Comics From the Front

How Joe Sacco learned to stop worrying and love war

He will show you, in Gaza and Gorazde, people who shiver in sodden and frigid conditions, melt without benefit of summertime shelter and watch as their family and belongings are blown apart by tanks and run down by bulldozers. He will show you Serbian warlords slaughtering thousands over scraps of barren land, old Palestinian women mourning little children, men who can't provide for their families, soldiers dying for not even the hint of a noble cause, governments torturing innocents in the name of nationalism.

"This is not a question of my doing something that's going to change the course of world history," Sacco says. "But I do feel sort of compelled to say something about it because I feel like it's just gonna come down to a worse situation at a point. With Bosnia it's just the idea that there was this mass slaughter in Europe, especially after this whole idea of never again--you know, about the Holocaust--and here we are on some level getting to this point where large groups of people are being massacred. I was infuriated by how the world community, including the United States, just turned it into a humanitarian crisis rather than a political one."

Sacco has a new book out, The Fixer (Drawn & Quarterly), about the man named Neven who, in 1995, guided the cartoonist-journalist through Bosnia for the price of packs of smokes or a nice meal or pair of blue jeans. Neven and other fixers like him were the stories behind the stories sent back from Bosnia back then--the eyes and ears of foreign correspondents who needed to file horror stories from the front lines every day. Some were former soldiers; most were gangsters and thugs. All were profiteering off slaughter. In the book, Sacco returns to Sarajevo to find Neven and find out who he really was--an impossible task among people who did and said anything to live one more day.

A scene from The Fixer, in which Joe Sacco, portrayed at right, goes to Bosnia to find Neven, who will tell him all
A scene from The Fixer, in which Joe Sacco, portrayed at right, goes to Bosnia to find Neven, who will tell him all

It is not enough to celebrate Sacco's work for what it isn't, comic books without superheroes. It needs to be appreciated for what it does: boiling down some complex shit till it looks so horrifically simple. Have you ever wondered just what impact Israel's annexing of territory in 1967 had on the Palestinians living there? Then pick up Palestine's paperback collection, turn to page 181 and meet Sameh, a Palestinian doing social work in a rotting refugee camp in Jabalia. Or find a few pages later the Jewish tourist who feels no guilt: "We won the land in the war!" Or ever wondered about how desolate a city Sarajevo really was during the fighting in the early '90s? Open The Fixer to the spread, early on, of Sacco trundling up to the Holiday Inn, standing on the desolate horizon like the last rotting tooth in a junkie's mouth.

Maybe you think, like the American tourist, he's full of shit--a propagandist spreading a truth but not The Truth. But you can't read Sacco's work without giving just the slightest thought: Wrong has been done here, and what can be done to make it right?

"That makes me feel like, 'OK, the book accomplishes something,'" Sacco says. "Giving you another idea, that's pretty much the idea--just to let people know, at least the people who read the book, that there's something else going on behind the news that these 10-second reports on the news are not telling you. They're not giving you any feeling for what's going on, and I guess the hope is just that there's not just me but a number of people doing this work in other media, and that as a whole it does make some impact on sort of a popular front level. It makes some sort of impact with people so that at least they can question the government or the media. And whether that goes a step further, I don't know."

Sacco is underground cartoonist as documentarian (and activist, maybe), how Robert Crumb might have turned out if his work were about more than a guy with a hard-on for fat chicks. He shows you everything he captured, recorded or recalls during the three years (or so) it takes to complete these collections, during which he might take the occasional trip to some godforsaken land for The New York Times or the other hard-news publications for which he writes and draws.

There will come a time when he can no longer do this--when he turns 50, Sacco believes, he will be unable and probably uninterested to sit in cold places for hours or months, and Sacco will then move to telling, maybe, his own stories. Already he has begun considering his autobiography, a life story told through the music of the Rolling Stones. But first comes Gaza, available in three years, more or less. There are tapes to transcribe, photos to dig through, pictures to draw.

"I think that the special thing that comics have is that they are so accessible," Sacco says of the reasons he chose this as his medium. "It's just hard to interest people in certain subjects. It's hard for me to sit around with people who just don't pay attention to the news and discuss the Palestinian situation. They're gonna listen a little bit to be polite, but in the end they're just gonna want to talk about something else. And with this book I think there's a segment of the audience that says, 'Well, I should have read something about this a long time ago, and this looks really damn easy.'" He laughs. "It's subversive in that way because it's accessible as an object, but what's inside it can be just as brutal or just as deadly as anything else."

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