Friday, May 20, 2011


Joe Sacco is a journalist and artist who creates graphic novels based on his own experiences in various areas of conflict in the world. His work is totally unique. Sacco is like a photojournalist who goes into a hot zone, but instead of taking photographs of the situation he creates cartoons and writes the text based on his interviews and interactions with the people in the conflict.

He has a black-and-white pen-and-ink style, that is bold, clear, and incredibly detailed. He does take photographs, and makes sketches and notes as reference for his images. There is an R. Crumb quality to the drawing, and I'm sure Maus by Art Spiegleman and American Splendor by Harvey Pekar were major influences, but Sacco has created his own comic book genre. His work is serious and educational about society and politics, tells both uplifting and tragic stories with great emotional impact, while still containing an element of humor.

Sacco was born in Malta, but eventually came to America and lived in LA and studied journalism at the University of Oregon. Sacco had various jobs and started a satirical, alternative comics magazine in Portland, but he desired to travel and use his writing and drawing skills to create works that were hard-hitting and could make a difference.

Starting in 1988, he chronicled his travels through Europe in his autobiographical comic Yahoo. In 1991, his travels led him closer to the Gulf War and he started to make references to it in his work. 

This led him into a study of Middle Eastern politics, and he traveled to Israel and the Palestinian territories to research PALESTINE which would be his first major long-form work. It was made up of both long and short pieces and serialized as a comic book from 1993-1995 and then published as a collection in 1996 winning the American Book Award.

PALESTINE is based on Sacco's experiences in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the early 1990s. The book emphasizes the history and plight of the Palestinian people. It is presented chronologically from his arrival to his departure, but flashes back to historical events in the conflict. PALESTINE details the everyday life in the occupied territories, presenting the struggles, humiliations, and frustrations of the Palestinians. Most of the scenes are presented as conversations between Sacco and the people he encounters. Sacco is the principle narrator, but at times steps aside and allows the characters to tell their own stories without interpretation. Most of the panels are presented as a side view of the situation, but there are others that present the scene from Sacco's point of view, and still others that take a bird's eye view over places like refugee camps and images of Jerusalem.

Sacco does not position himself as a neutral observer, instead he accepts his role as a westerner going into the Middle East and concentrates on his personal experience in the situation. His goal is to document, but he cannot help but participate and comment on the demonstrations, funerals, roadblocks, and encounters with soldiers that he has. Towards the end of the book he shares food and lodgings with the Palestinians that he meets and even breaks curfew with them while in the Gaza Strip. Although he does have some encounters with Israelis, Sacco admits that he hasn't reflected enough on the Israeli point of view and it would require another trip to present that side of the story. 

Sacco's next project came out of his travels to Sarajevo and Gorazde near the end of the Bosnian War. SAFE AREA GORAZDE, THE FIXER, and WAR'S END all came out of these experiences.

SAFE AREA GORAZDE (2000) is based on Sacco's 4 month experience in Bosnia during 1994-1995. He combines the oral histories of the subjects he interviews with his own observations on the conditions and his own feelings about being in one of the most dangerous places on earth. The book covers the complex history of the conflict as well as documenting the atrocities of ethnic cleansing that take place. The narrative unfolds through the stories of various Bosnians including Edin, a graduate student who was studying engineering in Sarajevo before the breakout of the war.

THE FIXER (2003) centers around a Sarajevan man who having lost everything in the war, sells his stories to Western journalists. Sacco returned to Bosnia in 2001, looking for the only person who still seemed to want to talk frankly about the madness into which the country had descended a few years before. Neven is a hard-drinking army vet, known as The Fixer for his ability to arrange anything for the right price. Sacco and the unreliable Neven take us back through the Balkan nightmare.

WAR'S END (2005) contains two stories - Christmas with Karadzic, about tracking down and meeting the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and Soba, about a popular Sarajevan man who fights against the Serbs.

In 2009, Sacco published FOOTNOTES IN GAZA, which is not a sequel to PALESTINE, but constructed around two forgotten incidents - the 1956 mass killings of Palestinians in Rafah and Khan Younis. The book is huge and digs deep, exploring the relationship of past and present and memory and experience. Sacco shows how elusive memory and testimony can be and the way stories solidify over time.

Sacco has also contributed short pieces of graphic reportage to various magazines and publications. In 2005 he wrote and drew two eight-page comics depicting the events in Iraq for The Guardian. He also produced a 16-page piece in Harper's Magazine in 2007, entitled Down! Up! You're In The Iraqi Army Now. He also was a frequent illustrator for American Splendor and did the cover for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

Friday, May 13, 2011


The Battleship Potemkin (1925) is a masterpiece of early cinema and one of the greatest films of all time. It was directed by Sergei Eisenstein who was a major figure in the development of film language with his emphasis on montage which used an editing technique of quick cutting between shots to establish an emotional impact on the viewer.

The film presents the story of the mutiny that occurred in 1905 when the crew of the Russian battleship Potemkin rebelled against their officers of the Tsarist regime.

The film is composed of five episodes:

1) Men and Maggots, in which the sailors protest having to eat rotten meat.

2) Drama on the Deck, in which the sailors mutiny, but their leader, Vakulinchuk is killed.

3) A Dead Man Calls for Justice, in which Vakulinchuk's body is mourned over by the people of Odessa.

4) The Odessa Staircase, in which the Tsarist soldiers massacre the people of Odessa.

5) The Rendez-Vous with a Squadron, in which the squadron who is supposed to stop the Potemkin declines to do so and cheers on the rebellious battleship.

The Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most powerful scenes in the history of cinema. The Tsar's Cossacks march down a seemingly endless flight of steps in a machine-like fashion firing into the crowds. The victims include the family of an old woman, a young boy with his mother, a young schoolgirl, and a woman pushing a baby carriage. As she falls to the ground the carriage moves away rolling down the steps with the baby inside in the middle of the chaos. This scene also includes the famous close-up of the woman screaming as she is shot in the eye through her glasses. Eisenstein uses his montage technique here to its full effect creating a stunning sequence of great emotional depth. The scene was fictionalized, but based on news reports that the soldiers had fired on the people.

Eisenstein's first full-length film was Strike (1924) and depicts a strike in 1903 by workers in a pre-revolutionary Russian factory. The film is famous for a sequence near the end where Eisenstein cross-cuts the violent suppression of the strike with images of cows being slaughtered. A major theme of Strike and Potemkin is collectivism where the characters work together to make changes in a social and/or political structure.

October (1927) celebrated the 1917 October Revolution and was influenced by John Reed's book Then Days That Shook The World.

All of these early silent, black and white works were propaganda films, but also were important in establishing a film language that used montage as a visual story-telling device to create thought and emotion in the viewer.

In 1930, Eisenstein travelled to Mexico to work on a project with the American socialist  writer Upton Sinclair. The film was never completed because of political and monetary problems, although some of the footage would eventually be released in other forms. During his stay in Mexico, Eisenstein met Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

In 1938, Eisenstein made Alexander Nevsky which was a historical drama depicting the attempted invasion of Novgorod in the 13th century by the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire and their defeat by the Polish people, who were led by Prince Alexander, popularly known as Alexander Nevsky. 

The film was made during the Stalinist era, when the Soviet Union was at odds with Nazi Germany and the film contains obvious overtones that refer to the relationship of the two countries. The film is less experimental in its narrative structure than the earlier films. It tells one story with a single narrative arc and focuses on one main character. 

Sergei Prokofiev composed the score for the film and collaborated with Eisenstein in the editing process, resulting in a match of music and imagery that set a standard for films that followed.

Ivan The Terrible was the final project of Eisenstein. It was slated to be a trilogy, but only two parts were released. Part 1 came out in 1944, but Part 2 wasn't released until 1958 due to political censorship. Part 3 was being shot when Eisenstein died in 1948.

The film presents Ivan as a national hero, as Stalin admired him as a brilliant, decisive, and successful leader. In Part 2, Ivan is depicted less as a hero, and as a man who uses murder to impose his will. This depiction lead to its censorship. After Eisenstein's death, all of the footage from the third film was confiscated and for the most part destroyed.

In the narrative of Ivan, Eisenstein experimented with form and color and used shadows extensively in the symbolism of the film. 

Eisenstein was the father of montage and wrote two books - Film Form and Film Sense, that explain the significance of montage in detail. The Battleship Potemkin was a major influence on many films that would come after, and also on the 20th century British painter Francis Bacon.