parish_medIn response to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the drama of rebuilding New Orleans after the levees broke, artists of all mediums gave voice to profound personal stories, political dramas, horrible injustices, and moving redemptions. Katrina has been the subject of many a film, documentary, book and graphic novel—Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge comes to mind as perhaps the best-known and most smartly nuanced graphic novel on the subject. And so The Parish: An Americorps Story is up against some steep competition to offer a meaningful and memorable perspective on Katrina’s aftermath.

Even on its own merits, irrespective of other Katrina tales, The Parish is pretty roughly put together. It’s the fictionalized memoir of Joel Smith, herein known as Leo, as he begins his stint with AmeriCorps in St. Bernard Parish, repairing houses, fraternizing (and fighting) with fellow Corps members, and generally wavering between hope in the group’s ability to affect change and feeling cynical about Corps bureaucracy and the uselessness of most tasks assigned—like writing the camp newsletter. This setup has potential to present the age-old young adult dilemma of one’s ideals colliding with reality, but Smith bumbles through it without direction. The narrative is stilted and confusing, starting abruptly with the group’s arrival in St. Bernard Parish, spending an awful lot of time on drinking beer, cursing supervisors, pining after a cute girl, and ending by finally, without a clear reason, getting a chance to work on reconstruction projects.

In an effort to be self-reflective, Smith’s story comes off as painfully self-involved. It seems that Leo came to AmeriCorps to help people, but also because he had no idea what to do with his life. That’s all well and good as a premise, but over the course of The Parish, Leo doesn’t figure out what to do with his life or how to feel about his service. He barely gets a chance to help people, though he gets to hang out with the girl he likes, so it all works out, right? Smith pours out volumes of prose but says very little—the soul-searching is superficial and unsatisfying.

To further add to the book’s problematic portrayal of Smith’s experience, Ryan Winet’s illustration style does the narrative no favors. It commits the cardinal cartooning sin of featuring a cast of characters who are difficult to tell apart. Winet also sets a lot of scenes on dark nights or in dark buildings, muddying scenes even further. Finally, he uses a format of four long horizontal panels per page, which is difficult to process visually since they are repetitive, claustrophobic, and further chopps up an already stilted narrative. Winet is not a terrible illustrator. He’s got a good eye for detail and embraces contrasts, so individual panels work very well on their own. But his work doesn’t flow as a sequential story, so it doesn’t transfer all that well to the graphic novel format—his illustrations work against the story and vice versa.

I hate to say that this one is worth skipping. Louisiana, post-Katrina, is ripe for so many reflections on the best and worst of our humanity and cultural values. Smith might have done well in his story to go just a bit beyond his personal and extremely limited experience to make contact with the universal emotions his story could evoke. The Parish posits that not all those involved in the rebuilding process had great motives, or any particular motives at all, and recounts how Smith slowly learned to care and do his own small part. But his inability to tell that story with clarity or conviction is frustrating and fruitless. Perhaps I should go gentle on this indie-published, small print story, but Smith and Winet should have thought through the artistic conventions and narrative capabilities of the graphic novel format before they chose it to tell this particular story. They might have had something really great on their hands.

The Parish: An AmeriCorps Story
by Joel Smith
Art by Ryan Winet
ISBN: 9781940761152
Beating Windward, 2015

  • Emilia Packard

    Past Reviewer

    This reviewer is not longer actively working on our site, but we would not be here if not for our many dedicated contributors over the years. We thank all of them for their reviews, features, and support! Emilia has been reading graphic novels rabidly since her best friend handed her Craig Thompson’s Blankets over winter break during her sophomore year of college. From that day, her fate was sealed — at Grinnell College, she created, edited and drew strips for a student comics magazine called The Sequence. As an MLS Student at the University of Illinois, she spent way too much time filling up her backpack (and her roommate’s backpack) with the treasures of the Undergrad Library’s comics collection — never less than 40 books at a time. Just in the past few years, she’s worked at libraries and archives in Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Indiana, and Austin, Texas and consumed their graphic novels collections with great gusto. She has been drawing her stick-figure avatar, Flippy-Do, since she was about 10 years old.

Liked it? Take a second to support us on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!