Joe Sacco’s ‘Footnotes in Gaza’ is a bookshelf lightning rod


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Marcus Brogdan, in London and writing for the Associated Press, delves into the comics and controversy of the great Joe Sacco, who has a gift for cartooning-as-journalism but a subject matter and subjectivity that add up to a talent for trouble. Sacco’s latest release, ‘Footnotes in Gaza,’ has already become a bookshelf lightning rod.

Fans say graphic novelist Joe Sacco has set new standards for the use of the comic book as a documentary medium. Detractors say his portrayals of the Palestinian conflict are filled with distortion, bias and hyperbole.


One thing is certain — the award-winning author of “Palestine” leaves few readers indifferent.

Sacco’s work has more in common with gonzo journalism than your Sunday comic strip: He travels to the world’s hot spots, from Iraq to Gaza to Sarajevo, immerses himself in the lives of ordinary people and sets out to depict their harsh realities — in unflinching ink and paper.

One of his biggest supporters is award-winning Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, who directed the 2008 Golden Globe-winning cartoon documentary “Waltz With Bashir.”

“Whenever I’m asked about animation that influences me, I would say it’s more graphic novels. A tremendous influence on me has been Sacco’s ‘Palestine,’ his work on Bosnia and then Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus,’ ‘ he said in a telephone interview.

“His work quite simply reflects reality.”

The American Maltese artist’s latest book, “Footnotes in Gaza,” chronicles two episodes in 1956 in which a U.N. report filed Dec. 15, 1956, said a total of 386 civilians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers — events Sacco said had been “virtually airbrushed from history because they have been ignored by the mainstream media.’

Israeli historians dispute these figures.

“It’s a big exaggeration,” said Meir Pail, a leading Israeli military historian and leftist politician. “There was never a killing of such a degree. Nobody was murdered. I was there. I don’t know of any massacre.”

Sacco’s passion for the Palestinian cause has opened him up to accusations of bias.

Jose Alaniz, from the University of Washington’s Department of Comparative Literature, said Sacco manipulated the reader in ‘all sorts of subtle ways.’

“Very often he will pick angles in his artwork that favor the perspective of the victim: He’ll draw Israeli soldiers or settlers from a low perspective to make them more menacing and towering.’

Alaniz also said Sacco drew children “in such a way to make them seem more victimized.”

Sacco himself admits he takes sides.

“I don’t believe in objectivity as it’s practiced in American journalism. I’m not anti-Israeli. ... It’s just I very much believe in getting across the Palestinian point of view,” he said. ...


In “Palestine,” which won the 1996 National Book Award, Sacco reported on the lives of West Bank and Gaza inhabitants in the early 1990s. “Safe Area Gorazde,” which won the 2001 Eisner Award for best original graphic novel, describes his experiences in Bosnia in 1995 and ’96.

Sacco has been lauded by Edward Said, the renowned literary scholar and Palestinian rights spokesman, who said in his foreword to “Palestine”: “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco.”

“Footnotes” sees Sacco’s cartoon self, with the now-trademark nondescript owlishly bespectacled eyes, plunge into the squalid trash-strewn, raw concrete alleys of Rafah and its neighboring town of Khan Younis.

Sacco draws narrow streets crowded with prying schoolchildren and unemployed men. His desperate characters — fugitives, widows and sheiks — mix long-past fact with fiction.

“What I show in the book is that this massacre is just one element of Palestinian history ... and that people are confused about which event, what year they are talking about,” he said. “Palestinians never seem to have had the luxury of digesting one tragedy before the next is upon them.”

Sacco said in doing so he was trying to create a balance to what he called the United States’ pro-Israeli bias. A scene in “Palestine” shows an Israeli woman asking: “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story?” Sacco’s cartoon self replies: “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most of my life.”

Sacco says he puts himself into his comics because he wants his readers to see and feel what he does.

“I’m not pretending to be the all-powerful, all-knowing journalist god. ... I’m an individual who reacts to people who are sometimes afraid. ... On a human level, of course, that colors the stories I’m telling.”

Folman, who both wrote and directed the 2008 animated documentary film about a 19-year-old Israeli soldier still troubled by nightmares about the Lebanon war, says Sacco has brought something rare to the cartoon genre.

“The way he illustrates says everything about the writing — it’s so unique, there is nothing quite like him,” he said. “I really admire the guy. ... And I feel from his work that we share exactly the same opinions about what’s happening in the Middle East. ... The day will come when I will meet him and hopefully work with him.”

-- Associated Press


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Image credits: Illustrations by Joe Sacco. ‘Footnotes in Gaza’ published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co.