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.”