Nobody else does anything quite like what Joe Sacco does, which can make his work difficult to describe to the uninitiated. Cartoon journalism? Too dismissive: Sacco's books are weighty and important, crammed with research and reporting. But they're also fun to read, full of great characters and humor and incredible stories. He visits war-torn lands and reports on them in graphic-novel format; Safe Area Gorazde, his awesome 2000 book about Bosnia,won an Eisner Award, the premier awards of the American comic book industry.
His latest, Footnotes in Gaza, is a massive, exhaustive study of an incident from 1956 in the Gaza Strip in which 111 Palestinians were shot to death by Israeli soldiers. What could've been a long-lost historical footnote becomes, in Sacco's hands, a vivid and immediately relevant story about the heart of the Middle Eastern conflict.
Sacco works more like a traditional newspaper reporter than one might suppose. ("I'm a newspaperman at heart," he writes at one point in the book.) "Mostly what I'm doing when I'm in the field, so to speak, is getting interviews," he explained in a phone interview from his home in Portland, Oregon. "I do very little sketching when I'm there. I'm often taking photographs for visual references." He also asks a lot of "visual questions—certain questions that might seem out of place for a prose journalist." There's a scene in which a group is locked up in a school, for example: "A prose writer could just say, they were held in a school behind barbed wire. When you're going to draw it you have to ask for more details. You really have to think in terms of what you will be drawing later."
The book required extensive research—two long trips to Gaza, once for two weeks and once for two months—and lots of digging around for reference material. He found photographs of the refugee camps in the UN archives in Gaza City, for example. "When I'm there, I'm behaving basically as a journalist," Sacco says. "Then when I'm back I write a script from my notes and tapes." Then the hard part begins.
Footnotes in Gaza took close to seven years: "Two and a half to three months of in-the-field research," he says, "and then the writing took some months and the drawing took some years." Sacco estimates that four years of "very intense drawing" went into the book. Typically, he says, being in the field isn't the bulk of the work: "I spend a lot more time at the desk drawing."
"You have to choose a project that you feel is going to sustain your interest," he says. "I chained myself to the desk and tried not to move from it," he said, "knowing that it would take years."
Spending so much time working in and writing about places defined by bloody conflict can try even the most optimistic soul. It's important, Sacco says, to know when to stop. "You don’t want to start feeling cynical about things. I’ve spent 20 years doing this. . . . It sort of wears on you." But, he says, “I'm not a depressive person. I have a personal life that doesn't rely on my experiences abroad, a rich personal life with good friends and that sort of thing. That helps.”
It also helps that Sacco tends to focus on the big, eternal mysteries of human nature, regardless of where he happens to be working. One of the fascinating elements of Footnotes in Gaza is the way in which he raises the question of the knowability of truth. What really happened in the towns of Rafah and Khan Younis in 1956? Sacco interviews as many people as he can find, sketching each of their earnest, first-hand accounts as they tell it—and then he begins to pick the whole thing apart. Many of the stories don't match up; many of the memories people share with him simply can't be accurate.
"I'm not sure if you end up reconciling it completely," he says. "These are memories that are very old. People can get mixed up even about very recent events." Somehow, seeing each story unfold visually, rather than simply reading about them, makes each one seem unquestionably true, which makes the later corrections profoundly effective: the pillars on which the story stands, as Sacco puts it, crumble beneath you.
"I want the reader to get a taste of how difficult it is to get this information," he says. "I also want the reader to get a sense of how, despite the inconsistencies, the overall arc of the story is the same. I think sometimes there's more veracity in a story that has some kinks in it."
Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.
Author photo credit: Michael Tierney