Five years ago this month, author Mat Johnson sat in front of his TV in upstate New York, watching the anguish and devastation that came after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and a breach in the levees led to the flooding of New Orleans.
He knew even then he wanted to write about it.
"I didn't know how to do it," he says. "At first I thought it would be nonfiction research, but I thought that would only be read by people with a connection to it."
Instead Johnson wrote "Dark Rain," a graphic novel illustrated by Simon Gane and in bookstores Tuesday. It uses the flooding as a plotline in a thriller mixing emotion and events with a story about second chances and widespread corruption. There is "the intentional corruption and the unintentional corruption because of bureaucracy, which ends up being the same thing," he says.
It was when Johnson moved to Houston, becoming a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Houston, that the story started to come together and became, perhaps, more urgent. About 100,000 people from New Orleans moved to Houston after Katrina. Then, in the midst of writing his novel, Johnson got a small taste of the Katrina experience when 2008's Hurricane Ike forced him and his family from Houston for two weeks.
What inspired it?
The story of "Dark Rain" started with a single image, Johnson says. "I saw the traffic coming down Highway 10, which is the direct route between New Orleans and Houston. I saw an image of everybody trying to get out and two guys trying to get in. The next question is "Why were they doing that?"
From there, he developed the story of ex-cons Dabny Arceneaux and Emmit Jack, who end up roommates in a halfway house in Houston. As Katrina approaches, Jack launches a plan to rob the New Orleans bank where he was once employed and ends up pulling in Arceneaux. The caper gets them involved with the deadly commander of the rogue Dark Rain security force and a young pregnant mother trapped by the waters.
The compelling tale has plenty of tension, but there's humor too. ("I didn't realize the humor in it until people pointed it out to me later," Johnson says. "That's just the way I write.") That mix immediately drew London-based Gane to the project.
"When I first read the full script, I was gripped, moved, I laughed at points, and felt choked at others," Gane says via e-mail. "I think I was most struck by Mat's dialogue and the chemistry between his characters and also how passionately he felt about those subjects - that's inspirational to me as his collaborator."
In November, Gane traveled to New Orleans, with Johnson joining him from Houston, deepening his sense of the story and town. "It's a feast for the eye," he says of the Crescent City, "rich and varied, full of details and idiosyncrasies and full of life. I gathered too much reference, frankly, and couldn't shoehorn a fraction of it in to 'Dark Rain.'"
In a graphic novel the artwork is part of the storytelling; Gane wanted to make sure Johnson's layered story didn't have the look and feel of a stereotypical crime comic. "The heist isn't really the real crime, after all," Gane says. "I was very conscious of how I portrayed those who suffered in the wake of Katrina. I didn't want to reduce their story to a genre one, and a grittier style wouldn't have fit with the humor and warmth of Mat's script either."
For that reason, Gane focused a lot on faces and body language, he says, even making people in crowd scenes look like individuals when he could. "I tried to draw just realistically enough whilst having the flexibility to convey emotion and body language with economy and immediacy," Gane says.
Gane's care in telling a story centered on the lingering tragedy was shared by Johnson. "You walk this fine line," he says. "The question you ask yourself is: 'Am I doing more harm than good?' My answer was it was worth doing."
Five years after the flooding, Johnson says he feels more optimistic about New Orleans' future because of the people who have returned to the city and the intense connection they have to the city. But he says, there's much for all of us to consider.
"If you look at the Gulf Coast, it's a microcosm of what happens in America. Even if we don't agree with the causes, we're dealing with environmental issues," Johnson said. "We have not solved the issues of poverty. There's a big debate about the role of government in protecting the weakest citizens.
"New Orleans is a city with one of the richest culinary and architectural histories. There's not a lot of places left like that; most places are so corporatized. We have to ask: What are we going to do about our heritage?"
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