All the news that's fit to . . . draw
Comic-book journalism is a rare phenomenon, and there are few better practitioners than Joe Sacco. The work might be labour intensive, but the results can tell stories that other mediums can’t, writes PATRICK FREYNE
‘IN SOME ways it’s at the drawing table where I feel the effects of what I’ve been told during the story-gathering phase,” says comic-book artist and journalist Joe Sacco. “When spending hours and days drawing a real person, you have to inhabit them. You have to think about their bodies and the expression on their faces and you have to think about what they told you. If someone says, ‘And then they tortured him by shooting him in the leg,’ it’s one thing to hear it, but it’s another to imagine it and recreate it . . . you have to put yourself there.”
I’m not sure Stan Lee has ever been emotionally affected by the violence in his comics. But Stan Lee has probably never stood in a refugee camp or driven through a war zone. Joe Sacco, on the other hand, has, and he has invented a genre – comic-book journalism – in which to document such experiences.
His award-winning volumes from Palestine and Bosnia, and newly collected shorter reports from India, Chechnya, Malta and Iraq, are beautifully rendered narratives, underpinned by serious journalistic research and disturbingly real material. In recent years his work has featured in the Guardian and Harper’s Magazine.
There are some precedents for this. “There was the London Illustrated News,” says Sacco. “And Harper’s Magazine would send illustrators out on civil-war campaigns to draw . . . They weren’t doing a comics format with multipanels but the idea of using illustrations for news existed until photography sort of killed it.”
Sacco arrived at the genre almost by default. His family moved from Malta to Australia to America by the time he was 11. In adulthood he began producing comics, including an experimental autobiographical comic called Yahoo (collected in Notes from a Defeatist), but his career aspirations lay in journalism.
“I trained as a journalist and I wanted to be a foreign correspondent,” he says. “But all the journalism jobs I got were very disheartening. They had nothing to do with writing news. I was a copy editor or I was writing a business column while knowing nothing about business. It was kind of bulls**t. I worked for a city magazine and someone would sell an advertisement, drop a card on my desk and say, ‘That guy just bought an ad, maybe you’d like to write a story about his business?’ That’s not why I got into journalism.”
In the early 1990s, he was scraping a living as a comic-writer and illustrator, in Berlin, when he decided to go on a trip. “The Middle East began to interest me a great deal, because I realised that the American-style journalism I’d been studying had done me a disservice,” he says. “By absorbing newspapers and television news I’d made this equation that Palestinians were terrorists . . . That changed around the early 1980s when Israel attacked Lebanon. Suddenly everything I knew about that region began to look different. I educated myself and I . . . was furious at American journalism.”
He went to the occupied territories to document the experience. Although comic-book journalism is a rare phenomenon, there has been a tradition of autobiographical comics. “I thought I’d do a sort of autobiographical travelogue,” says Sacco. “I didn’t know what I was doing really . . . I saved my money and I went and stayed in a youth hostel in east Jerusalem with six constantly rotating room-mates. That was the cheapest way I could stay. I didn’t have much money and was eating falafel and figuring out how to do it. I did everything on the fly. I’d get into a taxi and go to some place that I didn’t know and get out. I called it ‘random journalism’. Everyone knows you don’t belong there so someone always comes up and says, ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’ I relied on that kind of randomness to bring me my story.”
At this point, he says, his journalistic training kicked in. “I interviewed people and took good notes. If you think like a journalist you think, What else do I have to see to fill in this picture? I begin to think in those journalistic terms and what developed out of it was this comics journalism.”
Palestine, first published in nine instalments, was a commercial flop. His idea for a follow-up book about Bosnia, Safe Area Gorazde, generated little interest initially. “I was about to give up,” says Sacco. “I thought I’d go become a maths teacher. I didn’t have two dimes to rub together. But then the New York Times reviewed it and the rest of the media just followed . . . There was then a critical mass of reviews and people were reading Palestine, which they hadn’t read before.”
SACCO PUBLISHEDmore books about Sarajevo (The Fixer) and Palestine (Footnotes in Gaza). Recently he’s collaborated with Chris Hedges on a book about America’s poverty-stricken “sacrifice zones” called Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. And he’s also done shorter works, now collected in Journalism.
“I’m over 50 now,” he says, “and the book on Gaza took me seven years. So you look at your life and think, how many of those do I have left in me? The problem with being a cartoonist is you’ve got to do it slow and do it right, but I also have this journalistic quivering to get out in the field. I envy those people who can go out often and do their stories quickly. So I decided to do some shorter pieces and see more of the world.”
Sacco faithfully represents the words of his interviewees and recreates their appearance and surroundings in pen and ink from photo references. “It’s a very visceral medium,” he says. “You can open up a comic book and find yourself in this very different sort of world immediately. The multipanel format allows you to build up an atmosphere of what a place looks like. And you can take people back in time. The transition between the present and the past is very easy if you’re drawing in the same style . . . It’s also very subversive as a medium, because while comics look easy to read, they can contain a lot of really difficult, hard information. And sometimes things that are too horrible for photographs can be rendered as a sketch, because there’s enough of a filtering effect in the drawing.”
Sacco’s work is also, in a way, a first-person form. He appears in his own comics as a nerdy everyman with a notepad. “To me there’s no way to effectively communicate the lives of people in what we in the west call ‘exotic locations’ without showing the interactions between you as an outsider and them as people, maybe trapped, maybe with a completely different world view.”
In earlier volumes, his cartoon avatar sweats or shakes with fear. In the new volume, he depicts himself as relatively impassive while confronting the extreme poverty and desperation of the untouchable Dalit caste in India, tortured Chechens or poor African migrants in Malta. But what he sees does affect him.
“The most difficult part is walking away,” he says. “You always know you’re going to leave. And thank God, because you wouldn’t want to live in those situations. But it means you’re leaving people behind. As they talk there’s always this strange sense that you can somehow help them. Sometimes you feel that they could grab you and say: ‘Get me out of here,’ or just, ‘Help me.’ They have too much dignity usually. All you can do is tell their story. That’s your function. You can’t really accomplish anything for them personally.
“Sometimes you think, Man, am I just some bourgeois guy writing for the bourgeoisie? And that’s what gets me. What is this doing? Does it do any good? Does it really help? And I haven’t answered that question. All I can do is tell the stories.”
Journalism by Joe Sacco is published by Jonathan Cape on November 1st