Comics From the Front

How Joe Sacco learned to stop worrying and love war

Maybe you know the feeling. Maybe it struck you one morning as you stared in the mirror before trundling off to the job you hate, or maybe it hit you so hard one night it woke you from your sleep like a prowler in the bedroom. It's that feeling of: I am useless. I contribute nothing. My life has no meaning. And what do you do about it? Probably nothing, because you're frightened of quitting the paycheck, of uprooting the life that's taken root deep in the soil, of stepping into the void where comfort is as foreign an object as a moon rock. So you live the life of resigned discontentment and pray for the opportunity that knocks on the door of your neighbor.

Joe Sacco once felt as though his life had no meaning. His were jobs built on the gray foundations of tedium and lethargy. In the 1980s, he held the position of associate editor for a publication run by the National Notary Association, where he spent a year writing about notaries--a subject about which he knew, and cared, nothing. He had received a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1991 and needed the gig, though not enough to soak his soul in formaldehyde. Among his other jobs: writing about advertisers for a Portland city magazine, chronicling First Amendment issues for The Comics Journal, running his own humor publication with a pal in Portland. Not bad gigs, in all. Just not good ones, either.

What he came to realize was that nothing "kicked him in the gut" till he decided to tell the story of Palestinians living, just barely, in the refugee camps along the Gaza Strip, described by the late Palestinian-American critic Edward Said as "the national Inferno." Sacco was traveling in Germany in 1990 when he became obsessed with trying to reconcile the demonization of the Palestinians with their status as a demoralized, defeated people living in horrific conditions under Israeli rule. He read books and newspaper accounts and couldn't get his mind and heart around the subject: Palestinians, he had long been told, were murderers and suicide terrorists, but how could this be true when they were merely trying to survive amid such terrible human-rights violations?

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

So Sacco packed his bags and for two months in 1991 and '92 lived among the Palestinians of the occupied territories and returned with notes and tapes and photographs. The result was nine issues of, of all things, a comic book titled Palestine, which Sacco did not know if anyone would even publish. It didn't matter. He had gone to Israel because he had to; all else were pointless considerations. When he did find a publisher, Seattle-based Fantagraphics, Sacco found himself as a rare, almost inexplicable breed of storyteller: the comic-book journalist who interviews dozens of people for hundreds of hours, takes thousands of pictures and walks countless miles through pock-marked battlefields and villages laid waste by bombs and death squads.

"It's not that I have some grand strategy about how all of this works or how it all works to better any situation," Sacco says from his home in Portland. He was born in Malta in 1960 and raised in Australia, and his voice contains soft, feathery remnants of an Australian accent. Sacco has often lived out of packed bags in Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy. He has returned to Malta to visit the homeland and been to Berlin to roadie for a punk rock band. And for the past decade, he has lived among the ruins of Palestinian settlements and Bosnian villages, where people live long enough to tell Sacco their stories, which he can put into his little comic books and share with people who would otherwise forget about them altogether. In 1995, Sacco traveled to the villages of Eastern Bosnia while the war there still trembled like aftershocks. He found himself in Gorazde, one of the so-called safe areas where some of the worst ethnic cleansing had occurred; Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 was published by Fantagraphics in hardback in 2000.

"Now, it's more a question of personal compulsion to do something about it," Sacco is saying, taking a break from transcribing hundreds of hours of tapes for his next book, about Gaza. "If I didn't do it, I would have a hard time just looking at myself in the mirror. There are just times I wake up and I think, 'If I do not go to this place, then I'm not going to be satisfied with myself.' I know I would have been a coward, and I mean not just physically but morally. It sounds, maybe, a little pretentious, but that's kind of how I look at it."

You may know of Bosnia from CNN, may have heard of the Gaza Strip from a TV report. But what, Sacco wants to know, do you know of the people who live there? What do you know of how their homelands became hellholes? What do you want to know? He will tell you. He will show you. He will guide you through the minefields. Joe Sacco is the one in his comics with the Coke-bottle glasses and the buzz-cut hairdo and the Mick Jagger lips--the Ugly American who makes nothing look pretty.

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.

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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