Revacuation by Brad Benischek
Thanks to The Weather Channel, practically everyone with a cable connection fears that Grendel of all storms -- the Category Five hurricane, with sustained winds surpassing 155 miles per hour. So when it was announced on August 28, 2005, that, as it spiraled over the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters, Katrina was packing a 175 mile per hour punch, people fled from the path of a meteorological monster. Well, the ones who had access to transportation fled, clogging Route 10 heading west or Route 55 going north. For those without the dollars or the wheels to leave, they hunkered down, unable, and, in some instances, unwilling, to evacuate. And the result -- the wind-whipped Superdome, the flooded streets, the floating corpses, the endless succession of traumatized black and poor people -- played out on TVs, computer screens and newspapers, much to the world’s horror.
Actually, it continues to play out. Thousands of people who lost their homes are struggling to adjust to lives in formaldehyde-tainted trailers. Schools are in disarray, if they’re even open. Complaints of inadequate response to the crisis still dog FEMA. And not everyone who ran from The Big Easy has returned, forsaking it for places such as Houston, Dallas, and even Salt Lake City. It’s this ongoing deterioration of what is -- or was -- one of the nation’s most culturally distinct metropolitan areas that Brad Benischek tackles in his graphic novel, Revacuation.
It might seem, at first blink, that a graphic novel doesn’t possess the literary chops to take on life’s horrors. But that would be forgetting Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning examination of the Holocaust, Maus. In that book, Spiegelman was able to illuminate one of history’s darkest periods with pen and ink. By portraying the Jewish people as mice and Hitler’s minions as cats, he presented the fundamental dance of prey and predator in a manner that distilled genocide’s corrosive terror.
Benishcek attempts to steal some of the ink from Spiegelman’s pen, transforming the people of New Orleans into an animal we can all identify with: pigeons. At least, the animals he draws seem to be pigeons. Sometimes they appear more as crows, other times, ducks or chickens. And every single one of them is a victim, netted in a game that brings either misery or death. The cover art does a bang-up job of detailing this collective fate: there, on a loop-de-loop of an overpass, stand hundreds of birds, their wings, endowed with fingers, stretched to rescue helicopters flying above while flood waters rise below.
These humans-cum-avians find themselves not only at the mercy of meteorological forces, but also a band of scarecrows -- who are so horrifically rendered they could be part a storyboard for a Wes Craven movie -- and a few menacing mammals, including dogs, cats and a coyote. Or maybe it’s a wolf -- deciphering its true canine nature through the sometimes scraggly pen-and-ink work isn’t always easy. But whatever it is, it’s safe to say the beast serves as a stand-in for Dick Cheney, since the bespectacled animal is almost always advising an oval-faced, cowboy-shirted fella who has got be President Bush, since he says things like, “Okey, Doooook, Loooky, Galoky.” And surely everyone recognizes that as presidential speak.
Benischek obviously views his book as an illustrated roman a clef: he’s sure we’ll realize that the pigeon-like being holding a re-election press conference is Mayor Ray Nagin. This makes sense, on one level, since we all know about the misery. But what Benischek aims for, but doesn’t always quite achieve, is to get us to feel the misery. No easy trick, that, given all we have to rely on are the images he illustrates and words he writes. The trick becomes all but impossible when the drawings are impossible to decipher. Sometimes they resemble childish scribbles, with words crammed together to such degree, they may as well be -- forgive me -- chicken scratch. And some of the book’s drawings suffer an unfortunate fate -- instead of bleeding to the end of the page, they’re surrounded by a thin white border which lops off important letters and visuals. Sometimes this might be for the best, given that there are enough misspellings in the text to make an elementary school teacher force Benischek to repeat fourth grade English.
This is a shame, because when the book works, it’s almost startling. On one page, there’s a hastily drawn image of something that looks to be a pigeon, flying superhero-style, from a nest. To the right, there’s the silhouette of two beaked figures talking in a smaller nest with a light bulb above them. Says one figure to the other: “I did everything right. Contractors! Permits. Inspections! Six months renovating! Supporting local busisnes (sic). Having faith in the city. Then my power is cut buy (sic) mistake after one week of living in my newly painted, sheetrocked, floors refinished, rewired, replumbed house.” Here, the travesty is clear, the words sounding as if they could have been lifted straight from a real conversation.
When the book relies on this sort of honesty, it’s enough to make you want to throw your hands up and holler. And pray that another Category Five doesn’t lay its paws on some other coastal city. Otherwise, we could be watching a reprise of a tragedy we’re still witnessing -- one where people, looking for an escape route, will be left with no way out.
Revacuation by Brad Benischek