Joe Sacco – Master of comics journalism

November 10, 2020

Fantagraphics Books, 2001

Safe Area Goražde – The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95
Fantagraphics Books, 2000

Footnotes in Gaza
Metropolitan Books, 2009

Maltese American Joe Sacco, whose books report from the Middle East and the Balkans, is the contemporary force behind comics journalism, a term he devised.

Starting out in the alternative comics scene in the late 1980s, he traveled to Palestine in 1991, meeting and interviewing people in the West Bank and Gaza. This was the period soon after the First Intifada, a campaign of sustained protests and civil disobedience against the Israeli occupation.

For one chapter of Palestine, Sacco interviewed former detainees from the Ansar III prison camp, the largest prison camp in the world, which holds 6000 men, including boys as young as 16. Found to be in violation of Geneva Conventions, many of the detainees are held for multiple six month periods without trial.

Another section relates stories of arbitrary arrest and torture for being suspected of writing a pamphlet or being a member of a forbidden organisation. The harsh conditions often led to death.

In his introduction to the book, Edward Said wrote: “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco. Certainly his images are more graphic than anything you can either read or see on television.”

In an interview with The Believer, Sacco explained: “There are very few photographs — and we know them well — that capture an exact moment.

“Now, when you draw, you can always capture that moment. You can always have that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised.”

In 1995–96, Sacco traveled four times to Goražde, just as the Bosnian War was ending. This is the area that the Bosnian Serb forces carried out a ferocious campaign of ethnic cleansing against the local Muslim population. When the United Nations finally decided to act, it declared Goražde and other similar areas “safe zones” that were anything but.

Sacco’s research, interviews and experiences there formed the basis for Safe Area Goražde. He describes it as “the story of a town’s near-death [and its] first new steps in the direction of the living”.

In 2001, Sacco travelled to the Gaza Strip, accompanying journalist Chris Hedges on assignment for an article for Harper’s magazine. Footnotes in Gaza is Sacco’s investigation into two little-documented massacres of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers that took place in 1956 in the wake of the Suez Canal crisis.

In the first massacre, in Khan Younis, 275 unarmed men were lined up against a wall and shot; in the second in the neighbouring town of Rafah, 111 unarmed men were shot and beaten to death, in what ostensibly started as a screening operation for guerrillas and soldiers.

Footnotes is Sacco’s most meticulous and historically-focussed work. Using multiple documentary and oral sources, a full picture of events emerges out of faltering memories of 50-year-past events. However, Sacco never tries to disguise the difficulty in reconstructing what happened, nor his own self embedded in the process.

His black and white artwork is dense and at times photorealistic with abundant cross-hatching. Jump cuts forward and back through time show a Kubrick-like mastery of the medium.

Each of these volumes contains hundreds of detailed, recognisable faces. The expressions on those faces reveal not only the sufferings of the worst calamities of history, but also an undeniable humanity.

Reading Sacco is to walk, albeit briefly, in the shoes of those who suffer most from the unjust global balance of power.

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