Joe Sacco produces comics from the hot zones
If our present era constitutes a sort of End Times for mainstream media, it’s proving to be a golden age for Joe Sacco and other practitioners of comic-book reportage.
Balkan blood feuds, the “war on terror” and the agonies of post-diluvium New Orleans are just a few topics taken up by graphic journalists of late. No doubt, some intrepid cartoonist-correspondent is currently roaming Port-au-Prince, sketchbook and flip-cam in hand.
Sacco, 49, isn’t just one of this evolving medium’s most skilled advocates. He’s widely credited with inventing a new genre, the investigative-reported war comic book.
Among his books are “Palestine” (2001), which won an American Book Award, and “Safe Area Goradze: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995" (2000), a chilling account of his sojourn in the former Yugoslavia. Reviewing the volume for The Times, David Rieff concluded that, “of the myriad books that have appeared about Bosnia, few have told the truth more bravely than Sacco’s.”
But as Sacco sat in a West Hollywood cafe one recent morning, he was vexed by thoughts of the Haitian earthquake and how the rest of the world will handle its humanitarian aftershocks.
“People respond so well to victims of a natural disaster,” said the author, who was born in Malta and raised in Australia and the United States. “But give it a couple of weeks, and when they see that a victim of a natural disaster is going to get angry about something or impatient, people are going to lose interest or feel they’re not grateful or something like that. Our hearts break for about a week, and then we kind of want to move on.”
Sacco’s unease goes to the core of “Footnotes in Gaza,” his latest book-length comic from inhumanity’s front lines. A disturbing first-person chronicle that’s also a work of forensic anthropology, it attempts to reconstruct an all-but-forgotten chapter in the long, bloody history of Arab-Israeli relations: the alleged massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians by Israeli troops in late 1956, during the Suez crisis.
Earlier that year, as Cold War tensions spilled into the Middle East, a series of cross-border skirmishes broke out between the Israeli Army and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Israeli troops entered Gaza, determined to quell what the Israeli leadership viewed as an insurgency spearheaded by Egyptian-backed guerrillas.
All the ingredients were present for a violent denouement. It came, according to a United Nations report, when 275 Palestinians in Khan Yunis and 111 in Rafah, near the Egyptian border, were killed during Israeli operations. The Israelis insisted they were rooting out a hostile enemy, but Palestinians contended that armed resistance had ceased before the troops arrived.
Sacco chose to excavate these events because he thinks they crystallize the ongoing conflict. The book quotes Hamas leader Abdulaziz Rantisi, who was a 9-year-old living in Khan Yunis in 1956 and recalled his uncle being killed. “It left a wound in my heart that can never heal,” he told Sacco. “They planted hatred in our hearts.”
By dialing back the clock, Sacco said, he hopes to bring insight to a cycle of violent retribution and political stalemate that is as tragically timely as this morning’s Twitter feeds.
“I’m not necessarily saying that ’56 informs how people now are reacting. But ’56 brutalized a generation of Palestinians,” he said. “Ultimately that generation is going to convey frustration, anger, bitterness, maybe hatred to kids who are also undergoing their own incidents and their own problems. So it’s like this compounded history.”
Sacco also was drawn to the subject because it had generated so little historical or journalistic writing. He recorded the testimony of many Palestinian eyewitnesses and survivors. He also interviewed a number of Israeli historians and such boots-on-the-ground figures as Mordechai Bar-On, who served as right-hand man to Moshe Dayan, Israel’s former defense and foreign minister.
Employing cinematic techniques (extreme close-ups, aerial perspectives), “Footnotes” leapfrogs between 1956 and 2003, when Sacco did his field research. The 418-page book, which took about 6 1/2 years to complete, contains four appendixes and a bibliography.
As in his previous books, Sacco depicts himself as a secondary character and details his reporting methods. He appears as a restlessly curious, occasionally bemused, slightly built figure with round-frame glasses that obscure his eyes.
In person, he’s pretty much the same. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his features is how indeterminate they are. “I’m often told I look Asian,” said the author, a longtime resident of Portland, Ore. “I never blend in anywhere. I always feel like a weirdo.”
According to Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times foreign correspondent, Sacco is a throwback. As many mainstream media outlets cut back on expensive foreign and investigative reporting, Hedges said, “journalism is going to revert to what it was before, and that is an art form.”
In that regard, he continued, Sacco is carrying forward a tradition of empathetic, morally driven journalistic novelists including Balzac, Dickens and Upton Sinclair. “A great journalist is an artist. What else is ‘Hiroshima’ by John Hersey other than a work of art?”
Sacco admits that “Footnotes” generally adopts the Palestine perspective. Growing up in America, he said, conditioned him to think of Palestinians as terrorists. “I never learned who they were, why they were doing what they were doing or any of the context.”
Yet gradually, he began to study the Middle East and discover alternative narratives. Because the U.S. media remain likely to convey the Israel viewpoint, he said, “I do want to bring Palestinian voices to the fore. Which isn’t to say I’m going to sugarcoat the Palestinians.”
Sacco is pessimistic about the prospects for a resolution to the conflicts he delineates in his book. “You can speak to someone from Hamas and some far-right Likudnik, and they’re both going to say they want peace,” he said. “The word itself means nothing, because they want peace on their terms.”
And he thinks this may be his last book of this type, at least for a while.
“I can sit in a nice wine bar in Portland,” he said, “having a good conversation and some really nice food, and yes, my mind sort of goes back to people who can’t have that and have no opportunities, have had their homes demolished. But definitely I think it can wear you out. And I’m kind of at that point.”