There's a crowd of frenzied Palestinians running through a labyrinth of armed Israeli soldiers. The refugees' arms are up in surrender; their faces are frozen in fear—some screaming to expose crooked teeth, some cringing and squinting tightly. Lost shoes and bullet casings litter the dirt road beneath them. And a solitary figure lies dead at the center of the page, his brains tumbling out from the side of his head, blood pooling from his open wounds.
"NOW I FEEL I'M GOING TO DIE": Mohammed Atwa El-Najeeli recounts his Rafah survival story for Sacco in Footnotes In Gaza.
Joe Sacco's medium may be the comic book, but there's nothing comic about the Portland cartoonist's depictions of violence in the Middle East. This isn't an issue of Tales From the Crypt or a storyboard image from a forthcoming Quentin Tarantino movie. This is a scene from a half-century old incident that was recounted to Sacco time and time again from aging settlers in Rafah, a refugee town in the Gaza Strip. The Rafah story is one of two "footnotes," as Sacco calls them, that make up the bulk of Sacco's new book, Footnotes in Gaza. The book—Sacco's first release in three years and his first book-length story since 2003's The Fixer—attempts to contextualize the headlines pouring out of the region today by recounting grisly events of the past. The scene described above is actually from the less harrowing of the two stories: In the other, Israeli soldiers enter Palestinian settlements in Khan Younis, pull men from their houses, line them up against a wall downtown and riddle them with bullets in broad daylight.
While the U.N. reported that 275 men were killed at Khan Younis that day in 1956, the details had been lost in the fog of what Sacco refers to as "a remorseless continuum, a historical blur." Neither of these events—which were contested by the Israeli government at the time—had been recorded at any length in the English language until Sacco's investigation.
"There's nobody else like him," says Douglas Wolk, a Portland-based writer widely considered the authoritative American critical voice on comics. "There's nobody else doing what he is doing. He's going into places where people don't tend to go, and he's really interested in finding out people's stories. And then he's really great at telling them."
That's Sacco's job. He interviews survivors of 20th-century conflicts and massacres, then brings the notes, photos and sketches from his encounters back to his home in Portland, where he spends years converting them into graphic novels. It's not a job he trained for, and lately, he's not entirely sure this particular kind of reportage is what he wants to do with his life. But Sacco is undoubtedly the father of contemporary comics journalism.
Actually, he thinks he may have even coined the phrase "comics journalism," he says from a corner booth at Cassidy's in downtown Portland.
"People were asking, 'What are you doing? Why did you do this?' And then you sort of give it a name," Sacco says. "Then the theory follows."
It's not just the phrase he invented. Since Sacco first entered the Gaza Strip in 1991, his career as an unconventional war reporter—he's also bunked in bombed-out homes in Bosnia and suited up with the U.S. military in Iraq—has been something he's defined from scratch and on his own terms.
For a giant in the disparate worlds of comics and journalism, Sacco fits neither stereotype—comics people are supposed to be self-conscious and socially awkward; reporters are supposed to be blunt and rude. But Sacco views objectivity as "absurd notion," and loathes many Western media outlets. ("Americans sort of think that what happened last week is all that matters.") And unlike your average visual artist, he feels at home just about anywhere. "A lot of cartoonists spent a lot of their high-school moments learning how to draw because they were so socially awkward that they had a lot of time to be alone and work on their stuff. I'm not really in that category," he says, insisting that he never actually learned to draw.
Sacco's modesty is matched by his low-key appearance—he's clean-shaven and dresses conservatively, often clad in an earth-toned sweater and scarf. (Emailing from the airport en route to Malta in August, Sacco said he was "wearing something Graham Greene would approve of.") He answers even the clumsiest questions thoughtfully, with a mutt of an accent that has snowballed from Sacco's travels—a bit of New York City here, a touch of German there, and lingering traces of his Australian childhood around every turn—he says "cole" instead of "call," "kahnt" instead of "can't."
Sacco was a world traveler before he had any say in the matter. Born in 1960 in Malta, his father relocated the family to Australia when Joe was a baby. He remembers hearing his parents' tales of World War II bombings over Malta from an early age, and says army men were the only toys that could keep his interest. Sacco's father later brought the family to Los Angeles, and finally Portland, where he found work as an industrial engineer. In 1974, Sacco entered Portland's Sunset High School, where he fell in love with journalism.
He came to fall in love with Portland, too. "I consider myself a Portlander before I consider myself a U.S. citizen," Sacco says now. So after attending journalism school at the University of Oregon ("generally speaking, it was not an inspiring program"), he bounced around before landing in the early '80s at a now-defunct Portland weekly called The Downtowner. "I was a copy editor," he says. "And among other things, I was writing a business column. I knew nothing about business. I was getting press releases and writing them as if I had tips. I thought, 'Jesus Christ, this is not why I went to journalism school.'"
In revolt, Sacco and an acquaintance, Tom Richards, a local writer involved in the Portland stand-up comedy scene, scraped together the money to print a paper of their own. The Portland Permanent Press was a monthly newsprint satire magazine packed with local news-pegged gags (light-rail construction and then-mayor Bud Clark—depicted as a beer-guzzling superhero—being some favorite targets) and off-the-wall cartoons. Its contributors list included talented Portland cartoonists JR Williams and John Callahan, and the paper was hand-drawn right down to the advertisements. The paper was funny, but it was also "a sinking ship, financially. It was 15 months of sinking," Sacco says.
Despite its financial boondoggle, the Press indoctrinated Sacco into the local comics scene and connected him with peers all over the nation. It was at the Press where he first met and interviewed Seattle cartoonist Peter Bagge, a now-legendary figure in the underground comics (or "comix," if you prefer) movement in the '80s. "He had long hair at the time," Bagge says of Sacco. "He was this friendly little hippie. I liked his comics right off the bat. And he's a really funny guy. In person, he's one of the funniest guys I know."
At the time, Sacco's work flirted with serious politics, but focused more on easy gags than serious discourse. In one, "Beiruit Buddies," two Beavis and Butt-Head-esque terrorists use car bombs as a means of attracting girls.
After a year, the Press folded and Sacco relocated first to Los Angeles to write for the Comics Journal (whose publishers, Fantagraphics, would later release much of Sacco's work), and later to Germany where he stayed with friends and stayed afloat by designing album covers and rock posters.
NOWHERE TO BUILD BUT UP: Sacco's depiction of Khan Younis, then and now.
Sacco's first trip to Gaza in 1991 was taken out of equal parts anger and curiosity. He had grown up "absorbing through osmosis this notion that Palestinians were terrorists," he says, but found much evidence to the contrary upon reading about the conflict—and talking with open-minded Europeans during his time in Germany. "I was beginning to learn that I had not found out a damn thing from American journalism," he says now. "It was galling to think that this occupation was going on, funded—directly or indirectly—by the American taxpayer."
So Sacco—who had been writing autobiographical comics for some time—decided to tour Gaza himself, using the money he'd saved from designing album art and posters in Berlin to fund the trip. When he arrived, Sacco says the journalistic instinct kicked in. "I wasn't just talking to people, I was interviewing them—there's a difference." His interviews, sketches, photos and journals would eventually morph into a nine-issue run of a comics series called Palestine, which Sacco's old boss at Fantagraphics, Gary Groth, agreed to publish. "It did not sell well," Sacco says. "It seemed that each succeeding issue sold less. That's kind of what I expected."
But Sacco had stumbled on a style of honest, first-person reportage that would define his career for almost two decades. It wasn't until another of his books—Safe Area Gorazde, which chronicles Sacco's time in war-ravaged Bosnia, was reviewed by The New York Times in 2000 that Sacco gathered widespread acclaim. "Who would have imagined that the best dramatic evocation of the Bosnian catastrophe would turn out to be a book-length comic strip?" the Times' David Rieff noted in his review of Gorazde. And with that came a whirlwind of attention that brought Sacco praise from every direction, recognition that would eventually win Palestine—reissued as a single volume in 2001—an American Book Award.
These days, Sacco's books are taught in college history and Middle Eastern studies courses across the country. North Carolina State history professor Thomas Ort was skeptical when his sister first introduced him to Sacco's work, but upon reading Gorazde, Ort knew he had to use it in his class, Europe Since 1945. "It's just a great way to communicate about this confusing conflict to American undergraduates," he says via telephone. "They love it. It's one of the things I can almost guarantee that everyone will read."
Some of Sacco's appeal is intrinsic to his medium: Comics not only show faces, they link faces directly with English-language dialogue. That's something even a documentary film—which must choose between impersonal subtitles or clumsy overdubs—can't do when the subject is foreign conflicts. In Sacco's comics, angry Arab mobs from the 10 o'clock TV newscasts become human beings. "Why don't they get rid of us in one go?" a resident of a bulldozed neighborhood asks in Footnotes. "It's someone's home, someone's memories, someone's life they're destroying."
Footnotes is Sacco's most focused work to date—evidence that his self-taught style of comics journalism has come of age. Its nearly 400 pages bounce between past and present, with a cinematic pacing and a host of recurring characters. In Palestine, we were keenly aware of the author's presence at all times; we saw the conflict through his eyes. While a cartoon Sacco still lurks in Footnotes (like an illustrated Groucho Marx, our narrator is always depicted in a more cartoony fashion than the people around him), the author has learned to let his subjects tell their stories. Sacco's translator, Abed—we get pieces of his story, too—hovers throughout the panels, but it's the Palestinian people's experiences, not Sacco's, that we come away with here.
Sacco's critical and popular success has led to a number of post-Palestine examples of comics journalism from other authors, but not the flood of titles one might expect. "Journalism is really hard," author Wolk says. "Comics are really hard. It's very rare that you find a person who does even one of them well." Time, Wolk adds, is also a factor. "[Sci-fi coming-of-age graphic novel] Black Hole took Charles Burns 10 years to draw. It's a painstaking discipline. It requires a sort of concentration and solitude, a lot of stuff that's not necessarily compatible with going out into a war zone. I have no idea how Sacco manages to do it."
Lately, neither does he.
Most of Sacco's Southeast Portland bungalow is lined with bookshelves. In his small studio, which looks out over a narrow, dimly lit street, Sacco sips from a tumbler of whiskey while old folk-blues songs play on the stereo. Unfinished illustrations of urban street corners—for a Harper's piece on Camden, N.J.—are spread across his desk. In this room, the books are focused on travel and conflict, subjects Sacco is known for. "That's just this room," he's quick to note. "I have a lot of fiction and nonfiction that doesn't have anything to do with my work life."
Books, Sacco says, along with his close friendships and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend, are how he winds down from work. When conversation turns to the secondhand stress Sacco absorbs when writing and drawing other people's tragedies, he grows slow and thoughtful. "Well, having heard stories and having seen things I've seen [is] no comparison to people who live that reality. There's absolutely no comparison at all."
But Sacco admits to a certain amount of stress, saying particular sounds—sometimes a helicopter or Jeep engine—can trigger images and sensations of the places he's been. The trouble is that his experiences don't end when he gets off an airplane in Portland—Sacco doesn't have time to decompress.
"I often hit the ground running," he says. "When I get back, I'm thinking about getting the story written. I'm trying to write it while it's still in my mind.... But I don't think of it as decompressing, and I'm not sure if I quite…do. There's some purging that goes on when you're actually drawing, which is good. You sort things out."
After finishing Footnotes early this year—he spent four years at literal drawing board—Sacco didn't feel like throwing himself into the next war zone. "I've never felt this way before, so this is something new to me," he says. "I don't want to emphasize that I'm at this weird breaking point, because I'm not…[but] I feel like for the time I want to shift gears."
That shift isn't disconcerting—Sacco will turn 50 next year—but the gradual change in his worldview is more cloudy. "I think I'm personally an optimist; I tend toward that for my own life. But more and more I'm not optimistic about what's going on in the Middle East." He lets out a quick, macabre laugh. "I'm not optimistic at all about what's going on in America."
Yet Sacco, in his travels to some of the world's most oppressed and war-torn places, has always found reasons to keep the faith. "I tend to find decent people wherever I go. I find people who struggle for what they believe in—which isn't a bad thing," he explains. "And people who'll fight for what they believe in—which is sometimes a bad thing, but sometimes it's appropriate.
"In Bosnia I found people who remained very decent people no matter what happened to them.... The sad thing to me is to see people like those thwarted or deterred or crushed. If I ever had optimism about how things could turn out, it's sort of going out of me."
Despite that dimming outlook, Sacco speaks of a responsibility to make things better. "So much of what happens in your life is dependent upon where you're born," he says. "And I don't think it's a good use of your time to feel guilty over where you were born if you were born into a situation that's relatively stable and fine. That doesn't absolve you of the necessity of looking at other people's situations and wondering if [they] can be made better. The problem I'm having now is seeing that the forces against some people are absolutely enormous."
When Sacco embarks on his next project, he says it could be a return to his humorous work ("I always liked it, but I'm not sure anyone else did.") or a theologically themed graphic novel, something he's been considering exploring. A retrospective on the Rolling Stones—Sacco is a huge fan—is reportedly in the works. None of those directions would surprise those who have seen Sacco's early work, but whether a change in direction will be well received is another question.
The new projects don't mean Sacco is giving up the good fight. When asked why he continues his work in the face of impossible odds, he starts speaking quickly and passionately. "If I have optimism about my own work, it's seeing it as a part of a popular front of many different media and people," he says. "It's uphill work.... Maybe you put a little crack somewhere. You never know how these things are going to resonate. So you push, whether you can move something or not."
(Metropolitan Books, 432 pages, $29.95) debuts at local bookstores Tuesday, Dec. 22. Sacco will read from his works at Powell's City of Books at 7:30 pm on Tuesday, Jan. 12.