Tag Archives: Joe Sacco

Joe Sacco’s Palestine

Joe Sacco, Palestine (1993–1996, Jonathan Cape 2003)

If, like me, you quail at the thought of reading Amnesty International’s recent report, Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians, subtitled Cruel system of domination and crime against humanity (downloadable as a PDF at this link), you may find the information easier to absorb in comic-book form. Joe Sacco’s Palestine is one of the classics of comics journalism, aka graphic non-fiction.

Sacco spent two months in Israel’s Occupied Territories – Gaza and the West Bank – in the northern winter of 1991–1992, during the first intifada. He produced a series of comics about the experience, which were collected into a single volume in 2001, with an introductory essay by Edward Said. This London edition came two years later. More than 20 years after publication, and 30 years after the events he recounts, the specifics of the situation in Israel and Palestine have changed but the book is still urgently relevant.

Edward Said’s introduction speaks of his childhood love of comics and how this book brought that love together with his lifelong advocacy of the Palestinian people. Here’s part of his description of the book:

As we also live in a media-saturated world in which a huge preponderance of the world’s news images are controlled and diffused by a handful of men sitting in places like London and New York, a stream of comic-book images and words, assertively etched, at times grotesquely emphatic and distended to match the extreme situations they depict, provide a remarkable antidote. In Joe Sacco’s world there are no smooth-talking announcers and presenters, no unctuous narrative of Israeli triumphs, democracy, achievements, no assumed and re-confirmed representations – all of them disconnected from any historical or social source, from any lived reality – of Palestinians as rock-throwing, rejectionist, and fundamentalist villains whose main purpose is to make life difficult for the peace-loving, persecuted Israelis. What we get instead is seen through the eyes and persona of a modest-looking ubiquitous crew-cut young American man who appears to have wandered into an unfamiliar, inhospitable world of military occupation, arbitrary arrest, harrowing experiences of houses demolished and land expropriated, torture (‘moderate physical pressure’) and sheer brute force generously, if cruelly, applied … at whose mercy Palestinians live on a daily, indeed hourly basis.

Page iii

I’d only add that Sacco doesn’t portray the Palestinians as saintly victims. At times he recoils from an antisemitic remark (he doesn’t correct his informants when they talk of ‘the Jews’, but his own narrative refers meticulously to ‘Israeli soldiers’, ‘the Israeli government’ and so on), and you feel how strongly he hopes the voices of despair are wrong. He’s also unsparing of himself as the visiting US comic-making journalist who wants to see real suffering because that’s what he needs to make his comic dramatic. He squirms for a whole page when he colludes with sexism. And he manages to find glimmers of humour, mainly in the endless cups of tea he has to drink in order to hear people’s stories.

Here’s a page, sadly without an image of gawky and bespectacled Sacco himself, to give you an idea:

Sacco returned to Gaza in 2002–2003 to investigate a massacre that happened in 1956. The resulting book, Footnotes on Gaza (2009) is almost as hefty as Palestine and definitely worth reading alongside it (my blog post at this link).

Joe Sacco’s Bumf & Snyder and Murphy’s Wake

Joe Sacco, Bumf Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics 2014)
Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy, The Wake (Vertigo 2014)

1606997483I can think of three possible meanings for the title of this comic. In my youth, ‘bumf’ was short for ‘bumfluff’, the fine hair that grows on the faces of teenage boys. That meaning is irrelevant. More recently, ‘bumf’ has signified the kind of material that people put stickers on their letter-boxes in a futile attempt to stave it off. Given that Joe Sacco’s reputation rests on meticulous journalism, and this book is scurrilous, quasi-libellous satire, perhaps the title suggests that this book is filling in time until he gets back to his real work. If so it’s ironic, because this is as serious a piece of commentary as you’re ever likely to come across.

The third possible meaning is indicated by the book’s subtitle, ‘I Buggered the Kaiser’. But perhaps, given that Sacco writes US English, that meaning would require the form ‘buttf’. (For reasons I don’t understand, anal rape of adult males is fair game for US humorists and satirists, unlike just about any other class of sexual nastiness.)

Anyhow, in Bumf Sacco casts aside his responsible-journalist persona and emerges as a satirist in the tradition of early Robert Crumb and pre-Maus Art Spiegelman. The front cover has an inset caricature of Richard Nixon, archetypal abuser of presidential authority, saying, ‘My name is Barack Obama … and I approve this message.’ Obama’s name is never mentioned again, but the main storyline – or one of them, the other one is the World War I epic referred to in the subtitle – features a resurrected Nixon who presides over the post-Abu Graibh, post-Snowden world of US surveillance, drones, rendition and torture machinery, and wonders, among other things, why there’s a beautiful Black woman in his bed.

There’s full frontal nudity on most pages, and quite a bit of it is en masse. And though the naked people tend to be plump and hedonistically involved, there’s something desperately pathetic about them – like the souls in Gustav Doré’s Inferno1sacco

You’ll notice that in the foreground of this grimly cheerful image there are scenes of sexualised torture. There’s a lot more of that. 

To extend the Dante comparison, Sacco puts himself in the frame – not as a privileged visitor like Dante, but as a graphic novelist who is complicit in the propaganda and violation of human rights that Nixon/Obama sanctions.

If you’ve seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s chilling documentary about Edward Snowden, you won’t find it easy to dismiss the extremity of Bumf as pure fantasy. The Nº 1 in the title suggests that there is more to come.

1401245234One of my regular birthday joys is that I can expect comics as birthday presents from my sons. This year, I was given Bumf and The Wake.The latter came in a plastic wrapper, with stickers proclaiming it to be the winner of the 2014 Eisner Award for the Best Limited Series. That makes it an excellent birthday present even before the plastic has been broken.

Sadly, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It’s as dystopian as Bumf, and plays with our fears about climate change in powerful ways, involving giant tidal waves and huge monsters rising from the depths of the ocean. The plot, which involves a rewriting of human evolution, is bold, inventive, and well resolved. The images are powerful and dynamic. But I’m just not part of the target audience. Where Bumf is animated by rage at abuse of power, The Wake plays on despair and that form of human self-loathing that infects parts of the environmental movement. Completely understandable, but something that needs to be resisted rather than indulged.

Daredevil, Batman and Sacco

Mark Waid, Paolo M Rivera, Marcos Martin, Daredevil (Marvel 2012)
Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke (©2008, deluxe Edition 2012)
Joe Sacco, Journalism (Metropolitan Books 2011)

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.

0785152385 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.

1bkjAlan 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.

0805094865I 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. IMG_0112Sacco 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.

Footnote on my blog note on Sacco’s Footnotes

I’ve just heard Chris Flynn’s excellent review of Footnotes in Gaza on the ABC’s Book Show of 21 April. It’s preceded by interesting discussions of European comics (‘graphic novels’) in translation and South Korean comics, in a refreshing antidote to the patronising treatment often handed out to comics in the mainstream media. Chris Flynn says in part:

Sacco tries his level best to build up an accurate picture of what might have happened. he comes at the massacres from all angles, presenting eyewitness accounts that sometimes correspond and sometimes conflict. Footnotes in Gaza is thus a fascinating document of ordinary people, but it is disappointing that it lacks an Israeli perspective on what happened. In his introduction  Sacco bemoans that he was stonewalled, and the limited access that he was granted to UN and Israeli Defence Force archives, and he puts out a plea for Israeli soldiers who were present on the days in question to come forward with their versions of events.

As an eye-opening piece of war reportage, Footnotes in Gaza succeeds largely thanks to Sacco’s innovative, fresh approach in presenting a forgotten moment in history in such a modern fashion. As a narrative piece of story-telling, it contains several moments that made me put the book down and hold my head in my hands. As illustrative journalism, it has a huge emotional impact, particularly during the grand vistas of destruction and the final, silent pages that transcend words. There are no answers here, just terribly sad questions.

You can download the whole thing or listen to it streamed.

The Man Who Invented History

Justin Marozzi, The Man Who Invented History: Travels with Herodotus (John Murray 2009)

In the movie The English Patient, the Kristin Scott Thomas character tells a story from Herodotus over the campfire, which apparently resulted in a spike in sales of The Persian Wars. The product-placement dimension of that moment was lost on me. I’d read some Livy at school, and quietly assumed that all ancient historians were alike, concerned with wars and not much else, and generally to be avoided. It would have taken more than an erotically charged Herodotean moment in a movie to shake that assumption. Justin Marozzi has done what Kristin Scott-Thomas failed to do. He’s an English travel writer–historian (with his own web site), at pains to make us know he’s not an academic – more like a Herodotus fanboy. His message in short is something like: Herodotus invented the West, Thucydides sux, and Plutarch double sux. (Those last two aren’t direct quotes – he’s much more grown-up than that.)

Marozzi sets out in this book to follow in Herodotus’s footsteps, visiting places he visited, or at least claimed to visit, quoting good bits from his Histories and reflecting on the enduring relevance of some of his themes. He visits Turkey (Herodotus’ birthplace Halicarnassus, now Bodrum), Iraq (where Marozzi spent a year ‘setting up a nationwide civil affairs program’, whatever that is, but manages to take us with him on a private guided visit to the mostly inaccessible museum in Babylon), Egypt and of course Greece. He finds value in Herodotus’ genial appreciation of cultural diversity and mockery of cultural arrogance (it seems that ‘Everyone thinks his own society’s customs are best’ was a refrain in Herodotus; it certainly is in Marozzi, with many confirming examples). He finds in George Bush’s Iraq and elsewhere validating echoes of Herodotus’ belief that hubris leads to nemesis and his repeated observation that those in power ignore at their peril those who counsel caution. He enjoys and emulates Herodotus’ propensity for sexual titillation, though here he seems to be trying a little too hard to establish his non-academic bona fides, and comes off as a happily married man hoping to pass as a bit of a lad. Above all, he conveys a sense of Herodotus as an excellent travelling companion, a great listener, an accomplished entertainer (apparently he wrote his books to be read aloud, and Marozzi imagines a number of reading–performances for us), a tireless gatherer of information, a cheerful embellisher, and one who got it right more often than he has been given credit for. Maozzi has put Herodotus on my To Be Read list.

My timing in reading this could hardly have been better because of its resonances with other recent reading. Marozzi spends a whole chapter in Siwa, the setting of Sunset Oasis, and includes some photographs. It’s unlikely he had read the novel, but Bahaa Taher, its author, is named in his acknowledgements. He doesn’t mention the theory, a major plot point in the novel, that Alexander the Great may be buried in Siwa, but he does spend quite some time on matters mentioned by neither Herodotus nor Taher: the oasis’s tradition of homosexuality and the prevalence of magic there, in spite of the current Muslim establishment’s disapproval of both. But it’s clearly the same place, and the counterpoint of fiction and travel-writing is fun.

Though Marozzi makes no direct reference to Palestine, one chapter in particular plays well with Footnotes on Gaza. The latter is history painfully gathered from eyewitnesses and survivors of brutal events, a necessary and important counter to the bland evasions of the official story, as recorded by the powerful. But Justin Marozzi’s account of  Southeast European Joint History Project (JHP) reminds us of the dangers of history that perpetuates a people’s view of themselves as victims, a danger that Joe Sacco’s book certainly risks. In a visit to Thessaloniki, not part of Herodotus’ world, but justifying its place in this book because of the light it casts on the nature of history, Marozzi interviews Nenad Sabek, chain-smoking director of the NGO that produces the history. The state of history-teaching in the Balkans as surveyed ten years ago makes Australia’s History Wars look like a game in a kindergarten sandpit. Sebek tells Marozzi, and us, that the school history syllabus

is where you instil into the young a sense of victim mentality, a feeling that everyone around them is their adversary and that’s how it’s always been. … I believe history is one of the fields  where if you teach it badly you produce serious damage way ahead in the future. If you tell a ten-year-old his country has always been beaten up by its neighbour throughout its history, and then years later it’s war, he’s wearing uniform and he’s got a gun in his hands and his leaders are saying, ‘They’re still slaughtering us,’ this is what he believes and he goes on a rampage.

The JHP has produced a set of history textbooks that offer a multi-faceted account of the seven centuries from the emergence of the Ottoman Empire to the Second World War that aims to supplement (rather than replace, which would be politically impossible) the lethal nationalistic-victim texts currently in use. It sounds like a project that could, even should, be emulated in any number of hotspots – Tel Aviv, Ramallah, Belfast, Canberra …

Sacco’s Footnotes on Gaza

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 comic-book 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 defence 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.