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.

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