In the preface to his new book “Journalism,” Joe Sacco pinpoints the challenges of the comics artist who seeks to be a reporter: “Aren’t drawings by their very nature subjective?” he asks, before answering with a simple “yes.” And yet, this has been Sacco’s point all along, that, in the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Everyone is a prisoner of his own experiences. No one can eliminate prejudices — just recognize them.”
The rap on Sacco, of course, is that he is less a journalist than an advocate, who in such works as “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza” blurs the line between observer and activist. That’s true, I suppose, in the narrowest sense, but it’s also reductive, and with “Journalism,” he convincingly refutes the argument. It’s not that Sacco doesn’t take a position — or more accurately, a series of positions, since “Journalism” is a collection of short pieces that originally appeared in, among other places, Harper’s, the Virginia Quarterly Review and the New York Times Magazine. For him, though, subjectivity is not an excuse but a tool. This is as true of his images as it is of his reporting strategy, which involves putting himself directly into his stories.
“The blessing of an inherently interpretive medium like comics,” he writes, “is that it hasn’t allowed me to lock myself within the confines of traditional journalism.... For good or for ill, the comics medium is adamant, and it has forced me to make choices. In my view, that is part of its message.”
“Adamant” is a good word for “Journalism,” which gathers 11 pieces that take us from the Bosnian war crimes trials at the Hague to the poverty of rural India, with stops in Chechnya, Iraq and the Occupied Territories. The result is a book that echoes Sacco’s full-length efforts about the Middle East and Bosnia, while illuminating something of the way he works. In “Complacency Kills,” he writes from a U.S. Marine encampment at the Haditha Dam in western Iraq, contrasting the base’s “home comforts: … a well-equipped weight room, football on the chow hall’s big-screen TV, and 24-hour internet connections to their wives and mothers” with the corrosive danger outside.
Sacco is rigorous about telling both sides of the story, developing sympathy for the American soldiers even as he questions their presence in Iraq. The key is his attention to the human drama, which blows open in the final frames of the story, where he describes the fate of a river unit with whom he’d gone on patrol. “The next day,” he writes, "[the] unit is ambushed after landing on the river bank to investigate some small arms fire. Lance Cpl. Parrello, who piloted the boat I’d ridden on the day before, is killed. Three others are wounded, including Capt. Kuniholm, my coffee-drinking roommate at the dam.”
Here we see the potent brew of Sacco’s reporting, with its combination of engagement and complicity. For all that he has come to like and even to care about these Marines, what gives the narrative its final resonance is his understanding that what has befallen them could just as easily have befallen him.
This sense of identification is brought out by Sacco’s visual style. His images are dramatic but straightforward, mixing informal portraits — in “The Unwanted,” he uses talking heads, speaking directly to the reader, to personalize the issue of African refugees in Malta — with larger panoramas of the scenes, and in many cases the devastation, he describes.
“Chechen War, Chechen Women” features several half-page images of refugee camps, reminiscent of his work in “Footnotes in Gaza.” Here, as there, the idea is to give entry to a landscape, to show how Sacco’s subjects live. That’s especially important because these people would be otherwise forgotten: refugees, untouchables, immigrants, struggling to survive in relocation centers or displaced person camps. It’s so easy to ignore them, which is Sacco’s point; his mission is to give them voice.
Nowhere does this emerge more vividly than at the end of “Chechen War, Chechen Women,” where, after more than a dozen images of an aged refugee mourning her dead daughter, Sacco is handed a photo of the younger woman, but the photo offers only a hint, a few lines to suggest what was once there. The implication is stunning — that the woman’s daughter has been literally erased. This is what visual storytelling has to offer, this kind of immediacy, of empathy, this ability to open up the narrative in a way that transcends words.
A similar sensibility informs French Canadian comics artist Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City,” although he and Sacco have different points of view. Delisle, after all, is not a journalist; he is a father, in Jerusalem for a year with his young children and girlfriend, who works for Doctors Without Borders. Still, if his book is less reportage than travelogue, a biblically inflected “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the intent, to re-create real events in comics form, is very much the same.
“Hey! These paving stones date back to the first century,” Delisle realizes, wandering the Old City. “Baby Jesus could’ve walked on these … And Judas … And Paul and James and Luke and John and Peter and Andrew … and Simon and Matthew and Mark and … uh … I’ve hit a wall.” That tone of both discovery and befuddlement becomes the defining sensibility of “Jerusalem,” which is, remarkably, a book about the miraculous serendipity of the everyday.
This is not to say Delisle is oblivious to the conflicts of life in Israel, nor that he is apolitical. Yet the power of “Jerusalem” lies in its essential good-heartedness, Delisle’s curiosity. He seems open to every experience and every type of person, from the priest who offers him studio space to the Arab Israeli who explains why he lives in a Jewish settlement: “Many Arabs have moved in for economic reasons, and little by little, our numbers are growing.... It’s like we’re resettling the settlements. Ha ha!” Later, at a comics workshop in Nablus, Delisle discovers a different kind of culture clash, offending many of the young Palestinians by showing images of nudity.
Still, when he encourages the remaining artists to work from their experience, the connections (and the point) are palpable. “Nablus … the big prison. That’s what we call it here,” a student says. Delisle’s reply? “You could do a comic about that.” It’s a small moment, a throwaway even, but if “Jerusalem” is any indication, he is right.