by Joe Sacco
Jonathan Cape £12.99, pp296
If the mention of comic books still calls to mind images of caped crusaders and anthropomorphic mice, the graphic front-line reportage of Joe Sacco should upend your preconceptions. While the comic-book form typically deals with fantasy of a lurid and questionable kind, Sacco’s cartoons address the extremes of an altogether different world – our own.
With a degree in journalism and a background that spans teaching at New York’s School of Visual Arts, editing, publishing and a brief spell drawing Maltese romance cartoons, Sacco is perhaps an unlikely star of war-zone reporting. Yet his time is spent exploring the planet’s hellholes and his work has even been championed in the Economist, a magazine not previously known for its interest in comics.
Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer-winning Holocaust comic, Maus, hailed Sacco’s work as the vanguard of journalism, announcing: ‘In a world where Photoshop has outed the photograph as a liar, one can now allow artists to return to their original function – as reporters.’ Indeed, Sacco is arguably the only cartoonist in America to be held in equal regard by broadsheet journalists and comic-book enthusiasts.
Sacco’s eyewitness illustrations have attracted attention far beyond the twilight realm of the comic book and graphic novel. Published in 2000, his first major project was Safe Area Gorazde, an unnerving first-hand account of the war in eastern Bosnia. The book earned widespread praise for its fusion of aesthetic and journalistic content, with the New York Times hailing Sacco as ‘an immense talent’, adding: ‘This medium will not let us separate actions, faces, bodies and scenes from the words that explain and amplify them… Sacco shows how much that is crucial to our lives a book can hold.’
His cartoon narratives have also earned the Malta-born artist numerous awards, including the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel (the comic-book equivalent of an Oscar) and the 2002 VPRO Grand Prix of Haarlem, in which he prevailed over the considerable talents of Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. In 2001, he was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship to work on his forthcoming project, Gaza.
Originally published in 1993 as a nine-issue comic series, Palestine is an illustrated account of the cartoonist’s visit to the Occupied Territories during 1991 and 1992. Focusing on how private lives are impacted by public policies, Sacco depicts a retaliatory loop of routine horror, while navigating the region’s infernal history and political sensitivities. Now republished in a single 300-page volume with a new introduction by the critic and historian Edward Said, Palestine remains, in light of recent events, as pertinent as ever. With luck, the graphic novel format will afford some measure of contact with booksellers beyond the ghetto of specialist comic stores and introduce Sacco’s work to the wider audience it undoubtedly deserves.
Drawing on first-hand experiences, extensive research and more than 100 interviews with Palestinians and Jews, Sacco has gained access to unusually intimate testimony, giving space to details and perspectives normally excluded by mainstream media coverage. The enthusiasm and frequency with which Sacco is hauled into the homes of those he meets – to listen, take notes and drink endless cups of tea – underlines the desperation of the people he encounters; their hopes are pinned not on political promises but on telling their stories to a stranger who writes comic books.
Although the critical response to the American edition of Palestine has been overwhelmingly positive, a number of stridently Zionist web sites have, perversely, accused Sacco of ‘Jew-bashing’ and his Seattle publisher receives the occasional piece of hate mail. Yet Palestine is a remarkably even-handed work and essentially humanist in tone: ‘What can happen to someone who thinks he has all the power? What becomes of someone when he believes himself to have none?’
The original Palestine comic series won the 1996 American Book Awa
rd and the illustrations have since been exhibited across the US. The book’s imagery is vivid, memorably atmospheric and faithful to the landscapes and cities of Palestine. It also evokes an almost surreal routine of bureaucratic harassment, roadblocks and tear gas, punctuated only by moments of mordant humour.
Despite the careful characterisation of those around him, Sacco’s cartoon self is slightly unreal – a grotesquely exaggerated figure, complete with enormously elastic lips – a formlessness that, curiously, invites identification. However, his draughtsmanship is perhaps best demonstrated by his complex crowd scenes, with their differentiated faces, pointed detail and disjointed snippets of overheard speech and interior narrative.
Although Palestine is both visually engaging and a labour of artistic love, at its heart lies a commitment to hard-edged journalism and a challenge to the objectivity of the Western (and particularly American) media: ‘I came from the standpoint of “Palestinian equals terrorist”. That’s what filtered down in the course of watching the regular network news.’ Sacco makes no pretence of the observer’s invisibility and depicts his own initial disbelief of reported detentions and torture. Nor does he shy away from revealing his own ambiguities as a visiting Western journalist. (As a street demonstration threatens to erupt into violence, we see him bolstering his confidence by repeating to himself: ‘It’s good for the comic, it’s good for the comic.’)
With Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, Sacco has assumed the unlikely role of the pre-photography war artist, while exploiting the narrative and textual devices of the comic book. Others have employed the comics form to tell political, non-fictional or biographical stories, among them Steve Darnall, Marjane Satrapi and Ho Che Anderson, but Sacco’s work is unique in its scale and ambition.
Approaching such daunting topics with a disreputable and supposedly juvenile medium may seem futile, even absurd, yet Sacco’s greatest achievement is to have so poignantly depicted contradiction, oppression and horror in a form that manages to be both disarming and disquieting. Palestine not only demonstrates the versatility and potency of its medium, but it also sets the benchmark for a new, uncharted genre of graphic reportage.
· Notes From a Defeatist, a collection of shorter pieces and earlier work by Joe Sacco, is published by Fantagraphics this month