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Joe Sacco:

From Witness To Historian

Last year, I was privileged to be invited to an academic residential conference on war and totalitarianism in comics, entitled La Guerre dessinée. Scholars and practitioners including Antonio Altarriba, Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, Antonio Martin and Jacques Samson convened for three intensive days in the beautiful Normandy chateau of the Centre Culture lnternational de Cerisy-la-Salle, France, on June 8th to 10th, 2010.

On two evenings, we also enjoyed fascinating presentations by Benoît Peeters on Tintin and Emmanuel Guibert on his brilliant biographical albums. I was asked to write and present a paper in French about Joe Sacco, which was a bit scary but overall seemed to go well. I’m pleased that this article has just appeared in print in the collection of conference papers, Lignes de front: Bande Dessinée et totalitarisme, under the direction of Viviane Alary and Benoît Mitaine, published in French by Editions Médicine et Hygiène-Georg. So I thought I’d translate it for you here.

Sixteen years separate the initial publication in comic book form of Palestine, started in 1993 at Fantagraphics Books, and the new graphic novel published in 2009, Footnotes In Gaza, the two graphic novels by Joe Sacco about Palestine. With the first book, Sacco, a young journalism student, combined for the first time in comics his own subjectivity with autobiographical ‘gonzo’ journalism, in the style of Hunter S. Thompson. For his return to the Gaza Strip, we see a more sobre, accurate and rigorous Sacco, driven by a real historian’s approach to investigate two massacres committed by the Israeli army in 1956 and consigned to oblivion. Based on this observation, I propose to compare these two important works by insisting on the one hand on examining the narrative techniques and stylistic choices, and above all, on the other hand, the personal motivations that led Sacco to carry out these changes from one work to another.

In Palestine, Sacco wanted to represent the beginning of the first Intifada from the Palestinian point of view, one that the media, notably the United States, almost never showed. As the author explains in the introduction to his book, Palestine is based on a journey of about two and half months in Israel and the Occupied Territories, made during the winter of 1991-1992. During his stay, Sacco did not, as one might have imagined, use a sketch book or draw a travel diary. In fact, this is always how he proceeds, since, from experience, he knows that drawing in public has the disadvantage of attracting people and too much attention. Not being a professional photographer, he usually takes only a few photos, simple as visual references. However, as a good journalist, he keeps a diary in which he scrupulously records by hand, in blue Biro, the information he collects and his personal impressions.

To comply with the demands of the American comic book market, Palestine was originally conceived as a serial to be published in a series of comic books, printed in black and white, 24 or 32 pages. First distributed only through the network of specialist bookstores serving comic book collectors, most of whose owners and customers are traditionally fans of superheroes, fantasy and science fiction, episodes of Palestine achieved only critical success, its final issues not even selling 2,000 copies. If the American graphic novel movement was already well under way since the arrival of the Big Three, the three best-selling books of Maus (1981-1991) by Art Spiegelman, The Dark Knight Returns (1986) by Frank Miller and Watchmen (1986-1987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, the time had not yet come for Joe Sacco to find a powerful enough publisher to circulate his work via the major, mass-market distribution channels. At that time, it was not very common at that time to compile the episodes pre-published in comic books into a graphic novels. Only real best-sellers had this opportunity, and Palestine definitely did not belong to this category.

The publishing system associated with Palestine‘s initial serialised publication constrained its instalments to fit into the specific size and page-count of standard comic books of 24 or 32 pages. This was a conditioning factor from the very start that can not be ignored in understanding the narrative structure that we know in Palestine. Although at first glance more anecdotal, the author’s financial insecurity at the time of his visit to Israel and during the creation of his project was a real problem. Working for an independent publishing house of modest size, Sacco received no advance for his project: he was paid issue by issue at the time of his delivery to the publisher of each part of his story - between $300 and $500 per episode. This explains why Sacco has never really written a full script for Palestine and why he was satisfied with a simple plan divided into six columns (it was originally to be a story in six parts and not nine), supported by a few notes, fact sheets and souvenirs.

A bit like a diarist, Sacco has acquired the habit of placing on a regular basis in panels the date of their completion. Thus, for example, Palestine #1 was drawn between July and September 1992, and rearrangements can be noted such as in the chapter entitled ‘The Valley of Kidron’, drawn in August, but placed at the end the comic book. It also reveals that the ninth and last number took five months of work for the author, from April to August 1995. Working in serial form complicates the overall vision of the project and also prohibits the chance to go back and correct or edit pages previously produced, because they are already printed and placed on the market, unless, of course, the chance of a new edition in one volume eventually comes along.

The initial plan and style of the work evolves from one episode to another. For example, it is really from the fourth issue of Palestine that Sacco fully develops his narrative power by focusing on a specific topic, the prison camp of Ansar III and its interrogations and torture. It is also from this number that Palestine expands and shifts from 24 to 32 pages. Those eight extra pages allow Sacco to explore the subject further and exploit the potential of comics with more depth. In the remarkable chapter entitled ‘Moderate Pressure Part 2’ which is the concluding episode of the fourth issue (pages 102-113) devoted to the camp of Ansar III, Sacco increase page after page the number of panels from 3 to 6, then 9, 12, 16 to finish after 6 pages with a grid of 20 same-sized boxes, thus managing to materialise with formidable efficiency the nightmare of the detention of Palestinian prisoners as well as the torture scenes to which they are sometimes subjected.

From this issue on, the project became more ambitious and grew from six to nine numbers, resulting in marked changes in the graphic style. When he was a journalism student, Sacco wanted to be a newspaper reporter but, unable to find any job to his liking, he ended up going back to his other passion, comics, and made them his profession. A self-taught artist, inspired by Crumb and the underground movement of the Sixties, he cultivatesd a caricatural style, exaggerated, somewhat grotesque, in the Big Nose tradition. It is a style used a lot for humour, mockery, satire and even autobiography, but it is unusual to use it to portray current affairs and relate more or less realistic facts in a spirit of journalistic truthfulness. This has garnered him numerous criticisms. Sacco says for example in his prologue, ‘Some Reflections on Palestine’ how one Palestinian-born American playwright was so disgusted, he tore the first issue of Palestine into pieces.

Palestine is a reportage, a work of comics journalism, even if it does not meet the usual criteria of objectivity, moderation or neutrality. It is a very subjective and personal piece in which the thoughts and feelings of the journalist are never disguised or suppressed and the author appears and participates directly in the course of his narrative. Sacco is inspired by the The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), in which George Orwell (1903-1950) recounts his experiences among the miners and the time he spent with them at the bottom of the mine. However, Sacco innovates by introducing into comics a spirit closer to the gonzo style, popularised by the journalist Hunter S. Thompson and characterised by a mixture of journalism and autobiography. Sacco does not practice the sort of journalism of immediacy or urgency. He works slowly and is a fan of “slow journalism”, and in general he still takes several years to produce his graphic novels. Footnotes In Gaza for example took him seven years of work, of which four he devoted solely to drawing.

The real Joe Sacco is far removed from his rather grotesque self-representation which depicts him as someone quite ugly, lazy, naive, if not cowardly, the exact opposite of the hardened reporter or the cool foreigner out to impress. He never shows his eyes always hidden behind the glare of his glasses as if by doing this he wishes to reflect his simplistic backpacker’s perspective, more tourist than journalist. His spectacles without eyes also recall the perpetually empty and wide open eyes of Little Orphan Annie, the orphan with a big heart, heroine of the daily strips by Harold Gray, or the eyes of the Candide-like Goodman Beaver by Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder in the magazine Help!. This expressionless and enigmatic look of the author is a way to hide his own feelings, like fear, and focus on the more important feelings of others. Sacco believes that by hiding his eyes, his readers will find it easier to put themselves into his shoes and share in his experiences.

The story of Footnotes In Gaza begins in 2001 when Harper’s magazine commissioned Joe Sacco and reporter Chris Hedges to make a short report on the history of a city of their choice located in the Gaza Strip. Remembering a piece written by Noam Chomsky about the city of Khan Younis where a massacre of 275 Palestinians occurred in 1956, at the time of the Suez crisis, Sacco set his sights on this city. But when their report was published in Harper’s, the story of the massacre of Khan Younis in 1956 was cut. Once more, all these forgotten victims remained in oblivion. In the rat race and standardisation to which television channels and the press are subject in covering the news, that is to say, the big stories that make the front page, many other important events go unnoticed or are reduced to the level of mere footnotes at the bottom of the page (hence the title Footnotes In Gaza).

Frustrated and angry to see this massacre ignored once more, Sacco returned to Khan Younis in 2003 and discovered the existence of another massacre that also took place in November 1956, but in Rafah, a town near Khan Younis, which was only briefly mentioned in a United Nations report. He began to wonder how these killings have affected the collective memory of Rafah, which is still today the scene of many brutalities committed by the Israeli army: what might be the echoes today of the hatred sown by the Israeli army in the hearts 50 years ago this? As before in Palestine, Sacco shows himself again physically in Footnotes In Gaza: he does not hide behind the camera and does not speak as a extradiegetic, dispassionate narrator. The effect is to show how our news is filtered, sweetened, simplified according to political interests.

From 2001, Sacco began to enjoy some public recognition and his working conditions are now far removed from those of the Nineties: since its republication in one volume, Palestine has sold over 60,000 copies and Sacco has produced other graphic novels such as Safe Area Gorazde, about the war in Eastern Bosnia of 1993-1995. Footnotes In Gaza was also designed from the start as a graphic novel, not a serial in chapters, and was purchased by a major literary publisher, Metropolitan Books, which is also the publisher of the graphic novel adaptation of Waltz With Bashir, the animated film by Israeli Ari Folman which digs into the repressed painful memories of a soldier who was witness to the massacre in Beirut.

With an additional hundred pages, totaling 396 plus appendices, and in a larger format (more horizontal and less vertical) than standard comic books, Sacco is unleashed in Footnotes In Gaza to exploit the vast potential of the sequential art of comics. It is easier for him to use panoramic views to plunge us into landscapes that blossom regularly across an entire double page. He also chooses to avoid dividing his story into episodes, as in Palestine, while keeping the economy of distinct chapters for each of the stories of two massacres: Khan Younis for the first part, and to Rafah for the second. Between these two parts he adds a short section (‘The Feast’ pp. 131-158) on the slaughter of animals during the holy festival of Eid El-Adha, a dark metaphor reminiscent of the effects of violence.

To present the past and present together and to contrast them, to show their connections and contradictions, and then to fix them in words and pictures, the comics medium is ideal. Even if the flow of information carries on, incidents are not ephemeral in comics, as they are in television or film, because they remain fixed on the page, visible, legible, building a strong cumulative effect. Sacco interviewed countless witnesses for Footnotes, whose faces, names and stories are discovered through its pages. The background of a panel is often filled with a host of young people, anonymous and looking lost, whose presence is at once subtle, moving and menacing, To show their almost ubiquitous visual presence creates no problems in comics, whereas this would soon become boring if it had to be described on every page by a writer.

In Footnotes In Gaza Sacco comes across as less naive than in Palestine. More meticulous and experienced, he behaves like a professional journalist and historian; he checks his sources and confronts the truth, and the truths, by showing how much people forget or distort traumatic events and keep often contradictory memories of them. It is clear that oral testimony can be unreliable, but written primary sources - often preferred by academic historians - can also appear suspect. Sacco unearths several versions of the past, but they have have more than enough in common to overlook a few contradictions, leaving finally little doubt about how the massacres actually happened.

Sacco is well aware of the path he has traveled during the sixteen years between Palestine and Footnotes In Gaza, describing how he has evolved as a writer and artist of these two books: “For me, Palestine contains a kind of energy and vitality that I’ll probably never produce again. My work has become more conscious. I am more aware of what I do. I’m not so loose anymore.” However, Sacco has become a reference for many writers and his graphic novels are now inspiring more creators of comics reportage. This burgeoning genre is growing more and more within newspapers and the press, such as the French topical illustrated magazine XXIe, as well as in the book world with such masterpieces as The Photographer by Didier Lefèvre and Emmanuel Guibert. Comics journalism has become a real movement and a force for change. And the most significant result from Footnotes In Gaza is that these two ignored and overlooked massacres are now well documented, read and seen by thousands of people thanks to this book. Sacco has recovered these tragedies from the shadows of oblivion and censorship and brought them fully to light, ultimately to show that it is the past which shapes the present.

Posted: December 18, 2011

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Lignes de front:
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