A mash-up of illustrated memoir, oral history and scrupulous front-line journalism make Joe Sacco the perfect witness to the Middle East conflict, and have proven him enormously influential among younger and prolific comic-book artists.
Programma, Issue 2, Spring 2010
It’s been nearly two decades since Joe Sacco planted his then neophyte boots on the ground of the West Bank and Gaza during the waning days of the first intifada. By his own account, Sacco had no idea what he was doing. Having studied journalism at the University of Oregon and done a short unhappy stint as a traditional newspaperman before turning to the professionally marginal and less-than-lucrative trade of struggling comic-book artist, he found himself a self-described innocent abroad, a disaster tourist in search of a discernable and legitimate goal. Fretting that he couldn’t draw well enough and that he had no easily definable job description, Sacco discovered that by default he was in the process of inventing one: the cartoonist-journalist, the participatory, investigative graphic novelist.
At first tentatively (it took a few days of aimless wandering around Jerusalem before he realized he could just get into a taxi and head off to Ramallah or Nablus) but with increasing sureness of purpose, Sacco threaded his way across the occupied Palestinian territories, from town to town, refugee camp to refugee camp, street to street, room to room. Along the way, Sacco found that as a non-threatening, non-aligned onlooker and willing listener he had a definite knack for attracting stories, for getting people to open their doors, offer him food or drink and catalog their “public and private wounds.” As he moved from one cramped living room or kitchen to the next, where groups of Palestinian men or women would gather to exchange and measure their individual sufferings, as the Palestinian-American historian and literary theorist Edward Said wrote, “the way fishermen compare the sizes of their catches” (and where he learned to accept if not enjoy the ubiquitous endless rounds of over-sugared tea proffered as the preferred social currency to a strange guest), Sacco began to assess in numbingly bleak detail the human dimensions of life under military occupation – the endemic cycles of arbitrary arrest, detention and torture; the house demolitions, destruction of olive groves and orchards and other policies of collective punishment; the vigilante violence, capricious brutality, and judicial and bureaucratic indifference. There is no such thing as a Palestinian people, Golda Meir said back in 1969. “They didn’t exist.” Sacco carefully chronicles the quiet desperation that such a state of non-existence brings into being.
The fruit of those days turned to weeks and, eventually, one cold dreary winter in 1991-92 was Palestine, a series of nine comic books published between 1993 and 1996 (since gathered into a complete volume now in its ninth printing), which not only offered readers a richly textured panoramic view of a dysfunctional society, but also a wry personal narrative in which Sacco, acutely aware of the highly artificial and at times parasitic position of the reporter, examines his own role as a skeptical, self-reflexive sometime-participant in the stories he recounts with a keen instinct for parsing fact and confabulation. Tidy, compact, nebbish, bespectacled, with notebook and pre-digital point-and-shoot camera always at the ready, Sacco depicts himself as a somewhat nondescript naïf nimbly picking his way up the slope of a steep learning curve. His self-deprecatory, antiheroic position in relation to both his subjects and the whole “legitimate” journalistic profession reveals not only the everyday human wreckage caused by the conflict, but also the vast dynamic choreography of journalists and eyewitnesses, refugees and townspeople, fixers, photographers, middlemen and go-betweens, soldiers, settlers, militants, prisoners, NGO volunteers, peaceniks, protestors, stone throwing kids, students, teachers, doctors, bureaucrats, shopkeepers, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers and widows.
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