Sacco in a Strange Land


By John Giuffo 



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The cover of the March 12 issue of Time magazine trumpeted a pack of stories on the SATs but missed the real news of that week’s issue: evidence of a seismic shift in American popular culture.

Nestled between a story about the Democratic Party’s woes and an ad for Charles Schwab is a four-page story about the renewed tensions in the Middle East and the effect those tensions are having on the West Bank town of Hebron. Titled "A Look Inside," it is a full-color examination of life in the border town, mostly from the point of view of the town’s Palestinian residents. It is described as a work of "comics journalism," and the author’s name is Joe Sacco. Remember that name; chances are you’ll hear it again.

Whereas five years ago assigning a comic book artist to cover a story of international importance would have been unthinkable to the editors at Time, it’s a development that seems almost inevitable in hindsight.

Sacco, a Maltese citizen now living in Queens, New York, was commissioned to tell this story. It’s right down his alley. He’s proven time and again that he can convey the subtleties of a situation in ways that traditional journalists cannot. His Palestine won an American Book Award in 1996 for telling just that type of story. It’s a sign that the comics medium is finally coming into its own.

It’s about damn time.

And it’s not just Sacco. In April, Time’s Andrew Arnold said, "The year 2000 has been the best for comics in a very long time." He lists nine examples. Among them: Ben Katchor, whose weekly strip "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" has been collected into a book sub-titled The Beauty Supply District;" Dan Clowes, whose recent series Ghost World is being made into a United Artists film starring Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch and Brad Renfro; Alan Moore, who first caught the mainstream’s attention in the 1980s with his Watchmen, an updated and psychologically realistic take on the superhero genre, and who has published a slew of stories under his America’s Best Comics imprint for D.C. Comics. And there’s Gilbert Hernandez, whose Luba is based on a character from his brother Jaime’s longtime fan favorite, Love and Rockets. After a ten-year hiatus, Los Bros., as they are called, have begun publishing volume two of Love and Rockets.

There’s only one problem with Time’s description of 2000 as a milestone year for comics: all of the above authors have been writing and drawing for years, producing work every bit as powerful and well-realized as they do now. If 2000 stands out in comics history for anything, it is the year that the mainstream has begun to take notice of the possibilities of the comics medium. Reflections on comics’ "unrealized potential" are now de rigueur among critiques by the literati. In his review of Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde in The New York Times Book Review, David Rieff said "the comic book form reveals itself to have advantages that neither novels nor nonfiction prose can command." The juxtaposition of text and imagery and the play of narrative that takes place between panels allows for a near-infinite complexity. A thousand words in every panel.

The 230-page, black-and-white Gorazde tied for first place on Time’s top nine comics of 2000 list with Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth, a painstakingly-paced and emotionally-draining look at fate and family. But it is Sacco’s work that has seized the attention of magazine editors hungry for journalists who can tell stories in new and interesting ways.

The acclaim has garnered him enough work to keep him busy for years. In addition to the recent assignments for magazines such as Time and Details, Sacco, 40, who has a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon, has completed work on a book about labor history for The New Press. He’s also slated to do more stories about Bosnia for a Canadian publisher. He spent a week during April in France and Corsica attending shows featuring his work, and he’s been invited to more university campuses and comics festivals around the world than he could possibly attend. Gorazde’s success has also paved the way for a reprint of his series Palestine, complete with a new introduction by Edward Said, a Columbia University professor and a noted chronicler of the Middle East conflict.

What a difference one book can make.

Sacco’s first forays into what would evolve into his self-styled "comics journalism" are in his reminiscences of road life with The Miracle Workers, a band whose music Sacco describes as a "retro-60s, early-70s psychedelic hard rock…like the Stooges and MC 5."

Reprinted in 1995’s War Junkie, these early stories have a looser formality to them; many pages have no panel borders, figures overlap into other scenes, and the lettering often floats across and around the drawings.

"It wasn’t extremely journalistic," said Sacco. "Except I was taking notes about what was going on. It was more done in an artistic way. And if I were doing something journalistically, I wouldn’t have approached it quite the same way."

Soon enough though, tales of rock ‘n’ roll struggle gave way to his insistent fascination with war, and, more specifically, with the Middle East conflict.

"Growing up in the U.S., I think I had a very standard view of what was going on. I had this viewpoint that Israel was a small beleaguered nation and the Arabs were trying to throw the Jews into the sea — and that the Palestinans were terrorists," he said.

Sacco’s guide in Gorazde, a Muslim named Edin, recounts the slaughter in Srebenica.

Sacco traces his changing perspective back to Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

"My education took a long time," he said. "That was the starting point, and then it was a matter of reading certain books: Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine, The Fateful Triangle by Said and Noam Chomsky, and Blaming the Victim [by Said]. Slowly but surely, I began to appreciate what was going on in the Middle East."

So, in 1989, Sacco packed a bag, and on a budget of no more than a couple thousand dollars, took off to report what would be his first full-fledged attempt at comics journalism.

"A feat of frugality is what I would call it," said Thom Powers, Sacco’s roommate and a former managing editor of The Comics Journal, a bimonthly magazine devoted to examining the comic book industry from a critical perspective (see our review). "It’s something he takes as a given. If you don’t want to be doing mainstream reportage, you can’t expect the mainstream to be footing your bill."

"Financially, I made a lot of sacrifices," Sacco said. "Things are going better now, but I’d say for ten years, I was pretty poor. The sort of poor where you’re eating onion and potatoes four or five days a week."

Palestine was first published by Fantagraphics in late 1993 and early 1994 as a nine-issue, two-volume series. Sacco stayed in a youth hostel in East Jerusalem most of the time, paying the equivalent of five or six dollars a day, and subsisting mainly on falafel. In the wake of the Intifada, Sacco, a western journalist without the support of any news agency, heads off to a war zone to report a story for a type of comic book no one has ever attempted. Oh, to have heard the introductions given by his guide to his sources…

But his seriousness was never questioned. "I never felt anything but respected," said Sacco, dismissing the notion that he had anything to fear. "People would get angry at me and the next minute they would say we’re glad you’re here, have another cup of tea."

His compassion for his sources bleeds through every panel. It’s an approach that virtually guarantees controversy. "Every now and then, I hear a book store or a comic book store won’t carry it because they think it’s anti-Semitic," he said. "I was just in France and I was in a store in Strasbourg where the proprietor claimed I was a fascist."

The criticisms hit closer to home, too. "I had a Jewish woman come into the store and say to me, ‘Why are you selling this? It’s offensive,’" said Nick Purpura, the manager of Jim Hanley’s Universe, a Midtown Manhattan comic book store that ranks among the most well-stocked comics stores in the country.

These critics are wrong; Sacco isn’t a fascist, and he can hardly be called anti-Semitic. As evidenced by his choice in Issue 7 to begin drawing himself wearing the keffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian scarf, Palestine is simply an earnest attempt to view the conflict from the Arab point of view. But Sacco doesn’t paint his sources in a flattering light, and he often spends time going off on tangents such as the inequality suffered by Palestinian women and the divisive factionalism permeating Palestinian society.

But through the financial hardships and the long days perfecting his artwork, which can take anywhere from two days to four or five days for the more detailed pages, Sacco persevered. Palestine was the crucible that prepared him for the work that would eventually become Safe Area Gorazde, his most ambitious–and most critically acclaimed–work to date.

That’s not to say he didn’t have his doubts. "When you’re working on a project for three and a half years, you don’t have any perspective on it," he said. "You’re too close to it. That breeds a certain insecurity in a way. I had no clue it would receive the reception it did."

And what a reception that was. Along with the accolades from Time, Gorazde received glowing praise from almost every critic who penned an opinion. David Rieff, in The New York Times Book Review, called the book "the best dramatic evocation of the Bosnian catastrophe."

Things are definitely looking up for Joe Sacco, but his success also bodes well for a comics industry that has suffered and struggled through most of the 1990s. Initially robust at the start of the decade, comics sales began a sharp and steady decline that has only recently been staunched. The reasons are complex, but observers say the blame lies in a mixture of mainstream comics companies that put all their resources into superhero comics with flashy holographic covers, a speculation boom among investors, a consolidation of comic book distribution channels, and the rise of the Internet as a time and attention drain among comics readers. But now that editors at magazines such as Time and Details have begun paying attention, the medium seems to have gained a newfound credibility and popularity among mainstream audiences. That can only bode well for an ailing art form.

"It’s hard for me to optimistically call it a beginning, because I’ve seen a lot of these blips during the last 20 years," said Powers, who spent seven years working at The Comics Journal and Fantagraphics, The Journal’s parent company. "Fifteen years ago, people were discovering comics like Love and Rockets and Maus and Raw and Weirdo and Alan Moore’s work, and then that died down. And then every once in a while, someone will discover a cartoonist like Ben Katchor or Dan Clowes … then again, maybe there’s a little bit of new momentum that’s happening … I don’t know."

But if the comic industry roller coaster has left Powers doubtful and a bit jaded, some still see something special in this new crop of artist-authors. For these optimists, there’s something in the air, something that suggests that the comic book medium may be about to achieve the same parity with other forms of storytelling the form has long enjoyed in places like Europe and Japan. And last year’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a book by Wonderboys author Michael Chabon about two comic book creators, just won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

"It’s not the run-of-the-mill comic book any more," said Purpura. "[Gorazde] kind of advances the medium. This is the barrier breaker as far as we’re concerned."

But Sacco is careful to temper his optimism. "It sort of remains to be seen if the mainstream will keep its interest in comics," he said. "Otherwise this period is a blip."

"I hope other people will try what I’m doing," he said. "But if I’m a one-man sub-genre, I’m a one-man sub-genre. It takes more time to draw a truck than it does to write a truck, so…it’s a lot of work. But that’s what’s nice. I like the fact that I don’t feel drowned out."