A chat with cartoonist and educator Josh Neufeld.
I recently had a chance to sit in on a class in Pine Manor College’s Comics & Graphic Narratives concentration, which is offered through its Solstice Low-Residency MFA program. Teaching this particular class was the program’s lead instructor Josh Neufeld, who also just so happens to be an accomplished cartoonist.
In addition to being a longtime artist for the late Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, Neufeld wrote and illustrated the Eisner and Harvey Award-nominated A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, which is also a New York Times best seller. I had a chance to read A.D., which chronicles the true survival stories of five New Orleans residents during the devastating Hurricane Katrina, and I can’t recommend it enough. Whether you gravitate toward fiction or nonfiction, you’ll find it hard not to turn the pages in this graphic novel due to Neufeld’s masterful take on characters and highly detailed illustrations.
It’s the impact A.D. had on me that made me want to learn more about Neufeld as both a storyteller and mentor to the next generation of great comic talent. So we caught up after his class at Pine Manor.
AiPT!: When did you first fall in love with comics, Josh?
Josh Neufeld: Probably when I was 4 or 5 years old. I liked superhero stuff and I also fell in love with Asterix and Tintin comics, which was pretty rare in those days in America, but my mom traveled to Europe a lot and would bring me back English translations wherever she could find them, usually from British publishers. So I had both of those strands. I was a DC guy – I loved Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, and then I loved Tintin and Asterix. I was an artist from a young age and I started drawing my own comics. I did superhero stuff, I did rip-offs of Tintin and just really never stopped making comics from age 4 or 5 on.
AiPT!: How did you get into teaching?
Neufeld: I did a few afternoon workshops and started to develop a repertoire of things to do, like little go-to exercises for all different ages, more about making comics, encouraging people to make comics who were tentative or not sure about their drawing abilities, just making stories and how the stories are the things what underpin the whole thing and that art can just service the story.
Then I got offers to do a week-long workshop and I was really nervous at first about that. My wife is a fiction writer, so I enlisted her to to help me structure the whole thing and co-teach the class – she would teach the storytelling end of things and I’d focus on the drawing end. That worked well and I got more confidence. I’ve just been lucky. I’ve received different offers to teach. It’s like when you reach a certain point in your career, people go, “oh, you must teach as well.”
The Solstice program is really what made the teaching thing a more serious part of my life.AiPT!: In your opinion, what are among the biggest roadblocks standing in aspiring creators’ way?
Neufeld: It might just be being intimidated. I think a lot of folks, especially people who don’t have a ton of experience with comics but are interested or intrigued by them, sort of take a look at them and go, “oh my gosh, you have to conceive of this thing and plan it out and visualize it and think of every little detail and you have to be a competent artist.” It’s very intimidating, especially if you look at people who are quite accomplished – examples like Maus or Watchmen. You look at these masterworks and say, “I could never do something like that,” so you never try. So I think a lot of it is breaking down that intimidation factor and seeing that you can.
The way I approach things is I break them down into component parts. I tell people your art can serve the story. There are a lot of great cartoonists who are very limited in terms of their skills, but do great comics. You don’t have to draw like Alex Ross or David Mazzuchelli to tell a great story. Then, the other side is trying to tamp down people who are too ambitious and want to write that 1,000-page comic, like Bone. First, just do a one-page comic, then do a four-page, then a 10-page and learn about what each of the requirements of the forms of narrative are and get your feet wet and try to structure a larger project.
AiPT!: Can you talk a bit about working with Harvey Pekar and how your working relationship came about?
Neufeld: It was the early ’90s. I was just transitioning from doing superhero stuff and kind of losing interest in genre comics and wanted to match my own interest in the real world and literature and current events with my own practice as an artist, so I discovered American Splendor around the same time as discovered Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, and I wanted to do stuff like that but lacked confidence as a writer.
But I loved Harvey Pekar and American Splendor. I thought, “oh, he uses illustrators, this would be a great way to get my feet wet and get some experience.” So I basically just sent some examples of my work and said, “you should hire me. I’m as good as some of the people you have working for you already.” And then I didn’t hear from him for a long time and said, “oh well, I guess that didn’t work.” Then i got this phone call out of the blue and it was Harvey Pekar. He said, “yeah yeah man, I got your stuff, it looks interesting, I think I could use you.” But he wanted to vet me first and have this long conversation – oh, we’re both Jewish, we’ve done this and that and jazz – and once he decided I was cool in his book, he gave me like one little story to do first, then they got longer. He had to build up a trust with me.
AiPT!: Did you ever get to meet him?
Neufeld: Yeah, he came to Chicago – I was living in Chicago at that point – he lived in Cleveland, not too far away. Actually, shortly after I met him and I think I’d only done that one-page story, he and his wife were thinking of going to Chicago to promote Our Cancer Year and they invited themselves to stay over with me and my wife. It was a little intimidating because on one hand, we knew they were struggling writers themselves and not used to luxury, but we had this really crappy apartment. It ended up falling through and they stayed in a hotel. In retrospect, it would have been awesome if that happened, but we were definitely a little freaked out.
AiPT!: Do you have any thoughts on the state of the mainstream comic industry?
Neufeld: I’m so out of it. I sometimes hear gossipy stuff. Like, I know DC moved their editorial office out West and they’re trying to connect to Hollywood now, and obviously, Marvel and Disney and all that. But I’m not following any of the storylines. I used to buy anything Alan Moore was doing and I loved Grant Morrison stuff. I couldn’t keep up the rhythm of every month going and buying a comic. So sometimes I’d get trade paperbacks. Right now I’m reading Fables because my brother, who’s younger than me, had the whole collection and gave them to me. Saga was pretty good – I’m probably 5 years out of date with everything I’m reading.
AiPT!: I read A.D: New Orleans After the Deluge in one sitting and very much enjoyed it. In your opinion, how does that graphic novel’s story, which is so grounded in reality, benefit from being told through illustration?
Neufeld: It’s funny – when I started doing A.D. I didn’t even think about why it was – or wasn’t – a good idea to tell this story as a comic – it just came natural to me since I’d already been drawing nonfiction comics for most of my career (such as it was!). But I have come to realize over the years since I did A.D. that telling this story of real-life survivors of Katrina in comics form really touches a nerve with people. I think that the particular alchemy of comics – the “reading” of the art as well as the story – and the act of “closure” (the active participation of the reader required to “complete the picture” between each actual panel) brings the story to life in a unique way. Comics are very intimate – they draw the reader into the story in an extremely immersive fashion – and they generate tremendous empathy.
The stories I tell in A.D. – of personal loss, trauma, displacement, the etc. – benefit from all these factors – “closure,” intimacy, empathy – not to mention the dynamism of the “action” in the story: the energy, the wild winds, the flooding, the scenes at the Convention Center, and so on. My hope is that readers get drawn into the story the way they do a fictional story (like, say, and adventure comic), and then realize that all the characters are real, that all the events actually happened – and that makes them understand on a visceral level what the events of Katrina meant and why it’s so important to understand them.AiPT!: Finally, outside of the Solstice program, what are you currently working on?
Neufeld: I’m working on a couple of short projects over the summer. One of them has to do with the infamous Trump-Russia dossier, and the behind-the-scenes story of how it was commissioned and was passed from hand to hand among various politicians and journalism outlets like a hot potato. The other piece is an “evergreen” story about the 2008 economic crash – looking into its root causes and trying to figure out how to avoid another one. Both pieces are still in the researching, reporting and script-writing phase; I still have a lot of work left to do on both of them!
For more information about Josh Neufeld and his work, visit his website.