A break from the norm

by Joe Sacco

This is an unusual, interesting, informative but potentially inflammatory work from journalist Joe Sacco. It’s an account of two months spent in Palestine (and occasionally Israel) in 1991–1992, told in graphic novel form.

It’s an interesting idea, this “comic-book journalism” and one that has won Sacco awards, including the 1996 American Book Award for this work. He’s an intelligent man, from what I can tell, and Palestine is a difficult situation that could potentially be too complex or political and therefore dull to many readers. This book is certainly not dull. It’s political, sure, but also moving, graphic, disturbing and compelling.

As journalism goes, this isn’t the third-person, bias-free, author-free account you might expect. The book stars Sacco, following his time in Palestine, his interviewing technique, his thoughts, fears, boasts and worries. Sacco does not do himself favours in his self-depiction. Comic-book Joe is both physically and at times morally unattractive. He admits to craving sordid details that will enliven his journalism. He pushes interviewees for the most disturbing stories and shows little emotional reaction while his translator or host is weeping at what they have heard. He also, unusually for an American, places himself solidly on the Palestinians’ side.

Now I’m not sure if this is a position he took in retrospect, after spending months in Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem. He certainly went there with the intention of getting the Palestinian side of the story, because the US tends to only ever hear the Israeli side. It’s a reasonable background to have for his trip. And he clearly knows that he comes across as biased because toward the end of the book we see him spending time with two Israeli women and failing to engage with their arguments. But it did at times make me feel uncomfortable. Very few of the characters he meets are blameless. Yes, the small man on the street, even the soldiers, are ultimately in thrall to what the politicians do or say, but when everyone is throwing stones…who is innocent?

I don’t know a great deal about this situation, a situation that started long before I was born and continues now. I know a lot more than I did before I read this book and I feel both incensed and helpless. Because so many people are trying, have tried, to help. The events of this book happened 20 years ago and it still goes on; people still die, are thrown in jail, live in abject poverty.

Sacco’s artwork is excellent. He draws in black and white, packing in the detail, with lots of big half-page or full-page scenes. He recounts atrocities without getting too graphic, tending instead to concentrate on what he himself saw – one room after another full of people telling him their stories. Which sounds dull. Luckily his humour, in addition to further details from his trip (hazardous roadtrips, riots, menacing soldiers in the street) and the occasional depiction of a story he is being told ensure that this book never gets boring. It is genuinely gripping, in part because from what we learn it seems likely that some of the people we meet will not survive until the end of the story.

I do have a couple of gripes. In a few places early on, Sacco packs a lot of text in to contextualise. Which is necessary and helpful but it’s visually offputting, because to retain the comic-book feel without having many or any pictures he presents the text in various skewiff, haphazard arrangements, sometimes hard to follow. And these are historical events being described which I felt could have been, maybe should have been, illustrated.

Secondly, there’s no real narrative arc. It’s just Sacco’s time in Palestine start to finish. Except not quite because a couple of times he breaks from chronological order to talk about something thematic. But there’s no lessons learned, no how it affected or changed him, no “this is what I’m going to do now I’ve seen what’s happening for real”. Maybe that can’t be helped. If all the world’s politicians can’t figure out what to do then why should I expect an American journalist to have the answers? But somehow I did. The closest he comes is to quote one (Israeli) man he met in Jerusalem:

“Ultimately I don’t think peace is about whether there should be one state or two. Of course that issue is important, but what is the point of two racist states or one racist state…or one racist state dominating another? The point is whether the two peoples can live side by side as equals.”

Of course, what Sacco did was to write and draw this comic series, to spread the word about what life is like in Palestine, what really goes down day-to-day. That’s what journalism is about and it’s an important role. He actually went back and produced a sequel to this, Footnotes in Gaza, in 2009. I definitely want to read it. And that’s saying something. This is not an uplifting read and I don’t expect the sequel to be, but it’s enlightening and if there’s one thing I read for, it’s to be enlightened.

First published as a nine-issue comics series in 1993–1996. Reissued as a single volume with a new introduction in 2001. Published by Fantagraphics Books.