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Ellie Violet Bramley

When NOW met Joe Sacco

Comic books, journalism, and the objective ideal

Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco

An extended piece based on NOW’s interviews with cartoonist Joe Sacco, who was in town this week as part of the Beirut chapter of the Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts.

 

Joe Sacco makes digestible what is often unstomachable. Perhaps best-known for his early comic, Palestine, about his experiences in the West Bank and Gaza, his work has also covered situations in Bosnia, Iraq, India, The Hague, the United States, and more. Wherever his pencils portray, they always come down on the side of the oppressed and the powerless.

 

Questions of the aptness of the medium of the comic book as a vehicle for stories with serious subjects and messages are not new. It’s not something Sacco himself ever mulled over in the beginning: “I only approach it theoretically cause people like you ask me the question,” he says without reproach. “The way I approached it was: I love comics, but I had a serious streak and I studied journalism. I was interested in what was going on in the world so putting those two things together was organic without really being thought out.” Organically conceived, a new sub-genre was born: a kind of journalistic cartoon (one could perhaps look to things such as Punch, the satirical cartoons of Victorian England, for a predecessor of sorts) – aesthetically mesmerizing, emotionally gruelling, but daubed with the brush of entertainment, making the gruel more palatable. 

 

Sacco is comfortable with the word ‘entertainment’ for what others before have labelled ‘humor’: “if you want to be artistic you’ve got to realise that a lot of your readings aren’t approaching your subject in the same way as you see it. There’s an entertainment factor in comics that I like, and I’m okay with the word entertainment, ultimately you want people to keep turning the page, that’s part of the art. If you show things as bleakly as they are over and over again without getting into the human side of things, who wants to read that?”

 

As with any method of reportage or storytelling it has its definite strengths: “what they can do is right away bring a person, bring the reader into a situation. They open up the book and there are images of a refugee camp.” Anyone who has read any of Sacco’s work will know that the lines, drawing refugees camps, drawing the weary faces of West Virginia miners, drawing the cold metal of the Israeli bulldozers in Rafah, or drawing the welts of Russian torture on the back of a Chechen man, form a mesh; a net for the attention of the reader. This ensnaring is ideal for what Sacco wants to achieve: “what you are trying to do is get the reader to walk in the same streets as you,” and by extension walk with refugee communities in the winding alleys between tents, or with the people whose lives are so pervaded with poverty that they have given up fighting it, along the pot-holed roads of New Jersey. Could comics perhaps be an antidote to the sadly inevitable fatigue of readers, daily confronted with foreign deaths and despair, and a way to reel readers back into the realm of empathy and shock?

 

Sacco doesn’t blame people for their fatigue: “cause it’s very unpleasant to think people are being killed over there and after a while you go from shock to oh well that’s just the situation, what can I do.” 

 

Besides: “people have their own lives. Even in the best places in the West, the most wealthy places, people have their own problems. I think it’s hard for people to engage in any case and for good reason – people just want to live their lives. I’m sure people in Gaza want to live their lives and people in Damascus want to live their lives and Aleppo, they’d rather just live their lives. The best journalism can do is probably makes us feel like we’re all sort of on the same planet and things are connected, more so now it seems, and our nations are engaged in certain things, even indirectly, so we have to be aware what is going to be done in our name or what might be done in our name. So if you feel like you belong to a society you need to know that your society presses on other societies.”

 

Perhaps the western media’s commitment to worshipping at the altar of objectivity is partly to blame for this fatigue, and Sacco’s comics, with their visuality and humanizing tendencies can remedy what could be seen as an empathy gap. “Perhaps. Perhaps.” Objectivity is often debated in relation to his work. In the preface to Journalism for instance, Sacco questions: “how should we respond…when they [naysayers] question the notion that drawings can aspire to objective truth? Isn’t that – objective truth – what journalism is all about? Aren’t drawings by their very nature subjective?” Perhaps this is why Sacco is reluctant to call his work reporting. Indeed, he is also reluctant to buy into the dignified moniker, “graphic novel,” that many people lend to it; he himself sees himself as a cartoonist – he has no problem with the “under the blanket with a flashlight” connotations of that, but recognizes many do. By placing himself physically into much of his own work – at first as a bumbling presence in Palestine and later as the slightly more “seasoned” presence in Footnotes – Sacco is conceding subjectivity whilst claiming a refreshing kind of honesty (“I think the best a journalist can do is be honest. You can report things from a Palestinian perspective, but show exactly what you’re seeing, which doesn’t always reflect well on the Palestinians, for example, but you have to be honest.”). 

 

At odds with the American “’you’re just a fly on the wall, so unobtrusive;” style, his is an admission that no journalist is unobtrusive and that by revealing the presence you can allow the reader to take the perspective and transformative presence of the journalist into account, making a more informed decision for themselves. Sacco puts it brilliantly: “drawing myself in it makes it clear this is from a reporter’s perspective, it’s not ‘I am the omniscient journalism deity that hovers and knows all and sees all and understand things.’”

 

Sacco is, as such, sceptical when it comes to the notion of objectivity at all. It was in fact the realization that the so-called objective reporting of the American media had given him a starkly skewed view of the Israeli-Palestinian situation that led him to the Middle East, and to writing Palestine.

 

His frankness on the subject is illuminating: “without paying any attention to what was going on in the Middle East, just what I was hearing in the newspapers and all that, I used to think of Palestinians as terrorists. Why was that? Because every ‘objective’ report that I was seeing was about a bus bombing or a hijacking and Palestinians and Palestinians. Any time the word Palestinians ever came up in the media, it was in relation to an attack on the Israelis… objectively, those were attacks; objectively those things happened, but there was no context at all, so just getting the objective facts I had a very, very skewed idea of what was going on.” (Interestingly, it was the Sabra and Shatila massacres in 1982 that made him think there was much more to it that he wanted to unearth.)

 

Just as a photographer can take a subjective image - a Palestinian militant wielding a rocket launcher trained on Israel, for example - so too can a writer, even in a factual report, use rhetoric that is biased – all language is loaded, and so objectivity is an illusive master. A writer can easily depict a single incidence without contextualizing it. An account of an incident unleashed from its historical chains, even if reported strictly factually, is not a full account. This is one of the issues Sacco takes up with the notion of objective reporting: “journalism often doesn’t allow for that [the context or the history], it’s just the facts and anything other than that doesn’t matter. What happened 20 years ago, 30 years ago doesn’t matter; but it does matter, those absolutely matter and you can objectively report about one incident and then leave out the next ten.” For Sacco, history is vital, and when the dominant power structures mobilize the rhetoric of moving on it is because they have things it suits them to sweep under the rug. He gives the example of the Obama administration constantly encouraging people to look forward as a way to avoid looking at the torture that the US has committed in recent times in the name of the War on Terror. But, “if you never look backward, forward is also going to look like backward,” says Sacco.

 

One of the strengths of cartoons is that histories – personal or national – can be probed as easily as a pen dips into an inkwell. As Sacco describes it: “if you’ve done enough research about what the past looked like, what people were wearing, you can switch behind the past and the present in quite a fluid way.” It is this re-engaging with the past that reminds readers in the west, used to feasting on the limited lines of news reports, about their own involvement in the seemingly distant suffering of people around the world - not only that their countries are pressing on others, but have pressed and that is why we are where we are. Where older Palestinians feel the UK has a lot to answer for, for instance, many Britons would look blank at the mention of the Balfour Declaration.

 

Comics find more strength in numbers – the repetition of certain images. Sacco met journalist Chris Hedges during his time in Bosnia, where the two struck up a friendship that led to a collaboration on the book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. The project chronicles life in the United States’ most desolate spots, ‘sacrifice zones’ - described by the cartoonist as just like post-war Bosnia “but without the minarets” - where human beings and natural resources have been used and then abandoned. Hedges talks insightfully over a montage of Sacco’s images from the book here, discussing how a writer can only, for instance, describe the mud and rain pervading a scene once, where a cartoonist can depict it in multiple frames, allowing the damp to seep into the reader’s consciousness through a subtle process of osmosis.  For Sacco, this is invaluable for “building up an atmosphere…without hitting them over the head with it.” Turn at random to any page of Sacco’s gargantuan Footnotes in Gaza for instance – the book he is perhaps most proud of for both its sheer scale (it took him seven years all in) and originality of research – and you cannot fail to be swept into the illustrated scenes. 

 

Until Days of Destruction, all of Sacco’s work had focused on problems outside the country he was living in. But for him, behavioural patterns are the same the world over: “dominant power and economic structures work in the Middle East, and dominant power and economic interests work in your own backyard.” An interesting difference is that whilst the Palestinians Sacco depicts would likely identify themselves as oppressed, many of the Americans in the areas Sacco deals with, such as Camden New Jersey and West Virginia, would not identify themselves as such: “they’re probably so used to being fed this American exceptionalism that they probably think of themselves as failures in the system rather than that the system itself is doing them a great disservice.”

 

Now, perhaps a little fatigued from seeing the same structures impacting in the same subordinating ways on “those run over by history,” Sacco is turning his attention to human psychology. Having seen such hardship he now wants to try and get to the murky bottom of “why humans do what they do,” and so he is looking to first civilizations, Mesopotamia, archaeologists and anthropologists for answers. 

 

This befits Sacco’s persistent focus on humanity, whilst forcing a break with his past style of working which relies on getting “as close to your subject as possible.” For Sacco: “you can talk to all the politicians and all the generals” and you find yourself listening to “spin spin spin.” To produce good work, he believes that you must delve deeper than this. By looking to earlier civilizations, perhaps Sacco will be able to excavate further still.

An image of Sacco being shown around by his friend Abed, in the West Bank, taken from 'Footnotes in Gaza' (via www.tcj.com)

“if you never look backward, forward is also going to look like backward"