"A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge" cartoonist Josh Neufeld is going back out on the road on behalf of the State Department.
"As with my trip to Burma [in March], it seems that -- because of 'A.D.' -- I am being invited to showcase the cultural freedoms of American society, especially in comparison to the more authoritarian-style policies of the countries I'll be visiting," writes Neufeld, who leaves today for the Middle East and North Africa as part of the U.S. Speaker and Specialist Program. His three-week tour includes Egypt, Algeria, Bahrain and "a country to be named later."
Neufeld went to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, volunteering as an American Red Cross worker. He blogged about the storm's social and physical ravages, which led to a serialized Smith Magazine project, a self-published book and then his best-selling graphic novel "A.D." (Pantheon), which follows the stories of seven real-life victims of Katrina. (In late-August, Neufeld returned to New Orleans -- during the anniversary of the hurricane -- for a paperback-release party for "A.D."; the event was attended by two of the victims.)
The State Department invited me "specifically because of the Katrina book, which is blatantly so critical of the government," Neufeld tells Comic Riffs of his comics reportage. "The program brings in cultural figures who disseminate [this message] -- the State Department is proud of that freedom of expression. ... They bring me over as a statement of how our civil society welcomes voices of dissent in all forms."
Neufeld [right] says the idea for the trip arose several months ago. "It's an interesting system witih embassies," he tells Comic Riffs. "One embassy gets the bright idea to invite a cultural figure and then others join the bandwagon to have a tour rather than a one-off. The Algerian Embassy initiated this one." (In Algeria, he'll be traveling with fellow American cartoonist Brandon Jerwa.)
During the trip, the New York-based cartoonist will give presentations, meet with cartoonists from the respective countries and attend the weeklong 3rd Annual International Comics Festival.
Neufeld says the woman who runs the festival -- Algerian comics publisher Dalila Nadjem of Editions Dalimen -- is "interested in doing a translation of 'A.D.' in Arabic and French-Algerian."
The 43-year-old alt-cartoonist is also eager to travel places he never expected to go. "In my mid-20s, I did this big backpacking trip in Southeast Asia with my wife, and I thought then I travel a lot and explore every country and meet people from every culture," he says. "But that didn't happen." Neufeld's careers and obligations -- his life -- in the intervening years didn't allow for much international travel.
"Now, it feels like I've come full circle and I'm being rewarded for all my comics work," Neufeld says. "Now I get to do this cultural exchange, meeting other people who do the same thing as I do. ... I'm just so grateful for this opportunity."
Does Neufeld have any concerns about his international safety? "It's similar to the trip to Burma," he says. "We had to meet with a security officer at the embassy who said not to do X, Y and Z and don't go out late at night. The standard stuff. Nothing to be [scared of] -- hey, I grew up in New York in the '80s."