Don Brown’s DROWNED CITY

There’s an old saying that journalism is the first draft of history. I was thinking of that recently when I presented A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge to students & teachers at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. Pretty much the entire 10th-grade there had read A.D. in their English classes, so I spent a full day at the school, bringing the story behind A.D. to the more than 1,000 kids from that grade (and a selection of 11th-graders who had read the book last year). It’s crazy to think that those students were around four years old back in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and nearly destroyed New Orleans. So to them my book is not a journalistic perspective on the disaster, but rather (ancient) history.

(One positive about that is in regards to the section of A.D. that deals with Denise’s experiences at the New Orleans convention center—without the burden of the false rumors about gang violence, rapes, dead bodies in freezers, etc. that flew around the media at the time, the kids will have a fresher understanding of at what actually went down at the convention center…)

I write at the end of A.D. that

… there are many, many stories about Katrina and its aftermath. Those of the seven people in A.D. are quite particular and highly personal, but my hope is that they provide a window into a larger world, one that few of us understand and that we’ll be trying to make sense of for a long time.

And I always paraphrase that sentiment when I discuss A.D.—that my book is merely one document of many about the storm and its aftermath. And I make sure to mention some of the other great narratives about Katrina/New Orleans (a few of which are much more expansive in scope). Documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke or Tia Lessin and Carl Deal’s Trouble the Water. Books like Douglas Brinkley’s The Great Deluge, or Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic, or Dave Eggers’ Zeitoun, or Dan Baum’s Nine Lives. Or more recent works like Roberta Brandes Gratz’s We’re Still Here Ya Bastards, and Please Forward, edited by Cynthia Joyce. And even fictional works like HBO’s solid series Treme.

DrownedCityWell, now there’s another “graphic narrative” to add to that list: Don Brown’s Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Published last summer on the 10th anniversary of the storm, it’s the only other comic book format history of Katrina that I know of. (And I only just found out about it, though apparently it’s been very well received…)

Definitely for a younger audience than A.D., Drowned City takes the reader through the breadth of the Katrina story, from the storm’s formation as “a swirl of unremarkable wind” in Africa to its building in the Gulf of Mexico and finally sweeping into Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. The book shows New Orleans preparing for the storm and the city’s belated & haphazard attempts to evacuate. It shows the breaching of the levees, the people trapped in their attics, and the drowned bodies. The book details how helpless/useless the authorities in New Orleans were to deal with the flooding and the aftermath, and how thousands of people were abandoned at the so-called “shelters of last resort,” the Superdome and the Convention Center. Drowned City shows the chaos that settled over the city, how people were forced to help themselves to much-need supplies—and the instances of looting—and how some brave groups and individuals performed heroic rescues. The book spares no blows in its depiction of the ineptitude and infighting of officials like FEMA head Michael Brown, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco, and President George W. Bush. The book ends in October 2005 with the city finally dry, but totally devastated. It talks about New Orleans’ subsequent depopulation, particularly the decline of the city’s poorest (mostly African-American) populations. Nevertheless, the book ends on a tentative note of hopefulness.

Drowned City is gorgeously illustrated, mostly in large panels of pen & ink and watercolor. And it is meticulously researched & documented, with a full source list/bibliography at the back.

I often speak of A.D. as a “people’s history” of Hurricane Katrina. Don Brown‘s Drowned City takes more of a holistic perspective, and in that way is a perfect complement to A.D. I highly recommend you check it out.

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Coming May 11 to Greenlight Books: BATTLE LINES by Fetter-Vorm & Kelman. I’ll be there too.

BattleLinesThis coming Monday, May 11, I’ll be in Fort Greene at the wonderful Greenlight Bookstore, discussing Battle Lines: A Graphic History of the Civil War, by cartoonist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm and historian Ari Kelman.

I was given a chance to read an advance copy of the nonfiction graphic novel, and was profoundly impressed. Featuring Fetter-Vorm’s inspired storytelling, delicate line work, and haunting watercolor washes, Battle Lines is a tour-de-force of ground-level storytelling. Each chapter takes a single object and works ever outward, increasing in scope—through salient detail, it brings the epic conflict into focus. Profound and strangely beautiful, in my opinion Battle Lines is the best graphic novel ever produced about the Civil War.

The book came out this week (from Hill & Wang), and the authors will be presenting it to readers at Greenlight “on the big screen” on Monday. I will be there to admire the work and help guide the discussion. Please come by if you can make it; it’s really a special book. Here are the details:

Monday, May 11, 2015, 7:30pm
Greenlight Books
686 Fulton St.
Brooklyn, NY 11217

And here’s the Facebook event link: https://www.facebook.com/events/356409167895594/

Illustrating the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Oberlin-ant-slavery-activism-comic-verticalTwo of my biggest heroes when I was a kid were Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I had posters of them on my wall! I read Douglass’s autobiography a number of times, and I thrilled to the daring exploits of Tubman and the Underground Railroad.

Many of the residents of Oberlin, Ohio, home of my alma mater, Oberlin College, were active in the Underground Railroad in the years before the Civil War. (Ohio borders Kentucky, which, during that period, was a slaveholding state.)

Recently, Oberlin Alumni Magazine commissioned me to illustrate an article about Oberlin’s role in anti-slavery activism. In reading the piece, by J. Brent Morris, and researching the era for my illustrations, I was fascinated to learn that many escaped slaves stayed openly in Oberlin—despite the fugitive slave laws—and became active abolitionists. Here’s a great quote from the article illustrating the fierceness of Oberlinians’ defiance of the “peculiar institution”:

Even though federal marshals and Southern slave catchers seemed a ubiquitous presence in Oberlin, it was nearly impossible to reclaim a free Oberlinite or “fugitive slave” from the town’s protective grasp. . . . Brooklyn abolitionist William Watkins could tell that Oberlin African Americans were “not afraid of the white man.” He noted “a sort of you-touch-me-if-you-dare” attitude about them and would not have been surprised by the security plans of a man like Gus Chambers, who declared that “If any one of those men darkens my door, he is a dead man.” In his blacksmith shop, Chambers always had a hammer and iron bar at the ready for protection, and most often also had a red-hot poker in the fire. Above his door was a loaded double-barrel shotgun, and beside his bed were razor-sharp knives and a pistol. He would never kill a man, he conceded, but clarified that a “man-stealer”
was not fully human. “The man who tries to take my life,” Chambers declared, “loses his own.”

A number of brave former slaves even journeyed back across state lines into Kentucky to recruit slaves to escape back north with them! In a four-panel comic I did for the piece, I show what one hapless U.S. Marshall based in Oberlin was confronted with when he tried to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, from being run off with a shotgun to being beaten with a walking stick, to finally being run out of town by a group of Oberlin citizens. Ha!

I was given my choice of what to draw for a full-page illustration, and there were many amazing anecdotes of Oberlin’s place in abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. But the story I ultimately chose was a key moment in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue. In 1858, an escaped slave named John Price was abducted by Southern slave catchers, who intended to bring him back to Kentucky. A large group of Oberlin residents, including many African-Americans, rushed to the nearby town of Wellington, where the slave catchers had holed up in a hotel for the night. In blatant defiance of the “law,” the Oberlin residents forced their way into the hotel and rescued Price.

My illustration shows the aftermath of the rescue, as the joyous crowd of rescuers carry Price out of the hotel on their shoulders. Photos from the era showed many of the Obies who took part, as well as the Wellington hotel itself, all of which I incorporated as best I could into the illustration. I even portray the slave catchers, cowering up in the attic, peeking out the windows as their “prize” is taken away.

It turned out that the Oberlin-Wellingto Rescue was a key moment in the lead-up to the Civil War. Ohio state officials defended the rescuers, despite their flouting federal law (the Fugitive Slave Law), and even tried to repeal the law at the 1859 Republican convention. (Remember, the Republicans were the “good guys” back then!) The resulting attention kept the issue of slavery very much in the public eye right up until secession and the shots fired at Fort Sumter.

Seeing as how it’s Black History Month, I’m proud to share this story, and my visual representation of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, which has rarely been portrayed.

(Thanks to Emily Crawford, the OAM art director, who was so accommodating to work with, and so supportive all along the way. I also want to draw attention to cartoonist Bentley Boyd‘s Oberlin: Origins and Onward!, a comic book history of Oberlin from 1833 to the present.)

Oberlin-Wellington Rescue

Joel Christian Gill’s STRANGE FRUIT

Strange FruitIn 2007 Boston-area cartoonist Joel Christian Gill started drawing a story about a 19th-century man who escaped slavery by mailing himself to freedom in a box. The following year he made a minicomic and went to his first comics show to sell Strange Fruit #1 (followed by six additional issues). Today those stories and more are collected in Strange Fruit, vol I: Uncelebrated Narrative from Black History (Fulcrum Publishing)—with a foreword by Henry Louis Gates!

These offbeat stories of heretofore-obscure African-American pioneers are filled with heartbreak and triumph. Without whitewashing the realities of slavery and racism, Strange Fruit has a wry, welcoming tone—much aided by Gill’s dynamic, inventive storytelling. After reading about such real American heroes as chess master Theophilus Thompson, bicycling champion Marshall “Major” Taylor, and lawman Bass Reeves, I’m eager to learn more—and so should you!

So buy the book—and check out Gill discussing it recently on HuffPo: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/537e66e3fe34440f9d00011c