As he draws himself in his comics panels, Joe Sacco wears large-rimmed round glasses— but behind the lenses there are no eyes. In real life,however, those eyes are searching and penetrating, a camera lens-like witness to the world rendered in his graphic art. Joe Sacco, as a cartoon character, with his buzz cut, full lips and missing eyes, looks to be the quintessential nerd, a “Where’s Waldo” figure wandering into the chaotic, violent world of his narratives.
As befits a man who has spent large chunks of his life traveling in non-touristy areas of the world, often hellholes of war and ethnic conflict, Sacco was born in a country that is itself a crossroads of multiculturalism and religious and political strife. Malta, located in the Mediterranean south of Sicily, has been a linchpin of Western Christian civilization even as it was also an outpost of Islamic culture. Born in Malta on October 2, 1960, Sacco’s family moved to Australia while he was still an infant, then to Los Angeles when he was twelve, again to Beaverton, Oregon where he graduated from Sunset High School. He received a BA in only three years from the University of Oregon, majoring in journalism. Sacco cites Michael Herr’s Vietnam War book Dispatches as a major influence in this choice of journalism as career path.
Just out of college, Sacco showed immediate interest in drawing and comic satire. Failing to find challenging work in straight journalism, Sacco returned to his birth country and began working as a comic writer and illustrator. Malta already had a rich tradition of graphic novels of the romantic or “fumetti” genre. Though he had left Malta at age one, the story of the incessant air raids inflicted on his birth country by Italy and Germany during WWII was told to the young Sacco by his mother, Carmen. In “More Women, More Children, More Quickly,” a section from his pre-Palestine work Yahoo, Sacco gives voice to the voiceless Maltans, whose travail was to most historians a mere a footnote in the war’s devastation. (It is not a difficult leap to imagine that the story of his own family's traumas forged an early imprint on this self-described “war junkie.”)
Several years later, back in the US, Sacco published several short-lived comic magazines. In 1988, he began to travel and work again in Europe. Much of this period became the subject of his six-part autobiographic graphic odyssey, Yahoo. These volumes were later incorporated into his book, Notes from a Defeatist.
This much-traveled childhood and young adulthood created a perfect context for Joe Sacco’s emerging identity in a new genre of journalism, soon to be dubbed “war reportage comics.” He made himself present at many of the world’s hot spots as an interested observer. Since his earliest work in so-called underground comics, he had, in fact, inserted himself as a drawn character in the stories, always rendered with a sense of self-deprecation and irony. During his travels in the Mideast in the early nineties Sacco moved away from portraying himself as a central or autobiographical character; the dramatic real life issues confronting so many at risk people represented more urgency than his own. Joe Sacco, the eyeless narrator, became more objective, background witness for others caught in an increasingly troubled and fractious world. His blank eyes withheld judgment even as he listened to the most horrendous tales of man’s predations upon his neighbors.
Sacco’s travels in Israel and the Palestinian Territories between 1993 and 1995 were published as serialized episodes which eventually became his first full book, Palestine. He and late Mideast scholar Edward Said, who wrote the insightful introduction, received an American Book Award for Palestine in 1996.
This book was drawn in a more soberly reportage style than Sacco’s earlier comics, which had reflected the off-kilter, baroque style of Fantagraphics’ iconoclasic style.
Clearly, the concept of “comics,” even that of the “ graphic novel” was undergoing a re-definition with the emergence of Sacco’s work, hard on the heels of Art Spiegelman’s Maus books.
More travels followed for Sacco, all resulting in closely observed and intensely focused books, the character of Joe Sacco limned as an increasingly hapless witness to the world around him — a world coming apart even as he wrote and drew it. He created three books on the Balkans conflicts of the nineties: Safe Area Gorazde, War’s End and The Fixer.
This unintended trilogy illustrates an increasingly more sober and accomplished portrayal of societal collapse as seen through the always complex and conflicted characters that Sacco listens to and draws. What becomes clear as he refines his graphic style from book to book, along with his persona as a quiet witness, is that the conflicts he experiences are inextricably bound up in generations, even centuries of strife, a collective inability of neighboring groups to listen to each other, to refrain from demonizing one another.
Drawn again to Israel and Palestine, Sacco began a search into the historical background of the current irresolvable conflict between these two quite similar peoples who share Israel and Palestine. The result is his most recent, longest and most complex work, Footnotes in Gaza, an investigation into IDF actions in the two Gaza cities of Khan Yunis and Rafa, in November of 1956.
The panel that begins “The Gaza Strip” section says: “This is the Gaza Strip, 40 km long by no more than 12 km wide, one of the most densely populated places on the planet.” And one of the most contentious.
A video provides good illustrations of his drawing technique and the manner in which he unfolds the narrative. Here is an interview he made, for Al Jazeera network.
Just in case you are inclined to think that this is a singular perspective and that Sacco is trying to portray the tragedy of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict from only the point of view of the impoverished underdog, look at this discussion of Footnotes in Gaza by a panel of critics from TV’s Newsnight Review of last November. The differing insights and perspectives of the panelists, as presented in this ten-minute clip, reflect the difficulty in even initiating discussion on such hot button topics. What consensus does emerge is the sheer humanity, beyond any polemics, that lies at the heart of Sacco’s work
In January, Sacco appeared at Powell’s City of Books in his hometown of Portland and presented historical background to the founding of the state of Israel and the establishment of the Palestinian camps as prelude to the 1956 incidents that constitute the heart of the book. He quotes Israeli historians such as Benny Morris.
The full presentation of this talk can be found on the Vimeo website:
In a 2008 interview Sacco referred to his working technique.
I took photos purely for reference, and I had a sketchbook with me but I found myself not really using it. My photos aren't good; I only use them to have an idea of what things looked like, as I mainly wanted to talk to people.
In many of the comic panels Joe Sacco is in a corner of the frame or hovering quietly in the background as his characters tell their stories. He most often pictures himself with a camera or a notebook.
I emailed Sacco recently asking about how he used the camera and notebook. Here is his answer:
As far as dialogue and interviews, I generally taped interviews that dealt with the situation in Gaza in 1956, though occasionally I took notes instead. There are other situations on the street when I didn't have my notebook out or it would have been inappropriate to produce it. In those circumstances, I would try to recreate the dialog as accurately as I could as soon as possible, often checking what I remember with what my guide and translator remembered. For the formal interviews, I asked every subject if I could take his or her photograph because I knew I would be drawing portraits. People usually consented. If they didn't, I drew a quick sketch in my notepad to get a very general picture of what the person looked like without making the subject identifiable. But you are right in assuming I take photos of streets and houses and vehicles for reference purposes. These would make a stunningly boring slideshow, but they are essential for getting various details right.
I next asked him about how he approached photographing the architectural space and environment and what role the camera had in pre-visualizing the comic panels. Here is the question followed by his reply.
In terms of the photos— are they just a kind of grab snapshot record or are the compositions and angles sufficiently strongly considered that the drawn panels are clear expansions of the photos? Do you begin to see the drawn images even as you are taking the photographs? Is there an "internal dialogue" between the two you have evolved over the several books and the many years you have been using the camera? And does the use of the camera go as far back as Palestine and Safe Area, Gorazde.
In some cases I know I will be drawing a certain scene, so I take pictures of the buildings and surroundings. If I haven't taken enough, I will try to revisit the area and take more pictures. That is what I did for the scene called 'Attack West of Block J'. In conjunction with the photos, I also had to sketch a map of the area before I started drawing so the buildings would be situated in the right place. I also drew a sketch or two of how people were sitting (literally in what order) for the scene of the conversation with the kids on pp. 193-194. That's one example, anyway, of how I used photos and drawings (or sketches) together. I can't say I take pictures of most buildings from multiple angles, though I did that with the school in Rafah. Often, one doesn't know exactly how one will be drawing a particular building years down the road when one is actually at the drawing table. But because I studied drafting in junior high, I have a pretty good idea of how to look at an image of a building and "turn it around" or look at it from a higher angle when necessary. I seldom draw directly what I see in a photograph. Again, the photos are for reference, to get the details of something right. The angle is something I can adjust when I'm drawing. And, yes, I've been taking photos since the days of 'Palestine', but I tend to take more photos now (I couldn't afford so much film in the old days, and now with a digital camera the problem is I tend to take too many pictures, often redundantly.)
As I have read more and more of Sacco’s books (and I have done so since I first saw Palestine a decade ago) I have come to a deeper appreciation of his uniqueness as an artist. His method of illustration has become ever more immersive as he juxtaposes frame sizes and compositions. The sheer bravura of the drawn style is not only cinematic, but it exploits the concept of Eisenstein’s dynamic frame in a way we scarcely dare duplicate in today’s commercial cinema.
While not at all literally photographic in its depiction of space, each page creates a documentary reality and then causes you to inhabit it. This sense of emotional engagement that many critics refer to is truly unique. Once you are swallowed up inside the narrative skein of his many storytellers, it is like watching a movie, sometimes a movie within a movie.
The graphic novels of Persepolis and Waltzing with Bashir that have been made into dramatic films come to mind as equivalent works. But Sacco’s drawings of real-life characters have little cartoon abstraction to them; they bear such a deep sense of lived life that to see them as pictures in motion would be deeply unsettling. In any case, it is unlikely that any of the books will be made into a film as the issues Sacco engages are so powerfully divisive; it is difficult to imagine who would have the guts to be be a funding entity.
The focal points of all of Sacco’s books are their stories, traumatic oral history as narrated by its damaged survivors. One cinematic trait that Sacco adopts is a free-flowing use of time, image size and placement (montage). Here is a panel that shows a Gazan man in his 60s, Faris Barbakh, standing at the Khan Yunis town wall, flashing back to himself as a 13 year-old, fifty years ago on November 3, 1956, the day the IDF killings occurred.
Quiet and gentle but strongly expressive are qualities that could describe Sacco’s presentation of his work during interviews and bookstore readings. Yet there is something private and enigmatic about him, something held back, as if he is all too aware of the problematic persona that he has an artist, one whose subject matter carries with it not merely aesthetic discussion or critique, but serves as a ground zero witness for partisan and impassioned argument, purely political dialectic that can submerge any consideration of the artistic merit of his work itself.
There is one interview I listened to that seemed to break through any level of protective reserve. If you have an abiding interest in exploring Sacco’s methodology and motives I suggest you listen to this revelatory conversation that comes from Central Coast NPR station KUSP. Interviewer Robert Pollie explores Sacco’s work in depth. Sacco talks about his historical research and analysis of documents as supplemental information to expand faulty or intentionally distorted human memory. Near the end of the interview Pollie burrows into the personal and emotional toll that the work may take on Sacco. The artist has been frank and open throughout the interview and here he does not flinch. Sacco must have appeared live in the radio studio because Pollie notes that Sacco has begun to show tears as he recounts the torture and death he has documented in his books. By way of explanation Sacco says simply, “I’m sick of drawing dead bodies… You have to feel the weight of it. I think I’m burned out now.” If the link to the interview reads “error” when it comes up, just scroll down the program directory to the Jan. 17 episode. It is a deeply involving interview with considerable historical perspective beyond any of the abbreviated YouTube clips.
It is unlikely, it seems to me, that Sacco will ever be “burned out”. Much like the great photojournalist James Nachtwey, Joe Sacco’s Promethean need to report back to those of us living quiet, insulated lives cannot be extinguished. As long as men use violence to try to solve their differences, there will be the quiet ones like Sacco standing at the edges, waiting, watching, bearing witness.