When the opportunity arose to see Joe Sacco at ALOUD, the author program at the Los Angeles Central Public Library, I jumped at the chance. I had recently gotten into cartooning myself, and for someone who is new to the genre, Joe Sacco is a sort of rock star in alternative comics. He started out with an autobiographic series called Yahoo, which brings to mind the comics of R. Crumb during the 60s. In his book, Notes From a Defeatist, you ﬁnd some of the most experimental, stream-of-consciousness black and white comics of the time [‘88-‘92]. In the same series, Sacco started moving towards comic journalism, with a story about his mother’s war-time experiences in Malta. You notice how he captures the reality of the situation with journalistic accuracy, while the drawing is meticulous and beautiful. He followed with his ﬁrst published book, Palestine, which won the American Book Award in 1996. Same devotion to story and drawing, but now not so beautiful, now more ruthless and brutal, about war and occupation. From there Sacco traveled the world, gathering stories of the dispossessed, with his own character, Joe Sacco, taking us into unknown territory to see what he sees. So one must ask, is what Sacco does, by inserting himself in the story, his story too? And if so, is this work memoir too?
We talked by phone in December. I must admit I was nervous, but more than curious about how he went about his craft.
CH: So I guess the ﬁrst question I want to ask is why do you draw yourself the way you do? The other night, when I saw you read, I thought Gene Yang [the graphic novelist who shared the program] was you because of the way you portray yourself on the page [thinner and taller, behind opaque glasses.]
JS :That’s good, because he’s much better looking than me! [laughs]
CH: Well that’s the thing. You appear almost hapless in Palestine, but in reality you’re ready to go into Jenin [West Bank] right after three Israeli soldiers are killed. My thought was, he knows what he’s doing: he’s on it!
JS: Well not always, in that case I had to push myself; I was actually pretty scared. Part of the reason I draw myself in the way I do is because I started out drawing in a pretty cartoony fashion. I never studied ﬁgure drawing or anything like that. When I started drawing the comic series that became the book Palestine, I was drawing in that fashion, especially in the beginning. At some point I realized if this has any pretense to being a journalistic work I had to draw things more realistically, which isn’t natural for me. I put a lot of effort into it. If you look at the series as it progresses, it becomes more realistic as far as the people go. Look at the ﬁrst 24 pages; there’s a big difference between [those pages] and the last 24. I tried to lose the cartoony thing as time went on, and tried to draw people more realistically.
Later I was asked, why did you draw yourself that way. My own character was the last thing I was thinking about changing. I never even thought about it, but in some ways, the way that character looks is how I was feeling about myself at the time. It’s not literally true, but more essentially true. That bumbling character was really afraid, not knowing what was going on. If you look at later work of mine, I’m still kind of cartoony, but much less so. In Footnotes in Gaza, I don’t show myself as befuddled in that same way, because I wasn’t feeling that way. I was more seasoned as a journalist and understood what I was doing a lot more. So there’s a difference that’s reﬂected in how I draw myself, subtle as it may be.
CH: In Palestine you say, “No one who knows what he comes here looking for leaves here without having found it.” I wondered if that was your experience in covering conﬂict, and the reverse, if you don’t ﬁnd the story you’re looking for, what do you do?
JS: What I meant by that phrase is if you come looking for signs of brutality in the occupation you’ll ﬁnd it. If you come looking for the beautiful Israel, the country that grew very quickly in a very modern way, that you relate to as a Westerner, you’ll ﬁnd that too. If you come to ﬁnd the religious experience of the Holy Land, you’ll ﬁnd that. It’s very possible to ﬁnd what you’re inclined to ﬁnd.
In Palestine I had some idea of what the occupation was going to be like. A lot was conﬁrmed by my reading and study, but it was still exploratory. In Footnotes in Gaza, I was very much honing in on two incidents. I made three trips to the area, so I knew what I was going to get at the end of it.
CH: Do you consider your writing and art equally, and how do you separate them when you’re doing a book?
JS: I used to think of them as separate things. I used to think of myself as a writer trapped in a cartoonist’s body [laughs].
CH: Well, you have the perfect body for it! (Did I just say that out loud?)
JS: Thank you. [laughs]
CH: (Oops. I guess I did.)
JS: (continuing)… But as far as separation, what I do is write a script beforehand. My work is nonﬁction so I know where it needs to go and I know what I need to cover. I don’t want to lose anything. Then after the research, the travel, the transcribing, I start drawing.
When you’re drawing, something else kicks in. That’s when you start weaving writing and drawing together. Because you’re incorporating the words, the two get melded in a way where you can no longer separate them. Often you’ve written something and you realize while you’re drawing, I don’t need to write that—I can draw that. You try to edit out words when pictures can sufﬁce, or rely on words when it’s more important to ﬂesh things out than to make the reader guess from a drawing what’s going on.
CH: You started out as a cartoonist but you’re an artist….
JS: Well, I prefer cartoonist, because when I think of artist I think of ﬁne art. I think of a very stodgy world where you’re writing statements, you have a gallery, it’s just a different kind of air you’re breathing. Cartoonist always seems looser and funnier, it sounds like you’re not taking yourself so seriously [laughs] … but I do want to emphasize, at this point in my life, I don’t think I would be a good writer. I think of everything in terms of drawings and words together.
CH: So, you couldn’t be just a writer if you were to attempt, say, a memoir?
JS: I’d think about it in a different way. There are so many things that come with cartooning and words. Even where I’m placing the words on the page has meaning to me. It’s not just a matter of putting a block of text on an illustration. You’re thinking of the movement of the reader’s eye when you’re doing something like that: how this thought-bubble or this balloon with words in it will lead to this other balloon. What’s that going to do to the reader’s sweep of the eyes? What’s going to be drawn on that sweep, and what’s going to add to it or be a counterpoint to it? In other words, text and drawing really are melded.
CH: You place yourself in your stories behind other people, or as the observer, but you’re not the center of attention. And I suppose that’s purposeful.
JS: With my journalistic work I put myself in the story. That happened almost accidentally. I started out doing autobiography in the Yahoo series, so when I started doing my journalistic work I didn’t really think of it strictly as journalism. In fact, that word wasn’t so much in my mind. I was thinking of what I was doing was more like a travelogue or just my experiences in the Middle East. I thought I would basically show myself and the people I met and what I found out there. But because I had studied journalism years before [Sacco has a degree in journalism], that kicked in, and I began treating the work itself more journalistically. I wasn’t just talking to people, I was talking notes, I was interviewing them.
Because I thought of it as my experiences in the Middle East I drew myself naturally. When it became clear [Palestine] was going to be more of a serious journalistic piece, I kept my character in. In a way that was good. It was an accidental thing, but it clued in the reader that this was a subjective work. That if this was journalism, it was journalism as seen through my eyes. I wasn’t going to pretend to be objective.
Obviously in Palestine, I’m more of a character. I’m the main thread, the only real character, throughout. In my other work, from Bosnia [Safe Area Gorazde] and Gaza, [Footnotes from Gaza] I’m still a character, but the people around me are such strong characters and much more important to the story. I’m there to receive. If I use myself, it’s more to say something about their lives. What I’m not afraid of doing is being part of the story— but not much of me is revealed in the story. It’s more about telling something about these other characters’ lives.
For instance, in Gorazde, I was in an enclave [in Bosnia] and being used to take packages and letters between people. Now I didn’t put that in there to be the center of the story. It tells something about the lives of people when I’m being used to deliver letters between husbands and wives who haven’t seen each other in years because of war. It’s a way of telling their story. In other words, I don’t cut myself out to spite my face. A lot of objective reporters won’t even report on that stuff.
My main objective is if someone sits down to dinner with me and asks what’s it like to be in Bosnia, I tell them. I use myself to tell those stories. Those are the best stories. Journalist don’t do that. They cut out the best [parts], and I wonder why? You’re a foreigner negotiating in a strange place where they don’t know who you are, and that interaction between community and a foreigner is always the most interesting. So why cut that out? That’s what people want to know.
CH: It seems you’ve made your mark doing those kinds of stories…
JS: Well, it’s not traditional journalism.
CH: But what makes you do that kind of work, going into such deep waters?
JS: What makes me go to these places? It’s a kind of compulsion, because there are things wrong in this world and it matters what happens on the other side of the world. It matters what happens down the street. It’s all part of one thing to me. It’s a matter of social justice and outrage. I’m usually outraged by what’s going on. I’m not going for the sound of gunﬁre. In fact, I’m usually turned off by that kind of thing. There’s an attraction to being a journalist. You want to see everything and you want to be where everything’s going on. And I do feel that when I’m there. But mostly, what I feel is I just want to get these people’s stories across. Most of my work is about after-effect, after-effect and memory, and people just telling their stories.
CH: What’s in you that drives you there in the ﬁrst place?
JS: Honestly, it’s partly from studying journalism. Its partly feeling that at some point that the objective style of journalism [I studied] had made me see the world in the wrong way.
I grew up thinking that all Palestinians were terrorists. That wasn’t through any particular study, but by osmosis through the news media. I was out of college, and [the ﬁrst time it hit me] was the Shatila Massacre in Lebanon, in ‘82. Do you remember? It was done by Christian allies of the Israelis. [Up to 2000 Palestinian refugees were killed in the Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps]. The Palestinians were supposed to be terrorists, but why were [refugees] killed? I began to think, well, what is going on in the Middle East that I don’t understand? I began to study the issue and read about it. Then I realized you can tell facts about a situation—a bus was attacked by Palestinian guerrillas, an airplane hit, a car hijacked—you can tell these things that are objective facts, and not give context. Not give other facts, and not present a complete picture. That was a real shock to me because I thought journalism was one of the great professions. One where you were getting at the truth.
But the truth was, that way of studying journalism had led me down the wrong way. These people, ostensibly my peers, had given me wrong information. And maybe they didn’t even know they were giving the wrong picture, all they’re doing is reporting, and maybe not reporting on everything; maybe their editors are quashing [their stories]. You realize objective facts alone do not tell the story. Or do not necessarily tell the story. And it pissed me off. I was just angry when I put it altogether.
After this epiphany [in ‘82], it took years of researching and living in Europe where people were telling me things I had never heard before. So little by little I began to understand. It took a long time before I got to the point where I said I need to see it for myself.
CH: So you went [to the Middle East] by yourself with this urge…
JS: With the urge to talk to Palestinians. I thought I’ll try to ﬁnd out what’s what, and write or draw about my experiences, but it became much more. It became about getting their voices across.
CH: Did you think it would change people’s opinions?
JS: That never was part of it. It was something I had to do. I had to see for myself. I had to learn for myself. I had to conﬁrm for myself what I thought from what I had been studying. Then I began to think I should tell the story this way so more people would understand it. Ultimately, though, all my work is about what I need to do for myself.
CH: But, you try to make it accessible.
JS: As accessible as possible. Whether it changes one person’s mind or one million, I don’t know. I don’t have any great hopes for changing the world with my books. But you realize it’s part of a popular front, not just my work, but ﬁlmmakers, photographers, other artists, other journalists with a head on their shoulders. You’re part of something that’s trying to make sense of what’s going on. Not everyone is paying attention, but you can’t think of that, you can’t think of what impact this is going to have. That’s outside your control.
I don’t think of myself as a war correspondent. I know some of those people and they’re really brave, but they’re on a treadmill. I’ve had enough [of reporting conﬂict]; it’s actually harder drawing conﬂict than reporting it.
CH: What are your plans then? Any new directions?
JS: The Great War [Sacco’s most recent book, consisting of 24 consecutive scenes of the WWI Battle of the Somme] signals some new direction. It’s more along artistic lines. It was a way of freeing myself up to explore things I hadn’t explored in a long time. But I’ll still be doing journalism. I love that, but it will be journalism about other things: indigenous peoples’ rights, climate change, extraction of resources from the earth. I’m also working on a political satire, some things that are downright humorous!
CH: You do have a really good sense of humor.
JS: Well, I hope so.
CH: Thank you, Joe!
I did get around to asking Joe about graphic novelists he likes: He cited Chris Ware’s Building Stories, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi.
The Interviewer: Charlotte Hildebrand is a writer and illustrator living in Los Angeles. In the past few years, her work has turned (for better or worse, depending on where you’re coming from) towards street art, featuring her signature wheatpastes, as seen on walls around northeast LA. In 2013 she took part in exhibits at Occidental College, Cypress Village Tunnel Art Walk, and at pehrspace. Recently she took part in her first zine festival, at the Eastside Zine Market, showing work that featured her stories, comics and visual art. (She sold 5 zines!) Charlotte’s work can be found at: charlottehildebrand.blogspot.com and ratsnestcomics.blogspot.com.