Following Chris Ware in the Stripped programme at the Edinburgh International Book Festival came the very entertaining and engaging Joe Sacco, creator of numerous critically acclaimed journalist works, including Palestine, Safe Area Goražde, Journalism, and his upcoming The Great War.
After a slightly bloated introduction from Adrian Searle, and noting the brilliant inclusion of a British Sign Language interpreter on stage, I settled down behind many a wine drinker to listen to a creator who is without doubt one of my own heroes. A little surprising for my former classmates who heard me take Palestine to task, but I was a little pleased (okay, a lot smug) to hear Sacco himself make many of the same points about his first work.
Beginning with expanding upon his introduction to Journalism, which collected several of his shorter works and came out last year, Sacco spoke about how he rejected objective journalism outright. “I think there’s a lot of subjectivity in journalism that’s portrayed, put across as objective journalism,” he explained, pointing out that all reporters carry baggage and preconceived notions with them on their journeys, regardless of how hard they may have studied objective journalism.
Asked by Searle whether the inclusion of himself within his works was to signal the inherent subjectivity to the reader, Sacco smiled that “everything was accidental”. Coming from the world of underground cartooning, he was naturally drawn towards creating “first person stories” about his life and experiences, and this was something he continued in his trips to Palestine. As his journalistic impulses kicked in, he began to put together the story journalistically, and with all stories revolving around himself he labelled Palestine as “partly my travelogue, and my experiences”.
While he appeared a great deal in Palestine, Sacco acknowledged that his later work was more sophisticated, concentrating on the characters that he met and using them to build the narrative. In Palestine, he said, “I was the thread through a lot of unconnected stories… [It's] sort of embarrassing to me to look at it now in a way, it’s not well structured.” This was partly due to the serialised nature of Palestine of course, but the differences in Safe Area Goražde, Sacco’s next work, are striking.
In Bosnia, “the town was kind of the character,” said Sacco, adding that the people he met were such very strong characters that he wanted to step back and let them shine, to tell their own stories.
Discussing his drawing, Sacco revealed that he rarely sketched, saying that it was “much more important to talk to people”. The sketchpad would steal their interest and distract them from their story. Sketches were done out of necessity only, like of a checkpoint in Gaza where a photograph would be ill-advised.
One issue that Sacco seemed particularly passionate about was his determination to be unobtrusive. “I don’t leave such a footprint,” he said, “I’d like to think my presence isn’t huge”. He spoke about the issues he managed to avoid, being a cartoonist rather than a more regular journalist, as people would often play up to journalists, particularly to cameras. While he thought there were issues with journalism in general that certainly applied to him as well, Sacco was keen to stress that his way was the slow way, spending real time with the people he interviewed. “I’m not annoying them or forcing myself on them.”
Asked by Searle whether he thought there should be more outrage in the news over the kind of events reported on, Sacco replied, “I don’t know if there should be more outrage for the sake of outrage.” It was interesting to hear that when he met up with other journalists on location, often the stories they told around the table were far more telling than those made to camera or newspaper. These stories involved the journalist personally in some way, and their editors did not want that kind of report – they wanted “the hard news” only. As Sacco said, the journalist “might personally be outraged but be careful about showing that” as there was almost a professional pride in keeping out of the story. Instead their outrage could be felt by the very choice of reporting on that issue.
Speaking about his own studies in journalism, Sacco stated that he had been taught that “the objective way was the right way, and I basically took that on faith”. It was only when news broke of massacres in Palestinian refugee camps carried out by Christian militias (the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres) that Sacco realised the flaw in this kind of reporting. He says that on hearing the news, he thought to himself, “But I thought Palestinians were terrorists, and I was a college educated person!”
While the reporting in the Middle East had indeed covered an objectively true string of stories, the lack of context had painted a very bleak black and white picture. “I didn’t know Palestinians as people reading American journalism,” said Sacco, “I didn’t know anything about them.”
Sacco was quick to state that jumping to the other conclusion was equally unhelpful. “Portraying [the Palestinians] as victims with a capital V, also is dehumanising. You have to see whatever group it is as people.” He drew a line between objective journalism and honest journalism, stressing that whatever you see you should report honestly – even if it it doesn’t line up with your own political viewpoint.
Searle next started to go through some slides of pages from Journalism, with Sacco explaining the context of each image. The first story was about the tunnels in Gaze, a surprising commission from the New York Times. Sacco stated that the editor who suggested it and got it approved was taking a risk, and that he was glad he had – the experience had been pretty good although more than one editor had got involved, leading to one particularly amusing misconception about the purpose of crosshatching: “you’re drawing all these crucifixes in the background, what does that signify?”
Another job for Harper’s magazine had led to Sacco having to redraw his work by removing the human figures (and the human interest) from them, as the editor was “more into landscapes”. So it goes.
Revealing that he was first “drawn to drawing because my mother drew quite a lot” and that in fact his first art prize as a child was down to a drawing by his mother under his name(!), Sacco talked about his story on African migrants in Malta (“my homeland”) as being something particularly close to his heart.
A story on the poverty struck Kushinagar district in India was the result of Sacco, “trying to get away from conflict, but I realised conflict comes in a lot of guises”. Speaking about the real emotional distress of most of his chosen subjects, Sacco stated, “I operate a lot on anger in a way… anger as a constructive force”. But that his ability as an artist helped him stay cool. “For whatever it’s worth, this is when I can do something about that situation. This is when their voices can have some agency.”
“I’m not in a rage as I’m drawing, you can’t be. I’m relatively well adjusted I think!” he laughed. “It’s more anger that gets me to go to a place.” It takes a while of course between being out in the field to putting it all down on paper, with many of his works taking years to produce. Sacco discussed how he is able to absorb a lot and carry that with him, but that after a hundred pages or so he does start to lose the taste and needs to rely more on his photographs. “Everything has a half life, including that sort of memory.”
Sacco’s next book, The Great War, is due out in October and is a huge panoramic fold out of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The entire work is wordless, and as the opportunity came up Sacco felt that “I’d like to do something without words. I just want to draw.”
The panorama is not static, it shows the movements of the troops across the field and Sacco was clear that he had been determined not to overdo the carnage. Instead he was focusing on this “mass human event” that had “mass enthusiasm for it”, a “great human endeavour” for these purposes. “If that endeavour was put into something else, constructive, we might have a better world.”
Sacco paid respects to both the work of Jacques Tardi and Charlie’s War, stating that he had not opened his own volumes of the latter as the art by Joe Colquhoun was “so beautiful, so exact… there’s no comparison”.
Asked about what was coming next, Sacco revealed that he needed to go off in a different direction. He still has an interest in human violence but wants to approach it in a different way, and examine human psychology in order to better understand some of the scenes he’s had trouble drawing in the past.
Answering a question from the audience, Sacco told of how he had initially avoided other journalists after being warned they would not be keen on his line of work. Instead, most have been delighted to find out that he is a cartoonist, and envious that he is able to spend longer in one location to really get into the depths of his story.
While stressing that “every medium has its strengths”, Sacco said that one of the real advantages of the comics medium was the ability to “very seamlessly shift into the past” without the sometimes artificial feeling that dramatic reenactments in historical documentaries provide. “The repeated image,” he added, “allows something to seep into the mind of the reader”. Regardless of what’s happening in the foreground, that repeated background material gives a real sense of place, without being too harsh and obvious.
Addressing his somewhat dorky persona in Palestine compared to the quite handsome and comfortable man on stage, Sacco said that his persona there was a true self-perception of his bumbling self at the time. It was a persona that had softened in later works, as Sacco did not want to depict himself as bumbling when he no longer was. “I upgraded myself!”
One project Sacco has been working on is to do with the early civilisation of Mesopotamia, saying he was fascinated with the question of “how does the state get a person to kill another person?”
Finally, challenged by an audience member on how he avoided crossing the line from honest reporting into fictional embellishments, Sacco was passionate about his stance. “My sympathies are clear at least by what I’m reporting on,” he said, adding that by portraying himself within the stories he was clearly indicating that this work was his own view point. Sacco spoke of the tension between the idea of journalism, representing the facts and the truth, and drawing, which is subjective by it’s very nature – filtered by one person and the choices they make on the page.
Sacco stressed that he uses no composite characters, and strives for accurate quotes. In the end, he said, “I’m trying to present things as honestly as I can”. His chosen medium has allowed him to do just that better than many.
All images from Journalism unless otherwise stated. Top image courtesy of the fabulous Neil Slorance from the joint event with Sacco and Ware last night (I missed this in favour of Only God Forgives with a gal pal, but that image says it all!)
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.