It’s roughly 40 years since alcohol touched my lips, and booze is right at the top of my list of Boring Conversation Topics, but I was recently held spellbound by a conversation about wine making. My dinner companion was infectiously passionate on the subject. He described the effect of a vineyard’s microclimate on the colour and taste of grapes, and so of wine, discussed the qualities of different grapes, told me about a famous episode in which Australian vintners who had thought for years they were producing merlot were informed by experts that their grapes were actually a variety of cabernet. Wine may be boring, but the minds that make it aren’t.
The experience helped me with a confusion about superhero comics: clearly many of them are created by brilliant people, and I’ve been bemused by my own lack of response. Neil Gaiman’s Marvel 1602? Technically, wow! Otherwise, meh. Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men? Meh. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight? I couldn’t bring myself to read it because I’d been so repelled by the sensibility of Sin City. Superhero comics leave me cold, or worse: they embody an ethos I loathe, that divides the world into good guys and bad guys and offers vigilantism as the solution to the world’s problems. What I have finally realised is that I should no more enjoy even the very best of superhero comics than feel compelled to drink the finest of champagnes. I’m just not into the thing itself.
But I was given two excellent superhero comics for Christmas, so I was in duty bound to read them, and I did it with hope in my heart.
Daredevil is a superhero with a disability: he’s blind, though all his other senses are of course incredibly acute, and he has one or two extras. He also suffers a lot – everybody, including other well-meaning superheroes, wants to attack him. He’s socially awkward and apparently sex-obsessed in a fairly harmless way. Apparently comics about him have been around for a long time, and this is a reboot. Much fun is had in finding ways to convey visually the world as perceived by a blind man. But in the end he’s a superhero, the story moves from violent confrontation to violent confrontation, and my world is not expanded by reading it.
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is by all accounts one of the great Batman comics, often mentioned in the same breath as Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and in this ‘Deluxe Edition’ the colours are printed as Brian Bolland intended them to be. Alan Moore is a brilliant story-teller (his Watchmen is the exception among superhero comics that has kept me reading them until now), and this may be the first Batman story where it’s explicit that superheroes and supervillains are two sides of the same coin – both, in the Joker’s words, ‘had a bad day and everything changed’. But the hallucinatory world of this comic, though brilliantly created and with added ‘psychological’ complexity, is still at base, to me, boring and even obnoxious.
I was going to blog separately about the third comic I got for Christmas, Joe Sacco’s Journalism, but Sacco belongs here because he is a bit of a real-world hero. He takes his pencil and notebook into dangerous places, asks awkward questions and keeps his eyes open, then turns what he has heard and seen and thought into powerful journalistic comics (the language is problematic – comics in this context have nothing to do with comedy, but what else can you call them?).
I haven’t read his most celebrated book, Palestine, but his Footnotes in Gaza deals with a 1956 massacre – not a footnote to anything, but an exploration of deaths and beatings that usually remain mere footnotes to history. Journalism collects disparate shorter pieces, so it doesn’t have the same concerted power, but it shines a powerful light in a number of dark and dangerous corners of the world.
Endnotes to each of the six sections – ‘The Hague’, ‘The Palestinian Territories’, ‘The Caucasus’, ‘Iraq’, ‘Migration’ and ‘India’ – give brief accounts of first publication in Time, the New York Times, the Guardian Weekend and so on, managing to hint at the uneasy status of this kind of journalism. The last two sections, consisting of one longer piece each, represent a blow struck for respectability, the first being published by the Virginia Quarterly Review, described on its web site as ‘a haven—and home—for the best essayists, fiction writers, and poets’, and the second in the French magazine XXI, which Sacco says is ‘the publishing industry’s greatest champion of comics reportage’. (The Indian piece, ‘Kushinagar’, has appeared in the VQR since its publication in this collection, and you can read excerpts on the New York Review of Books site, here. Part of the other longer piece, ‘Unwanted’, about ‘irregular immigrants’ to Malta, is available on the VQR site, here.)
Sacco is a journalist: he identifies his sources and is punctilious about giving more than one point of view. When he describes the appalling destruction being visited on Palestinian communities by the Israeli Defence Force, he seeks comments from Israeli spokespeople. The incredible hardships endured by Chechens in refugee camps are weighed against the policies described by the Russian authorities. In Kushinagar, we hear from the desperately deprived Dalits, but also from the Rajahs’ descendants who exploit them and a government official who cites the laws that are in place to protect them. But, even more than a photo essay or a TV documentary, both of which derive a dubious objectivity from our lingering belief that the camera never lies, comics journalism is unavoidably personal. Sacco may draw from photographs, but every image in the book is made by his hand and therefore personal. He makes no pretence at omniscient objectivity: a cartoony version of himself is omnipresent – awkward, responsive, questioning, dogged, alert, engaged.
So, does comics journalism have more than novelty value? Well, Sacco takes as long as four years to create a book, and has spent years living hand to mouth in order to commit himself to this work, so clearly it has value for him. And it does for me too. I doubt if I would have read a conventional article on African asylum seekers in Malta or extreme poverty in the Kushinagar District of Uttar Pradesh in India – too far from home, too many other claims on my attention. Presented as comics, the stories become supremely accessible. It’s a lot easier to follow a complex analysis while keeping sight of details when the material is presented in what the French call récit graphique.
I found ‘Unwanted’ particularly resonant. Malta has a population of 400,000. By August 2009, 12,500 people desperate to reach Europe ‘have washed up on the island’s shore’ as ‘irregular immigrants’ from Africa, mostly sub-Saharan Africa. That’s three percent of the population compared, say, to the minuscule proportion of Australia’s population that arrive here as asylum seekers. The two situations are very different, but the similarities are striking.
The strength of the piece lies in the stories told to Sacco by the African immigrants: stories of why they left home, of what they hoped for (mostly to make their way to mainland Europe), and the reality of what they faced in detention and then as ‘freedoms’, released into the community – and in the juxtaposition of these stories with the responses of Maltese people, ranging from virulent racism (a small minority), through degrees of intolerance and discomfort, to compassion and advocacy (another minority).
Sacco created this piece on Malta partly because he comes from there. It turns out he spent most of his childhood in Australia before moving to the USA. One can only wonder what he would make of the dark but not so hidden features of our landscape.