Over the last two decades, Joe Sacco has helped invent a new genre: comic-book journalism. He’s reported from Sarajevo and Gorazde during the Bosnian War and from the Palestinian Territories during the two Intifadas. His first book is Palestine, and after a number of years reporting from Bosnia, Sacco returned to Palestine and the result is Footnotes in Gaza.
A lot has been said about Sacco’s work. He has received praise for his work, but once you reread his books, you cannot but feel there is no praise that can truly point the readers to the subtle qualities of his books. An essay long introduction to Palestine by Edward Said shows more than any review or a scholarly article all the feelings and thoughts Sacco is able the produce in the reader. Said becomes overtly emotional even though his academic style remains sharp. This, to me, signals a true and engaged reader whose erudite response is inextricable from the emotional impact the book has on him.
It may be an old cliché that war stories are best told with a doze of humour, but from my own experiences from the aggression on Bosnia, and from my own writing about war, I feel that is true. The fact that an author can see what is bizarre and amusing even in the most horrible of situations signals to me a form of intimacy with the material, and a good sense of oneself, a self-distance. Sacco is often making his own persona funny, or even ridiculous at times, but it never feels artificial. Take for instance the scene in which a Palestinian man keeps asking him about the point of his work, the significance of reporting from Palestine, because, according to the man, all the articles in the world have helped no one. Sacco is so aware that he is reporting in a particular form of comics, an art that could only guarantee ridicule. It is the potency of Sacco’s work that turns the tables and makes the comic genre more serious than any conventional documentary.
Speaking of humor, a lot of scenes from Palestine, as well as his other books, are both funny and gut wrenching at the same time. Chapter 4 begins with a big drawing of a camp and the following text:
“The way Palestinians talk about prison, it ain’t normal … I’m not saying they enjoy a long stint behind Israeli barbed wire, but i’m hardly going out on a limb to say that usually they appreciate it, that sometimes they savor it, and that always it’s a distinction … and with 90,000 arrests in the intifada’s first four years, it’s all but impossible not to sit beside a prison or jail story in the taxies and tea joints … and in the universities and refugee camps I’m numbered by so many accounts of incarceration that the sort of thing that raises my brow is a male in his mid-20s who hasn’t been arrested, I want to ask him why the hell not?”
On the next page, Sacco meets a man who introduces his daughter to him, and says her name is Ansar, and Sacco writes, “And her father didn’t have to tell me if or where he’d done his time ‘cose there’s a prison in the desert called ANSAR III.”
Footnotes in Gaza is Sacco’s attempt to delve back into history of the region and explore the marginal elements of history, the marginalized but in fact the most important. He writes (on a picture of a city surveyed by helicopters): “Footnotes are inessential at best. At worst they trip up the greater narrative. From time to time, as bolder, more streamlined editions appear, history shakes off some footnotes altogether. … History chokes on fresh episodes and swallows whatever old ones it can. The war of 1956? Hunh?”
Sacco interviews as many survivors as he can find. Some have their memories more or less intact. Some have been so traumatized over the years, like an old woman in black, that they remember events and fragments but cannot place them neatly on the timeline. Sacco shows everything, no just what the people tell him, but hos they feel, how they behave while recounting their pasts. If he is focusing on a single event, for instance the 1956 events when Israeli soldiers announced that all men of military age assemble and go to a local school, Sacco find many witness, and even though there are smaller deviations in their stories, their memories of details not always the best, Sacco relates both the things they all agree on as well as the differences. On the way to the school the men are beaten, shot at, and it all finishes with the infamous school gate, where the men must enter like cattle and where they are met by 3-4 soldiers with bats who hit as many as possible. Some people remember barbed wire and some do not. Some remember a ditch. Some may have jumped over it without noticing it, having dodged the bats and running into the yard as fast possible.
Footnotes from Gaza manages not only to relate both the present and the past, but more importantly the relations between now and then. Not every Palestinian has the same feelings about the past. Not every person feels same events are equally important to tell. A former fedayee wants to tell a chain of events unrelated to what Sacco is asking him to relate. Some younger people do not care about the past. Sacco goes back and forth, creating a brilliant narrative that does not rely on linearity but follows human sentiments as well.
Sacco’s portrayal of individuals is amazing. There are dozens of characters and every single one of them leaps off the page in his or her particularity. When we speak about people who have suffered or people who have been militants, we tend to speak about them very much in general terms, creating an abstract mush, easily accepted or refuted. Sacco does not allow us to do that. There are hardly any people that are no given full individual attention. We hear as many different views on the occupation and the possibilities of coexistence and the means of struggle as there are characters in this book. Take for example the man who paces in front of his house in Rafah chasing off occasional militants who are hiding behind it. The militants use it as a cover, they just happened to be there, but he is not with them, and he knows the Israeli’s will take that as an excuse to bulldoze his home. Sacco portrays a bitter man who is trying to protect himself from both Israelis, journalists, militants and anyone else who can harm his family even indirectly. Sacco writes: He’s wound up, pacing back and forth. For the photographers his house is an image. For the militants it’s a cover. For the internationals it’s a cause. For the bulldozer operator it’s a day’s work. But for him? I want to have a word, human to human. I put away my notepad and walk up. He shakes my hand reluctantly. But he won’t look me in the eye. Or talk. He knows it’s rubble that’s brought me too” (191).
I have always been amazed at the fact that Sacco manages to portray all the people he meets so realistically despite the comic elements of his medium. At one point, reading Palestine, I was skeptical whether or not its portraits were really particular or influenced by his chosen medium, but having read his work on Bosnia, Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer, and being Bosnian myself, I find the comic book medium quite perfect for this type of journalism. To me an important trait a journalist must keep, and Sacco is one of the few who have it, is not to take oneself too seriously. The bulk of journalism does not only report events but always also the grand import of the very profession. Sacco consistently downplays his own importance. He highlight his character as someone who is far more privileged than the people he visits for a few months, people who live in those circumstance for year. He cannot but be humbled even when he makes himself appear arrogant. It is for this reason that he can capture the life in his subjects. I can see the people’s complexities, shown to me in every parts of the project. Sacco does not easily move into abstractions, making sweeping gestures. He is honest about how he feels about things and that he is indeed affected by everything to the extent that he cannot always be the perfect ear, the most emphatic man in the word, as for instance when he is irritated by the fedayee who refuses to tell him about 1956 and veers off to tell about other things. This is particularly true when it comes to the youth, the children that keep pestering him with question he does not want to answer. And wherever he goes, he is sure to attract groups of kids and he is very pleased when he can shake them off without too much hustle. He does not want to get angry, so he is quite pleased when his Palestinian colleagues shoo them away.
On a final note, if you have not read Sacco before, do not expect to flip through the hundreds of pages the way you would flip through a typical comic book. I usually feel I need to take a break after a few short chapters because they are quite packed, not only with plain information and facts, but incredible emotions. Reading his work, I feel I want to dwell upon everything and not slant anything. The books do not let you read them quickly and then forget. They teach you to read slowly and carefully, and move slowly through history, noticing the margins, the footnotes, and not only the spectacular and grand.