Joe Sacco, writer and illustrator, born in Malta, raised in Australia and based in America, is a comics journalist who tends to document war from the other side – not the side of the soldiers who do the fighting but of the civilians that the fighting affects. From the complexity of the multi-ethnic Balkans wars that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the Eisner award winning Safe Area Goražde in 2000 to the on-going Israeli/Palestinian conflict first in Palestine in 1996 and then again in Footnotes From Gaza in 2009, his work is grimly non-fiction.
Interviewed by Adrian Searle of Freight Books for the Stripped Bookfest in Edinburgh, Sacco told the near sold-out audience that as a journalist when he visits the places he is writing about he takes time to let his interviewees get used to him – to almost fade into the background. His interest in the situation in the Middle East came from hearing about the 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut during the war in Lebanon, the first time that he remembers hearing the word ‘Palestinian’ mentioned in the American media in any context other than as terrorists. This interest would eventually take him to the Middle East, a subject he would return to many times over the years.
When asked if he sketches on location to back up his copious notes on what he sees and hears, he told the audience that he prefers the speed of taking photos and that people become too interested in him if he sits and sketches when he prefers to be interested in them. However he did tell of an Israeli checkpoint between north and south Gaza that, of course, it was inappropriate to photograph and which he ended up sketching in some detail due to the many times he had to wait in a car to pass through it.
His latest book is Journalism, a large hardback that collects many of his shorter pieces that were done over the years for a selection of magazines and newspapers. These range from his familiar theme of the refugees of war, this time in Chechnya, to the plight of the Indian caste of ‘untouchables’ and, perhaps more unusually for him, the situation in Iraq seen through the eyes of US Marines, highly motivated to defend the USA, and Iraqi National Guard recruits, barely motivated by a pay check. It also shows the immigration problems of black African ‘boat people’ in white European Malta. When asked if he feels Maltese despite living in America he told us that he felt Maltese on account of his Maltese parents rather than from living in Malta or having a Maltese passport. It was his mother than inspired his love of drawing and that when he was young he would copy her drawings.
The next ‘book’ of his due for publication in October is The Great War, an unusual sounding, fold-out, wordless panorama of the events of the first day of the Battle Of The Somme in 1916. Sacco has a long standing interest in the First World War and when asked if he had read Jacques Tardi’s The War Of The Trenches he said that he could never hope to emulate that book and that the other First World War comic strip that he liked was Charley’s War written by Pat Mills and illustrated by Joe Colquhoun. Originally published in IPC’s Battle comic in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he described Colquhoun’s artwork as beautiful and very accurate, so much so that he preferred not to look at it when he was working on his own book.
With The Great War complete he is currently working on a piece on the Srebrenica massacre which returns to his theme of the Bosnia conflict. However he is looking to get away from modern conflicts and is also working on a piece on ancient Mesopotamia about how a state persuades people to kill others than that was inspired by a Mesopotamian victory stele in the Louvre which depicts a mound of bodies. For this his interviewees will be archaeologists and anthropologists rather than survivors.
Sacco’s books are anti-‘war comics’ as opposed to ‘anti-war’ comics, although they are that as well, which rise to the challenge of documenting without being preachy. By his own admission his art isn’t always the most naturalistic but his writing is gripping and his books work best when he includes himself as a character in them, not as a hero but rather as a nerdy-looking, big-lipped caricature of himself, eyes permanently hidden behind round glasses, visiting the places and asking the questions of the refugees and survivors of the conflicts. Indeed, as those who joined the signing queue after the talk discovered, this is the image that he sketches and then personalises for those who are willing to wait in line.
Due to the challenging subject matter of death and deprivation you could never say that you have enjoyed reading Joe Sacco’s books, rather you come away from them knowing that you are much more knowledgeable on the subject and that the time spend reading them was more than worthwhile. His talk at Stripped BookFest was similarly more than worthwhile.
He also appeared the following night in conversation with fellow writer/artist Chris Ware – reviews of that talk are available on the Stripped BookFest Blog by Nicola Love and on the Forbidden Planet International Blog by Joe Gordon.
Joe Sacco’s next event in the United Kingdom will be a talk with newspaper cartoonist Steve Bell at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal on Sunday 20 October 2013. More details and tickets for this event are available on the LICAF website.
This review was first posted on the Stripped Book Fest blog and is re-posted here with full permission.