way was difficult, it made me produce, since every month I had to have a chapter done. I was building towards something. The real challenge when I made it into a book was taking these fourteen episodes that had their own rhythm. Comic strips need to have their own rhythm and beats that you need to follow, but it wasn’t as easy as that on A.D. It had that same element where there had to be a dramatic structure in each chapter, and it had to end on a certain note that got you interested in the next one. The challenge with the book was not only reformatting the art so that it would fit, like expanding panels to make them fill a two-page spread, but also in linking it all together in a narrative rhythm that seems more novelistic than serialized.”

As Hurricane Katrina sweeps through New Orleans, the residents all deal with it in different ways: Abbas and his friend Darnell stay with Abbas’ convenience store, little suspecting what they’re really in for; Kwame and his family watch from afar on the television in a brother’s dorm room in Tallahassee; Denise is nearly crushed when her apartment building is hit; while a doctor relaxes with friends in his house, and offers his medical services to fellow victims. Neufeld switches the spotlight from one to another, making narrative cuts like an expert director, but not losing the story’s momentum. He also establishes a tone through the use of color, casting a colored hue over each scene.

“While I was working on A.D. online, my logic was only that I wanted to come up with a different color scheme for each chapter, just for variety’s sake,” Neufeld explains. “I had fourteen chapters online, and each of them had to have their own dramatic thrust that were stories themselves with cliffhanger-type endings. I wanted to think about what, using a limited color palette, expressed the emotion of that particular chapter. I thought of the color as equivalent to the soundtrack of a movie.

“Then, when I put the book together, the book was structured slightly differently: it’s in four segments rather than fourteen. I had to rejigger things a bit, and added a few more things to the story. What I did with the color scheme of the book was basically, for each new day, a new color scheme is implemented, to just help the reader keep track of the days going by. There are a couple of variations on that, like when the actual storm hits, which took place over two days. I kept that whole element of the storm one color, as well. I hope that I used the color in a way that helps the reader and adds texture, but is not distracting.”

Like any storyteller, Neufeld focused on the narrative and dramatic beats of the piece. In A.D.’s case, it was in taking the effectiveness of an online comics experience, and refiguring it for print.

“The big challenge of the book was that, when I took all the material I had done, I wanted to take certain panels and make them two-page spreads,” Josh says. “By that force alone, and the power of a visual narrative, that page gains in emotional significance and how it impacts the reader. By doing that I was able to structure things in a way that added emotional beats that weren’t in the online version. Once I did that, it was a matter of looking through the book and seeing what parts of the characters’ stories I wasn’t able to tell earlier, because of time or because it wasn’t appropriate at that moment. That new material would then go into the new skeleton I created for the book. Because there’s 25% new material, and because its been reformatted, that in essence changed the emotional and dramatic beats in the original.”

The hardcover of A.D. is more like a Director’s Cut remastered onto a physical print medium, rather than a trade paperback of the online narrative.

A.D. is only the latest collaborative effort of Neufeld’s. Like most high schoolers with sequential aspirations, Josh collaborated on comics with his friends, eventually graduating to collaborative relationships of a more abstract manner.

“Weirdly enough, even though I’m not a mainstream cartoonist, I started out wanting to be,” Josh reflects. “The ‘assembly line’ approach of mainstream comics is a collaboration, even though people don’t seem to think of it that way. Certainly a penciler and an inker is a collaboration, a writer and artist is one…When I was in high school at Music & Art (now known as LaGuardia), wanting to draw the Teen Titans, my buddies and I put out our own comics. Some liked comics but didn’t know how to draw, and others didn’t know how to begin writing, so they were happy to have a writer to pair up with. So, during high school there were times where I was an artist and someone else was writing, or I’d be writing and some other kid would draw it before I inked it. I really enjoyed that give and take, and the challenge of trying to translate what’s in someone else’s mind with my skills. I kept that enjoyment of collaboration through my transition away from mainstream comics to alternative stuff.”

While Josh Neufeld’s mother, socially minded fine artist Martha Rosler, may not have influenced his work in comics, she had an impact on how he came to perceive the medium.

“To be honest, when I was growing up and living with her, the kind of comics I was interested in were pretty lame,” Neufeld jokingly admits. “I think she looked at them and just shook her head, thinking they reinforced the same old stereotypes. All the same, it might not have been what she wanted me to do, but she wasn’t going to tell me not to do it.

“In all the other ways in my life, my mom was a huge influence (she was a single mom and raised me by herself); her politics and view of the world, and her activism of using art to teach and help people were all very important to me. But I also had that distinction in my mind that there was ‘low art’ and ‘high art,’ and that comics were in the low art category. It wasn’t until I really got into comics in the ‘90s, and read Maus and Joe Sacco’s comics, and some of the exotic and fascinating literary-style cartoonists, that I saw the divide breaking down. I’m a proponent of comics as a legitimate art form that can tell any type of story. I don’t believe in that distinction anymore of high art and low art. I think the rest of our culture is starting to catch up to that, too, which is nice to see.

“Also, I don’t want to trash mainstream comics, because I think there are really some good examples of them, and there’s nothing wrong with something just being entertainment. As a kid, I didn’t think I could have ever gone straight to independent comics, but I had to start with the mainstream.”

Neufeld’s transition from out of the mainstream and into the alternative was a pretty rewarding one: drawing for Harvey Pekar’s legendary American Splendor was a huge break, but perhaps the most significant project he took on was in 1994.

“I got work on this comic called Duplex Planet Illustrated, which was written by David Greenberger and put out by Fantagraphics in the ‘90s and used all sorts of alternative artists,” he notes. “Dan Clowes had stuff in there, and Peter Bagge – pretty much all the regulars from Fantagraphics illustrated stories in DPI. Greenberger’s stories were transcripts of conversations he had with old people at the nursing home he worked at as an art administrator. He would ask them a random everyday question, and a lot of them happened to be senile or suffering from Alzhiemer’s. The answers they gave were often funny or even poetic; he would have artists illustrate them and were free to do it however the hell they wanted to. You didn’t even have to show an old person saying it: Dean Haspiel and I joked that we could take one of his scripts and have it be two fish in a fishbowl talking, because we had that much free rein. That sense of collaboration, giving more than you’d think of getting otherwise, excited me.”

Duplex Planet Illustrated galvanized Neufeld, opening his mind to a variety of collaborative approaches to creating comics:

“I think that working with David Greenberger, and feeling that sort of freedom, got me excited to work with people outside the comic book realm (like poets and playwrights) and taking their original material and adapting it for comics, and being able to go nuts and do fun stuff. That’s also been important, because it feels like I’m doing comics as an art form rather than a commercial one.”

Neufeld focuses on a variety of collaborations in 2006’s The Vagabonds #2, everything from an adaptation of the classic Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby” to the stories of writer Peter Ross’s entrepreneurial father. Josh even appropriates a chunk from a Gerry Conway written Superman comic book. At one point, he even collaborates with the mirror image version of himself.

Ironically, while loving loose and free writing with his creative partners, he eschews it for a more formal approach to his own fully produced work.

‘If the writer knows what they’re doing (and especially if they have a comics background), they leave you with fewer options, even if they have a great story,” he reflects. “They’re telling you what’s in that panel, and how many panels in a page, and you’re doing something in more of an assembly-line style and method. Even though back in high school we knew what the ‘Marvel style’ was, where Stan Lee would plot out a story in conjunction with Jack Kirby, and then Kirby would draw it out and Stan would dialogue it – that was a little too amorphous and abstract for high school kids to figure out. So, we went more with the ‘DC style,’ which broke everything down panel to panel. To this day, when I write and draw my own stories, I work like that and write the script panel by panel, all the way through, imagining what the art’s going to be. Then I turn off the writer’s side of my brain and turn on the artist’s side, and take the script and start drawing it out and working with it. I obviously make changes along the way.”

As the first decade of the 21st century wraps up, technology has strongly impacted how information is conveyed, changing the old means like newspapers and radios. Neufeld’s next project, tentatively titled The Influencing Machine, is a collaboration with NPR’s Brooke Gladstone, host of On the Media.

“It’s a really interesting show about journalism of all kinds in all different formats, like print, Internet, and radio,” Josh says of Brooke’s show. “But also media in general, and the way we live our lives interacting with media; all of these different ways information gets processed and how these things are changing as our culture is changing so rapidly. People talk about the death of print and how the Kindle is going to kill books, and comics are going to move to the Internet and iPhones, while newspapers are going out of business right and left. There’s a lot of panic and a lot of people screaming about how everything’s going to be one way or another.

“Brooke is a brilliant human being who studies this stuff on a weekly basis and has a really strong and balanced perspective on all of this. She has been asked for years to write a book about the media and her take on it, and she never wanted to be just another person writing another media book. It just so happens that she’s a huge sci-fi and comic book fan and at one point had worked with Vertigo to develop a science fiction comic book project about a journalist. That project never really happened, but her editor at Vertigo suggested she do a book on the media as a comic book. Brooke liked this idea of doing her book about the media in a comic book format, kind of like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. She was given my name by the editorial director of Pantheon, and he said ‘When Josh Neufeld does this non-fiction stuff, he does a lot of collaborations. Why don’t you talk to him?’ I was already a fan of her show, so when she called me up with this voice that I knew from the radio, I instantly knew who she was. Her book just sounded so interesting to me, and right up my alley as a collaboration, especially since I am a media junkie and listen to NPR all day. It was too good of an opportunity to pass up.”

Ironically enough, Neufeld, a very vocal proponent for comic books, had trouble understanding Gladstone’s narrative approach:

“The funny thing is that, at first, even me, the one she was asking to work with it on, couldn’t understand why she’d want to do the project as a comic book,” Josh admits. “Finally, her agent, of all people, explained to me that this book is trying to get people out of their comfort zone. We all have our own philosophies about media, and once they’re in our heads they get stuck there, and it’s hard to see outside of our own perspectives. The idea of doing the book in a mostly comic book format is so that Brooke can get people to look at things in a different way, using metaphorical imagery. And obviously, having bubbles and pictures (instead of prose) is going to make people look at things freshly. Ironically, until it was explained to me, I was the one who was limited in my idea of what comics can do. I’m the guy who’s a proponent of comics being able to do anything, and I was wondering ‘Why a comic book?’ But I see it now.

“Brooke also says that journalism is imbibed in all these different ways, depending on the media you’re taking it in. So if you watch television, and the reporter’s talking to you, you get the feeling that they’re talking to you and everyone else. When you read a story in an average daily newspaper, the reporter isn’t present but writes about everything in a detached way. In radio, there’s a sense that the person is speaking directly to you in a conversation, as if you know them. Brooke says that the idea of her ‘speaking’ in word balloons and pictures is the closest print equivalent of someone talking directly to you like on the radio.”

Even though Neufeld has an enormous body of work, A.D. is considered his breakout project, with The Influencing Machine hot on its heels. With his firm belief in the sequential medium, as well as his embracing of the evolving technologies, chances are that Neufeld’s work will continue to evolve into new and unorthodox territories. He wouldn’t have evolved into the cartoonist he is today had he not stuck to his guns.

“I had chances, especially in the early ‘90s to go work at Malibu, Eternity, or Archie,” Josh reveals. “But when I sat down and thought what my life would be if I drew an issue of Sonic the Hedgehog or Jughead, I didn’t want to sully my love of the medium by doing stuff I wasn’t passionate about. Instead, I turned down those gigs, and just kept plugging away and doing my own obscure, non-mainstream stuff. Fortunately, it’s working out with A.D. It’s been my ‘big break,’ if you will, but I would have been happy if it hadn’t worked out that way, and would just continue to make money doing illustration and design, with occasional comics here and there. I wasn’t looking to become a full-time cartoonist, but it just somehow happened in the last couple of years.”

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