The graphic journalism pioneer and artist tells Jerry Pinto what it’s like to create comics about real-life war zones
A Joe Sacco comic is a total immersion experience. You feel the thump of house music reverberating off the walls; you smell the mix of alcohol and human sweat. You walk with a young boy past a hundred fallen corpses and you are dragged into the mouths of broken-toothed women ululating for the sons that they are sending off to war.
What separates Sacco from other comic-book artists is that this is journalism. The 49-year-old resident of Portland in the US has made some forays into the world of fiction, but his most celebrated work has been about areas of strife. Sacco’s breakout book was Palestine, in 1996. It carried an introduction by scholar Edward Said, who called Sacco’s work ‘gripping’ and added, ‘His true concern is finally history’s victims.’
Sacco’s new work, Footnotes in Gaza, is a savage work of journalistic retrieval. Exploring a state-sponsored massacre of a minority community, it received ecstatic reviews, but it wasn’t always easy for Sacco. ‘Even after Palestine became a graphic novel, I spent a year trying to convince publishers, editors, basically anyone who would fund a trip, that I should go to Bosnia,’ he says. ‘I’d get some enthusiastic responses from the people I met, but it would be killed somewhere higher up. In other words, I wasn’t convincing anyone.’
But Sacco managed eventually, even though he admits he came close to giving up as he worked on his two books about the Bosnian conflict. The first, Safe Area Gorazˇde, takes you inside the Muslim enclave of its name, an area that has seen more than its fair share of pillage, bombing and mass murder. The second, The Fixer, focuses on Neven, a man who can set any journalist up with any kind of victim – for a fee, of course.
Despite the success, how did Sacco approach people whose lives had been blown apart by war and say he was planning a comic book on the subject? ‘I don’t think I went about saying I was going to do comics, but for Footnotes I simply showed people a copy of Palestine and they would see bits of Gaza and images of what was happening every day in their lives, and they would get it,’ Sacco responds. ‘They would understand what I wanted to do. It [might have even been] easier than if I had written a book in English and showed it to people who didn’t know the language.’
Then came the next step, when Sacco had to show his work to men like Neven. ‘Some people aren’t flattered with how I draw them. There was a time when I was working on The Fixer and Neven said something stupid. I said to him, “You know I could make you look pretty bad in a comic.” He considered that, and then he said, “I could make you look pretty bad in real life.”’
‘But that for me is the test,’ Sacco continues. ‘When I give someone who is in a book the finished product, it must ring true for them. Their approval means more to me than most reviews.’ To ensure it rings true, Sacco says he is like any other journalist. ‘When I know a story is going to work for me, I take pictures, I shoot streets and buildings where it happened, research the details.’
The question of whether a story will work relies on whether it has enough emotional impact to carry the tragedy to the reader, safe in suburbia. This must take its toll. ‘When I’m reporting, I just go at it as any professional would,’ says Sacco. ‘I’m just going from one interview to the next, setting this up, dealing with that. But with Footnotes, it was seven years of work. It was intense.’
So what takes him back? ‘Healthy anger,’ Sacco says. ‘There’s not enough healthy anger around.’ Footnotes in Gaza is published by Jonathan Cape