The AV Club interviews Biblioklept fave Joe Sacco, whose books Palestine and Safe Area Goražde should be required reading for any thinking person. Sacco explores some of the messiest, ugliest terrains in the world, plumbing disaster and war with heart, wit, and insight (read our post on Sacco for more, including links to shorter works). From the interview—
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.
Joe Sacco’s comic book journalism captures the human elements in disaster, bringing the world’s worst phenomena–war, political oppression, genocide–into a perspective that the average American can understand. Although I was certainly old enough to follow media coverage of the Bosnian War in the nineties, I didn’t really have any clue as to what the whole thing was about until I read Sacco’s alarmingly real Safe Area Goražde, a masterpiece of graphic journalism that puts a human face on planned extinction. Ditto for Palestine, a work detailing Sacco’s years in the Gaza Strip, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestine distills an ancient and ungraspable conflict into a series of frames, images, faces, and words that becomes somehow easier to confront. Palestine certainly can’t explain the incursions and the stone-throwing and the land grabs and the refugee camps and the food shortages and the torture and the kidnapping–it doesn’t even try–but it does make these abstractions thoroughly concrete.
Sacco is by no means an impartial, objective observer–he eats and lives with the people he’s writing about, and appears in all his stories as a character. Some of the most poignant moments in Sacco’s work concern simple pleasures–like watching bad action movies on pirated VHS or sharing fresh coffee with a new friend–set against a backdrop of disaster. Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Sacco’s comics work as an education in both politics and the humanities. Highly recommended.
Check out Sacco’s recent comics on Iraq, downloadable as pdfs–Trauma on Loan and Complacency Kills.
Also available online in-full, The Underground War in Gaza, originally published by The New York Times Magazine in 2003.