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There aren’t many cartoonists who could claim to have invented their own subgenre, but there’s no question that Joe Sacco is the father of comics journalism. Not that he would stake such a claim: Even after Palestine and Safe Area: Gorazde became two of the most-lauded comics collections of the ’90s, he remains stoutly unpretentious with regard to his art. (He shuns the term “graphic novel,” for one thing.) Although he’s a familiar presence in his own comics, drawn with puffy lips and blank, wire-framed glasses, Sacco’s reasons for foregrounding himself are the opposite of narcissistic. He’s there to remind readers that the stories of the people he talks to, from the victims of a Palestinian massacre (2009’s Footnotes In Gaza) to a Serbian wheeler-dealer (2003’s The Fixer), are filtered through his own sharp but still-fallible perceptions. With 2000’s Safe Area: Gorazde receiving a new special-edition release by Fantagraphics, Sacco took a break from his travels to talk to The A.V. Club about drawing massacres, avoiding melodrama, and focusing on people who have been “run over by history.”
The A.V. Club: You grew up reading comics and studied journalism in school, but the two disciplines had never been linked before. Was there a point for you when those parallel tracks converged?
JS: Well, there were points. I suppose I had already started a comics career, for lack of a better term—a career wasn’t exactly what it was at the time. I was doing comics like Yahoo, that series. I did a comic about touring with a rock band, and I did a comic about my mother’s experiences in World War II, and I would say that those two stories were the genesis of what later became comics journalism. I never came up with a theory about comics journalism. It’s just that I was interested in telling a historical story from someone’s perspective, and I was interested in going on an adventure and then writing about that adventure. Because I had studied journalism, perhaps some of that blood was coursing through my body. I suppose the real point when the two things came together, journalism and comics, was when I went to the Middle East and did the comic book series Palestine. But again, it was not thought out by me. I wasn’t sitting there thinking, “I’m going to come up with this genre that puts together my two great loves, comics and journalism.” I just happened to be doing autobiographical comics, like everyone else and their mother was in the 1980s. I thought I would do comics about my experiences, then go to the Middle East. But obviously the fact that it was the Middle East showed that I had some interest in what was going on in the world, current events, which is that journalism side of my brain operating.
AVC: There’s a moment in Footnotes In Gaza where you’re refused press credentials because you’re not doing breaking news, which is certainly a fair point. That’s much of what people think of as reporting nowadays.
JS: Well, that’s why I was interested in journalism in the first place when I was in high school. I loved that feeling of trying to get a story done in 30 minutes.
AVC: You’re doing almost the opposite of that. Just the drawing of a book the size of Footnotes In Gaza takes several years.
JS: Well, yeah. I mean, it’s one of the slowest art forms or media there is. You know, there’s fast food and there’s the slow food movement; I guess this is slow journalism. It just forces you into it. It’s difficult for me because I love being in the field, so to speak. I love that day-to-day thrill of being in places, and the great privilege of meeting people and going into their homes and seeing what their lives are like. I love that. But when you compare how much time is spent reporting to how much time is spent at a desk just writing and drawing, the reporting is a fraction. That’s just the way it is. At some point, you just have to chain yourself to a desk and say, “Okay, I have to now be a solitary person who’s going to sit in here and bang at this until it all gets done, and let’s hope I get it done right.
AVC: Off the top of my head, the only medium that’s more labor-intensive is animation.
JS: Yeah, that’s true. An animator who’s working by him- or herself. Obviously they’ll spend years and get a few minutes. My hat’s off to them. I don’t intend to join the ranks of animators.
AVC: What’s the payoff for you, in terms of working so long on capturing what you describe as a fairly brief period of reporting?
JS: What you have to do is let everything be satisfying in its own way. Obviously, I love being out there reporting. If you’re a reporter yourself or if you’ve done reporting yourself you know what that’s like. It’s great, great fun. And most reporters spend a couple of hours every day, you know, writing their story up. But with me, fortunately I also enjoy drawing, and thank God. You go through stages with drawing over a number of years: There are moments of real exhilaration when you’re creating something and what you’re drawing is very interesting, and then there are moments where you have to say, “No, I cannot draw anything really spectacular here. The story needs a slow, plodding pace and these headshots that are gonna have to be repeated over and over again.” That isn’t as much fun. I’ve learned over the years. If you look at my earlier work, I was always trying something very interesting, which doesn’t always serve the story. Now I’ve kind of learned you’ve go to be in another mode when you’re drawing. Everything has to serve the story, whether it’s fun to draw or not fun to draw.
AVC: As a serialized comic book, Palestine got a ton of media attention, but the sales weren’t that great.
JS: Compared to how low the sales figures were, it got an inordinate amount of attention, I thought. But that just showed me that, you know, critics and people who were interested in the subject were interested. Comic-book readers weren’t interested. I don’t think I’ve ever had much of a fan base in the comics community.
AVC: It wasn’t until comics got out of comic-book stores that mainstream readers started to take notice.
JS: It’s what saved me, I think. I would never have lasted if comics remained in comic-book stores. My work didn’t start to do well until I had, you know, a book out that was in a bookstore. That was the book on Gorazde that actually predated the single-volume edition of Palestine.
AVC: Right. Fantagraphics’ initial collection of Palestine was in two volumes.
JS: And that wasn’t really getting into bookstores as well as the single-volume did eventually.
AVC: How quickly did Safe Area: Gorazde turn things around for you?
JS:I think things started to shift to me when the Gorazde book came out—about the time I was ready to call it quits. I thought I would finish that book and then I’d reassess what I was doing with my life. I mean, how you can live when you’re 20 or 30 and how you can live when you’re 40. I’d say the turning point came when the book was reviewed by the New York Times Book Review. I think there’s sort of a monkey-see-monkey-do sort of attitude with the press: “Oh, well, The New York Times reviewed it, maybe we should take a look at it, too.” Certainly after that, everyone started being interested in it. I mean on that sort of mainstream level where you actually get a big readership, like the Time magazines and that sort of stuff. So it was just sort of fortuitous, and that’s when things started to click for me, not necessarily creatively—that’s always a different story—but financially speaking. I stopped having to worry about next month’s rent.
AVC: That must translate into more focus to go toward the work and less toward figuring out how you’re going to get paid for it.
JS: Yeah, that’s the unfortunate situation everyone is in. In America, in the capitalist sort of environment, you kind of have to make it in the marketplace. And I’m not necessarily aghast at that notion. I would rather make it in the marketplace than get a bunch of money from grants or from the government. With the marketplace, there are problems with it, but ultimately I don’t feel beholden to anyone. I don’t have to fill out a report after I’ve done my work or beg for money.
AVC: You got out of journalism school in 1981, so in addition to the shift in public perception about comics as an adult medium, your career has also spanned a profound shift in the journalism industry. Do you think in some ways you’ve been the beneficiary of that?
JS: As many problems as I have with the mainstream media and the way it goes about its business, I’d say at least journalists were, for the most part, trained in discrimination. I have my problems, mostly with editorial decisions in bigger cities, in editorial offices as opposed to with columnists or reporters. I realize that, as time’s gone by with the new media—I’m talking about the electronic media—you could see a shift to emphasis on visuals and on shorter attention spans. I’m sorry, in a way, if my work is a beneficiary of that. I would hope my work has other attributes that have led to a success. But I can’t know for sure, you know? I think the comics market is the only growing part of the publishing industry, of the book-publishing trade. It’s increasing its share as time goes by. I think it also has to do with the sheer weight of good work that’s out there now—obviously not just my work. There are many other great cartoonists working in fiction and other fields that are just really doing work that has to be looked at, that you cannot ignore.
AVC: It used to be that every mainstream article about “serious” comics had to start with some variation on, “Zip! Bam! Pow!” That prejudice has largely evaporated.
JS: And they all began that way for almost a decade, it seemed. It was almost like a joke. I think there was a shift. There was just better work out there. When we’re talking about journalism itself, perhaps people are attracted to work that represents a very singular worldview, as opposed to that butter smeared on toast that you always get from the mainstream media, where there seems to be no personal input, that every journalist seems to be a fly on the wall with the same voice and no opinion him- or herself. Maybe people are interested to finally read about, let’s say, the Palestinian people or what’s going on with individuals who were run over by history as opposed to the politicians or the generals who always get quoted.
AVC: One of the things that’s characteristic of your approach is a street-level point of view. It’s not the quasi-objective view that journalists are supposed to strive for.
JS: I’m always wanting to believe that in foreign situations—I’m not saying it’s in all situations—but generally speaking, when a reporter introduces him- or herself into a foreign situation, they leave an impact, and they make an impact while they are there. So I guess I just choose not to ignore that, and to show that people are reacting to you because you’re an outsider, and they react to you in different ways because you’re an outsider. That could be an interesting part of a story. It’s the kind of thing you talk about when you’re having dinner with someone and they want to know what it’s like. When you want to actually tell them what your experiences were, you don’t put yourself into the third person and say, “A reporter was walking down the street.” You don’t tell that to a friend. You say, “I was walking down the street,” and so you immediately help put the reader in your shoes by doing that.
AVC: One thing that’s striking about watching movies shot in, say, Iran, or any place Americans aren’t allowed to go, is the tangible sense of the environment. It’s fascinating to see what a street looks like in Tehran, or a storefront.
JS: Exactly. We are visual creatures, and as much as I love prose—and I do. I love prose. I love the images it puts in my head. Sometimes they’re the wrong images that I get in my head, or sometimes I just really want to just see it. And sometimes when I see it, that really gives it a sense of reality to me. It’s basically what you’re describing. When you go into someone’s home, and you see all their stuff about, they don’t just become this voice talking to you that’s quoted. They become a person in a context, with a house, with a family, on their sofa—they become real.
AVC: There’s a fascinating bit in the supplementary materials for the new Safe Area: Gorazde edition where you juxtapose an overhead shot of the town with the very detailed two-page spread you drew of the same image. How do you determine when that level of realism is called for, and when you want to take a more impressionistic approach?
JS: I think it comes from studying journalism. I think if I hadn’t studied journalism I might have taken a different approach, and I’m not saying my approach is the only way you can tell a story journalistically. But because I actually studied it, detail is important and accuracy is really important, so it’s not just about having an accurate quote. The problem with doing things the way I try to do them is that it’s not just an accurate quote, it’s an accurate image of what a place looks like. An absolute literal group of images? You might as well go to a photographer for that. But whatever interpretation I do of it, it has to be informed by reality. So every street scene I do, there might not be a street exactly like that, but it will have all the components of a street in that particular place. And there are some scenes like the one above the town of Gorazde where, yes, I actually put every building where it was and tried to draw every building accurately because I really wanted to convey how the streets can be covered from that area by a sniper. So that was the best way of doing it.
AVC: An illustration that large and that detailed casts a shadow over the pages that follow, in a way. It grounds them in a sense of place so that you don’t have to be that detailed on every page.
JS: That’s a good point. That bird’s-eye view gives you a real sense of the city, or the town, as it was at that time. Someone from the town is going to recognize almost every building and say, “I used to live in this one.” I hadn’t really thought about it this way, but it makes it so that over the next few pages, when you’re just walking down the street that is — I want to say, generic, but it’s particular to that particular town; it isn’t a literal picture of a street as taken from a photograph, and yes, it might take the burden off that.
AVC: If you tried to draw every street and every house that way, you’d probably still be working on the book.
JS: What you do is you say, “Okay, I’m walking, I’m taking a step and now we’re having this conversation, so now I have to stop our conversation and take a picture of how we’re standing in the street and what’s behind us.” You don’t want to cripple what you’re doing, but you have to give it a sense of its place, like giving it the right color. It’s like when someone will quote someone and they’ll keep some of the cadence of their language or their peculiar way of speaking, but they might not burden the reader all the way through with it if it’s going be completely incomprehensible, or like slogging through mud to get through.
AVC: Transcribing every single word people say is not doing them any favors. Writing and speech are not the same thing, and even the smartest person would like an idiot if you wrote down every half-finished sentence and “You know....”
JS: You’re not doing the reader any favor if you don’t edit, although you should maybe indicate where you’re editing or there should be certain gaps where things are edited. On the radio you can edit things so something that was said 10 minutes apart can sound like it’s right next to each other. And in what we do, no one puts ellipses to show something being missing. Right now I’m editing a piece where someone was talking and they’re talking about their childhood on page one and they’re talking about it again on page 13. I’m not going to put everything between page one and 13 just to destroy the reader with my accuracy.
AVC: You’re very forthright about that negotiation, especially in Footnotes In Gaza. You present a lengthy account of the massacre in Khan Younis, and then you backtrack and describe all the contradictions in the accounts various people gave you.
JS: The idea there is to basically let the reader in on the problems one has in writing the story or compiling history or relying on memory, and basically confronting the reader with what I was confronted with. The arc of a story can be true, but you cannot say that everyone has the same memory of the arc of that story. There’s always an objective truth, but then there are many tellings. And what history is is a telling. It’s not necessarily the objective truth. If there are many tellings of that point, many tellings can point to an objective truth, and I think that’s what I’m also trying to get across.
AVC: The very idea of a footnote to history is an oxymoron. History is supposed to be definitive and all-encompassing, although of course it never is.
JS: Yeah, and you know, there were many more interviews. The idea is to show divergence at certain points. It doesn’t mean there weren’t other divergences. It’s just that the idea’s also to move the story forward. So maybe you have five people telling you one aspect of a story, but you only include one because you just want to move through it. As long as those five or so are pretty much square with each other.
AVC: In that region, you can’t open your mouth without offending someone. Just to use a word like “Palestinian” versus “Israeli Arab” is to take sides. How do you negotiate telling the story of the people you meet versus the larger historical and political picture?
JS: With the book Footnotes In Gaza I tried to provide a context for what happened. In other words, I don’t drop the reader into November 1956 and suddenly people are getting lined up against a wall. I want to show how the refugees got there in the first place. And I do want to show that there was a guerilla war with Palestinian guerillas attacking Israeli military and civilian targets. Of course, there were also heavy attacks by Israelis on military and civilian targets in Gaza, so this vicious thing was going on at the time. That’s why I had Mordechai Bar-On, Moshe Dayan’s chief of staff—maybe that’s not the right word, chef de bureau, I guess, is the official designation. That’s why I have him try to explain something from the Israeli point of view.
Truth be told, if I could have, I would have tried to get more of an Israeli perspective. I spoke to Israeli historians, I spoke to Israeli military people who were there at the time, and I couldn’t get my hand on anything really solid. They may have heard about something, but they didn’t know enough about it, or else they hadn’t heard about it. I did get a couple of Israeli researchers to go through the archives to see what they could find. So you’re right, it is a minefield, you do try to navigate it. I would prefer to get more Israeli perspective. Something I realized also is that history is often not definitively told. History is often a collection of different tellings from different perspectives. I think the perspective I’m telling is the way I told it, the stories I got from the people. I think you can basically say there was a massacre of Palestinians in Khan Younis, and whatever happened in Rafah... when you end up with 111 dead Palestinians, according to the U.N., I don’t know what you call that. Some of it seemed pretty vicious too. You worry about the politics, you realize it’s a loaded topic, but you have to be true to what happened and you can’t shy away from the truth.
AVC: Anyone who’s ever done any reporting has to laugh at the scenes where you’re talking to people and your inner monologue is yelling at them to stay on topic. “Not 1897! All right, 1948.” It’s refreshing that you can be explicit about the agenda you’re going in with.
JS: I suppose in the middle of it, it becomes kind of an obsession. You know, you’re a journalist yourself, you know that you start with this idea that you want to show something and it sort of pulls you and you feel like you have to show what happened. As time goes by, what really matters is getting the story right, and you become more and more removed from the great pain of what you’re writing about. The fact that people are feeling pain telling the story—all you really want is to direct them to tell the story without a lot of digressions. There’s something very cold about being a journalist. There’s something about being able to herd people where you want them to go. Despite their tears and despite their strain to remember, you’re sort of pushing them. I mean, of course you’re trying to be sensitive to them, and you have to be, but ultimately what you really want is to get them to that place. You want to put them back in time, in a very painful place.
AVC: Sometimes someone will be telling you something very interesting, and there’s a voice in the back of your head going, “I can’t use this.”
JS: Exactly. Because you lose so much time. People will tell you things, and part of you will think, “Oh, this is really interesting” but there’s that other part of you thinking, “This has nothing to do with what I’m doing here right now.” What you realize too is this might be the only time this person’s ever going to tell that particular story, and what you’re doing is just snipping it off and saying, “Too bad, it’s going to be lost forever.” That’s pretty heavy, when you think about it. To be a gatekeeper like that, or to put yourself in the role of being a gatekeeper, there’s a certain arrogance about it. You’ve really got to believe in yourself to do that, and I’m not sure, ultimately, if I have enough belief in myself or even if most journalists have enough belief in themselves to give themselves so much power.
AVC: The counterargument is that if you don’t edit what they say, you’ll end up with a shapeless piece that no one will read, and then you haven’t really done them a service.
JS: I always try to be faithful to what they said as far as it fits into what I’m looking for as opposed to faithful to everything they’ve told me, which might include many different stories that have nothing to do with the matter at hand. You’re right, I mean, ultimately decisions have to be made. Things have to be left on the cutting-room floor that might in and of themselves be really poignant moments in a person’s life or in a nation’s history, but that’s just how it is. So much is lost to us anyway. You try to do your best in those situations. You just try to be true to the story, more true to the story than true to the people. The story you’re telling.
AVC: To go back to that chapter in Footnotes In Gaza, you can’t be true to everyone at once, because not everyone’s version of history agrees.
JS: No, the idea is to give the reader a sense that there are contradictory versions, but you don’t what to overwhelm the reader so much that they lose track of a story you’re trying to tell.
AVC: When you’re drawing, you’re forced to linger on some fairly horrific images. How does that affect your relationship to what you’re drawing, and given that it takes such a long time, does your perspective ever shift during the process?
JS: I think the main thing is to be true to the story. You have to sort of put yourself back in time and inhabit whatever you’re drawing as best you can, because you’ve troubled people to get their story and now you have to put it on paper. Whatever that takes, you just have to do it, and when you don’t feel like it, you have to do it. You just have to get it done, so you steel yourself before you do it, say, “Okay, this is a hard thing.” I mean, drawing massacres is incredibly unpleasant, so you just have to steel yourself for it. Truth be told, especially the last couple of years, especially going over the parts where people are already dead and the women are moving the bodies or burying the bodies—there was a two-year sequence where it was pretty repugnant to go to my drawing table. All the fun that I have in drawing or creating, there’s no fun in creating that sort of stuff. Creating ugly scenes. But you have to be true to it, and without exaggerating anything. You don’t want to show anything as spectacular. Things are basically very squalid. Double-plus no fun, in the words of Orwell.
AVC: Staging atrocities as melodrama can be incredibly repugnant, no matter how sincere the person might be.
EJS: I hate melodrama. Every time someone mentioned an emotional scene, I go, “How can I downplay this?” There are emotional scenes; there’s a scene where a woman is waiting for her badly wounded husband to come back from the hospital, and she sleeps with his bloodied shirt or whatever it was in her pillow. That’s a very emotional scene, but my way of thinking about it is, “Okay, well, if it’s an emotional scene, I’d just better draw it as what it is and not overplay anything.” My goal is not to be sentimental.
AVC: What are you involved in right now?
JS: I’m working on something with the journalist Chris Hedges. We’re doing a book about post-industrial America, basically. There are pockets of America where capitalism has had its full, glorious head, and where the Ayn Rands of this world are stomping around. There’s a guy we talked to in Camden [New Jersey], and I’m working on his story now.
AVC: So the piece you two did in The Nation is part of that project?
JS: The piece for The Nation was a much longer piece that I think got whittled down. I did a lot of illustrations that weren’t used. We actually went back to Camden since that piece. We’re focusing on four places. One of them is Camden and one of them is the mining areas of West Virginia, with its mountaintop removal. And we’re going to be going to a couple of other places in the States also. I’m drawing a lot of landscapes and some comics, and it complements what Chris is doing, which is prose. The story I’m doing is a guy who remembers Camden’s heyday, so it’s a lot about the waterfront and the port and the shipyards and, going down Broadway in the 1950s like American Graffiti. I can’t think of too many countries that squeeze their cities dry and abandon them like that.