Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel (Metropolitan Books 2009)
As serendipity – or fortuity – would have it, this weekend’s Spectrum supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald announces on its cover that ‘The funny pages get serious’. Inside, in an article meant to provide context for Josh Neufeld’s AD: New Orleans After the Deluge, Samantha Selinger-Morris tells us:
Long regarded as a guilty pleasure, or suitable for delivering nothing but caped crusaders and candy-coated fantasy, comic books – or graphic novels, as titles with literary ambitions are known – have lately become the go-to genre for meditative and often harrowing storytelling.
‘Regarded by whom,’ one might ask, not without grumpiness, ‘and how recent is lately?’ All these decades after Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Will Eisner’s Contract with God trilogy, Frank Miller’s dark reinvention of Batman, Neil Gaiman’s vast and complex Sandman, yet another feature writer discovers that comics have ‘lately’ become interesting.
Oh well … in Herodotus’ time writing in prose was considered infra dig, and it took more than just a couple of decades for those attitudes to change.
Footnotes in Gaza is a harrowing read. There are no caped crusaders in sight, nothing is candy coated, and the few jokes function not so much to amuse as to reassure that the characters are capable of humour. Joe Sacco has, I gather, pretty much created the genre of comics journalism (of which Neufeld’s AD looks like a rare specimen created by someone else). He is best known for Palestine (1993/2001), which was published with an introduction by Edward Said and is held in high regard by them that know about these things. For obvious reasons I initially hesitated to read Footnotes in Gaza without having read Palestine, but it turns out the title doesn’t mean to imply that this book is a footnote to his earlier one. The footnotes in question are the deaths that are relegated to footnotes in the historical account, only to fall off the bottom of the page altogether at some stage.
Sacco visited the Gaza Strip from November 2002 to March 2003 to record the stories of eyewitnesses to two massacres that occurred in 1956. The book intertwines the story of his investigations with the story he uncovers. Again and again, he is asked why he is interested in events of 1956, when the trouble is continuous, the present is just as bad: Israeli bulldozers are destroying people’s homes, walking the streets at night invites tracer fire from an Israeli watch tower, there are endless delays at checkpoints … The impact of this continuity on his investigation is put succinctly in this page (I apologise for the chopped off bits – I couldn’t get it all in without doing severe damage to the book):
Transcript in case you can’t read it or deduce the missing bits:
Not every Day
One evening we were relaxing in the home of Asraf’s friend Fuad, which sits in the diciest part of Block J, on the lip of the border-area abyss.
We were talking about my ’56 story and the frailty of human memory.
[Fuad(?):] I don’t even remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday morning.
Yes, yes, I tell him, warming to my latest area of expertise.
[Joe: ]But you would remember being beaten yesterday morning.
[Joe:] Because, generally, that doesn’t happen every day.
So a beating would stand out sharply in your mind.
Which is why almost all the old men we’ve talked to
– even the ones whose recollections have otherwise faded –
recall that one episode, the clubbing at the school gate.
My exposition dissolves in a barrage of bullets and ricochets! Israeli gunfire is hitting the buildings around us and then cracks against the upper floors.
We are relatively safe on the ground level, but I remain tensed up after the shooting stops.
Because I’m not under fire every day.
My pals, however, go on with the conversation.
Not as if nothing has happened
but as if
it happens often enough that it hardly merits a word.
Sacco displays journalistic scrupulosity in identifying his sources and scrutinising their reliability. The comicbook presentation allows variants to be acknowledged and presented alongside one another with minimal fuss or distraction. It also allows both stories – of 1956 and 2002–3 – to be told with harrowing immediacy. If anyone is tempted to think of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict as somehow involving roughly equal parties, I strongly recommend this book. The Palestinians aren’t presented as saintly victims: the scenes of quiet celebration after a successful suicide bombing or at US casualties in Iraq are very unsettling. Many if not most of the people Sacco interviews, however, want to distance themselves from Palestinian militants, and the Israeli defense force point of view is given in a note at the back. I noticed that while the authorial captions unfailingly refer to ‘Israelis’, the Palestinian characters refer to their tormentors as ‘Jews’. Sacco distances himself from the antisemitism of his subjects, silently and without moralising. I could only wish that some of the Israeli voices, and voices from the Jewish diaspora, that have spoken out consistently against the occupation might have found their way into these pages, but perhaps that’s asking for a different book.