Last updated: June 9, 2012 12:08 am

Drawn dispatches

Comic book journalists are winning respect, but is their medium equipped to tackle the world’s most difficult conflicts?
Illustrated Panels from Joe Sacco's 'Journalism'©Joe Sacco

Illustrated Panels from Joe Sacco's 'Journalism'

Journalism, by Joe Sacco, Metropolitan Books, RRP$29/Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 208 pages

Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, by Joe Sacco and Chris Hedges, Nation Books, RRP$16.99/RRP£17.99, 304 pages

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, by Guy Delisle, Drawn & Quarterly, RRP$24.95/Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 320 pages

In his introduction to Joe Sacco’s Palestine (2001), the late Edward Said recalls the subversive delight he took from reading his first comic books. For Said, growing up in a strict Arab Protestant family, the exploits of Superman, Tarzan, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman provided him with “a hugely wonderful thrill, entirely unlike anything [he] had hitherto known or experienced”.

Though the literary theorist was not aware of it at the time, and only came to the conclusion much later, these comics, with their immortal avatars and skimpily clad heroines, “seemed to say what otherwise couldn’t be said ... defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures”.

Illustrated Panels from Joe Sacco's 'Journalism'

Illustrated Panels from Joe Sacco's 'Journalism'

Near the end of his life Said rediscovered a similar sense of un-policed defiance reading Palestine, only this time there was the added piquancy of real events being reported from the land of his birth. Originally published in 1993 as nine separate comics, Sacco’s provocatively titled book – this was before the two-state solution became an accepted basis for talks on the region’s future – sign-posted a nonconformist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with the author’s sympathies firmly on the side of the underdog.

Since Palestine Sacco has produced a further work delving into the history of that conflict, Footnotes in Gaza (2009), as well as two books about the Bosnian War, Safe Area Gorazde (2000) and The Fixer (2003). He has also become increasingly active as a short-form comics journalist for a variety of publications. These pieces – which include reports from The Hague (the war crimes trial of Milan Kovacevic), the Palestinian territories, the Chechen war, Iraq, India (the Dalits of Kushinagar) and the vexed issue of migration in Malta – are collected together for the first time in Journalism.

The idea that the comic book form can be used to treat serious issues had already received a significant boost in 1992, when Art Spiegelman became the first (and still the only) graphic novelist to win a Pulitzer prize for his Holocaust saga Maus. Spiegelman’s work and that of the Iranian-born cartoonist Marjane Satrapi, who earned plaudits for Persepolis (2003), her graphic memoir of growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution, demonstrated that the medium could be well suited to historical non-fiction.

 

Sacco maintains that though drawings are by their nature subjective and cannot therefore aspire to the traditional notion of objective journalistic truth, a journalist’s standard obligations – to report accurately, get quotes right and cross-check claims – remain just as important as ever. “I think it is possible to strive for accuracy within a drawn work’s subjective framework,” he writes in Journalism. “In other words, facts (a truck carrying prisoners came down the road) and subjectivity (how that scene is drawn) are not mutually exclusive. I, for one, embrace the implications of subjective reporting and prefer to highlight them.”

Born in Malta in 1960, Sacco moved to Los Angeles aged 12 after several years living in Australia. He graduated in journalism from the University of Oregon and worked as a low-level reporter for several publications, including the National Notary Association. After growing bored and disillusioned by the minimal impact he was having as a journalist, Sacco began devoting himself to cartooning, which he had previously practised only as a hobby.

His wide range of influences included Mad Magazine reprints from the 1950s, Robert Crumb’s satirical comic strip creations such as “Fritz the Cat” and the proudly subjective New Journalism of Hunter S Thompson and Michael Herr. Like those two American writers, Sacco is a participatory journalist who places himself in the centre of a narrative. He always draws himself with the same cartoony line, an ageless everyman with shades of Hergé’s reporter Tintin. His bulbous head, opaque spectacles and rubbery lips are deliberately caricatural and offset the realistic way in which he tends to render the people he meets.

Sacco’s work seems best suited to ground-level reporting in which ordinary people express their hopes and fears; it is less well adapted to the corridors of power, where useful contacts are harder to come by. In 1998, when he covered the war crimes trial of Bosnian Serb warlord Milan Kovacevic at The Hague for the US magazine Details, both the chief prosecutor and the presiding judge refused to be interviewed on the record. “It should have been the chief officers of the court who explained the great importance of the work being done at The Hague, not me,” grumbles Sacco in Journalism.

Illustrated Panels from Guy Delisle's 'Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City'©Guy Delisle

Illustrated Panels from Guy Delisle's 'Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City'

His subjective brand of reporting seems to make perfect sense in a piece such as “Chechen War, Chechen Women” (2008), about the plight of Chechens who had to flee for their lives into the neighbouring Russian republic of Ingushetia. One doubts that any attempt to introduce opposing viewpoints, for example by speaking to Russian officials, would have modified the reader’s conclusion that these women had been despicably treated.

But Sacco’s work addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is less clear-cut. He has long believed that the Israeli government’s point of view is well represented in the American media and that this leaves very little room for Palestinians to get a fair hearing. He argues that by focusing on Palestinians and their claims for sovereignty he is evening out the balance.

The problem with this approach is that he fails to take into account the feelings of ordinary Israeli citizens, which are nonetheless an important part of the story. Introducing multiple perspectives, while perhaps offering less narrative cohesion, would no doubt deepen our understanding of a region where instances of conciliation and common ground are rarely highlighted.

Sacco’s increasingly militant outlook informs another new book, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a growling indictment of corporate America that represents his first major collaborative work of non-fiction. Sacco met and befriended the Pulitzer prize-winning former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges in Bosnia in the mid 1990s when he was working on Safe Area Gorazde, an oral history of a Bosnian enclave under siege. Since then Sacco (as illustrator) and Hedges (as scribe) have collaborated on some short-form journalism, notably a piece for Harper’s magazine about Palestinian refugees in Gaza.

 

In his afterword to Footnotes in Gaza Sacco acknowledges that Hedges’ “moral conviction has always been an inspiration”. For Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, he and Hedges travelled the length and breadth of the US, stopping off in some of the country’s most impoverished locations. Their travels take them to the industrial wastelands of Camden, New Jersey, the Native American reservation of Pine Ridge, South Dakota, the stained coal fields of West Virginia, a colony of exploited fruit pickers in Immokalee, Florida and, in the final instance, Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where the Occupy Wall Street protests began in September 2011.

Sacco is very much the back-seat driver in a journey that takes its inspiration from the seminal Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), which used text (James Agee) and photographs (Walker Evans) to examine the appalling working conditions of white sharecropper families in the southern US during the so-called “Dust Bowl”. Evans’ photographs of hard-working American families had a massive impact on the US consciousness but it seems unlikely that Sacco’s grainy, often expressionistic black-and-white illustrations will be as influential. There is a problem of accessibility – whereas the immediacy of Evans’ photographic portraits appeals directly to our emotions, by their nature Sacco’s drawings invite a more contextual reading.

Sacco’s work in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt comes into its own when he is occasionally given the space to draw panels with dialogue bubbles, as opposed to full pages of portraiture and landscapes. Immediately the reader is drawn into what he does best, namely to recount an individual’s story through words and images.

He often achieves this by flitting between the past and present in a way that it would be very difficult for, say, a documentary film-maker to do. “I ask pertinent visual questions,” writes Sacco in Journalism, “[like] how many people were there? Where was the barbed wire? Were the people sitting or standing? At the minimum I want to orient readers to a particular moment, but my goal is to satisfy an eyewitness that my drawn depiction essentially represents his or her experience.”

Sacco continues to gain admirers, not least in Israel, although his work remains a sore point in some quarters. The Quebecois cartoonist Guy Delisle relates, in his latest comic book travelogue Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, how Sacco’s name came up when he tried and failed several times to get permission from Israeli authorities to enter Gaza.

Delisle, a former animator who has produced previous comic books about Pyongyang, Shenzhen and Burma, shares Sacco’s gift for capturing life’s absurdities. The tone of his work – in which he features as a paunchy father of two whose wife works for the French NGO Médecins Sans Frontières – is by turns gently humorous and dumbfounded.

 

His drawing style, though much more rudimentary than Sacco’s, suits his brisk, snapshot approach. For Jerusalem, he recounts a year (2008-2009) living in Beit Hanina, an ill-served Palestinian neighbourhood in the eastern part of the Holy City. At no time is the disconnect between expectations and reality more evident than midway through his stay, when Israel launched a three-week-long invasion of Gaza in response to Hamas rocket attacks. Predicting clamour in Jerusalem, Delisle instead discovers a city where “the streets are calm, the atmosphere strange. When you think that nearby, they’re bombing people with fighter jets ... ”

Delisle is just one member of a generation of artist-journalists following in Sacco’s wake. Others include the German Olivier Kugler, who won last year’s V&A Illustration Award, and the Frenchman Emmanuel Guibert, whose book The Photographer, a mash-up of text, illustrations and photos, documented a photographer’s assignment to Afghanistan.

Though still in its infancy, comic book journalism has already shown that it can bring difficult subjects alive in ways that are both visually arresting and dramatic. These same qualities can occasionally subside into oversimplification or emotional flag-waving – something to be expected of a medium that does not make a virtue of dispassion. But while this may mean that the Pulitzer prizes are still some way off, the legitimacy of comic book reporters and their craft seems only set to grow.

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