Joe Sacco and Palestine

Sacco in Iraq in 2005 with the 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines inside the Haditha Dam – CC BY-SA 3.0

Comic artist Joe Sacco’s work has reached millions of readers for the past thirty years or so because his descriptions of wartime scenes, from Gaza and the West Bank to the Balkans, have so effectively captured the voices of those struggling to survive. Famously and notoriously, he has planted himself on the scenes, interviewing, observing and sketching. Comics scholar Hillary Chute, in her Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form, has placed him alongside Goya and Art Spiegelman, among others, in the depiction of civilian suffering amidst brutal warfare. Readers watch him in his books wondering to himself if the stories he is told and the view of things he takes in can really be trusted. He’s very much an oral historian as artist, quizzical and even self-doubting.

And now he is very much back in the news. Palestine, a volume created from his 1990s visual journalism and first reprinted in 2001 with a stunning introduction by Edward Said, has never stopped selling. And for good reason. There are so many stories in its 285 pages that the sheer detail is staggering. The stories are told straight-faced, despite Sacco’s occasional interjection of his own opinions. No one could say that he romanticizes Palestinians and their suffering. Indeed, again and again, the male ethos of male protagonists, young or old, comes out worst, an uncomfortable and sometimes murderous macho that results only in making the victims’ cause into something less supportable. Like Maus in this respect (but without Art Spiegelman turning the humans into animals of his own creation), Palestine is a comics document of stunning significance: it reveals what comics might do, rising a thousand miles above what most American adults, among others, have thought fo comic art, even the comic art that adults used to enjoy on the Funny pages.

From its publication, Palestine could be found in any comic bookstores in many parts of the world, with multiple translations. European shops, to take an example, for decades carried among its American artists only Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, and old hippie favorite Gilbert Shelton… and Joe Sacco, the adopted American raised in Gibralter. These days, to no surprise, the US edition is flying off the shelves, as its publisher, Fantagraphics, recently announced with understandable fanfare. The horrors of Gaza today look like an intensified version of yesteryear, and his version drawing, decades ago) has stuck home to a new generation of comic readers. It also seems to have struck, with new force, those closer to scholars and readers of his own generation, now coming to terms with the artistic and even scholarly significance of his work. The strength of this remarkable appeal goes back to what the great cultural scholar Edward Said wrote, in his introduction to the 2001 edition published by Fantagraphics:

“Without losing the comics’ unique capacity for delivering a kind of surreal world as animated and in its own way as arrestingly violent as a poet’s vision of things, Joe Sacco can also unostentatiously transmit a great deal of information…Nowhere does Sacco come closer to the existential lived reality of the average Palestinian than in this depiction of life in Gaza…Joe the character is there sympathetically to understand and try to experience not only why Gaza is so representative a place in its hopelessly overcrowded and yet rootless spaces of Palestinian dispossession, but also to affirm that it is there, and must somehow be accounted for in human terms. “ (Iv-v).

About this sudden return to mega-popularity, something very rare in the nonfiction comic art world, Sacco has made a unique public statement.

Palestine, the comic, centers the artist narratively in its first pages as he—both narrator and comic character—expresses his anxieties about the trip. If the Israeli perspective is already well-established and prominently featured in Western media, he will offer first-hand versions of real people’s individual perceptions and add a credible commentary of his own making.

Knowing that he willl sell the drawings as journalism, Sacco asks himself the inevitable, existential question. “Why am I here? Why am I telling this story?” He even feels bad that in some ways he’s benefiting from the suffering of Palestinians by telling the stories. Notwithstanding anxieties, he handles his interactions and portrayals in the fashion of a serious, honest journalist. Listening carefully to the Palestinian perspective, giving the reader a recounting of the terrors they have gone through, he captures best, if not without humor, the asymmetrical power dynamics of the scene.

To take a single example, he titles a rightly famous section of Palestine “The Boys.” Here, Sacco accompanies two key characters and journalistic subjects, Mohammed and Hussein, as they traverse the perimeter of the Jabalia refugee camp, recounting the events of the 1987 Intifada. As they walk, Mohammed and Hussein vividly recall the circumstances leading up to the spontaneous uprising. They describe Israeli soldiers playing cards nonchalantly while protesters marched in the streets, the simmering anger, and the subsequent eruption of protests. They vividly remember the gunfire aimed at them and the resilience of the protesters in the face of adversity, refusing to retreat even when fellow demonstrators were injured or killed.

Words alone cannot express the artistic or political achievement in a single page like this. The reader “lives,” in a certain way, the experiences of the Palestinian people he meets and sees. He explores their personal history with the land, revealing how poorly all the talk of maps, UN agreements, and international relations match up against the human reality. Throughout Palestine, the overwhelming impression is of ordinary people at all ages trying pick up the pieces and live their lives, but failing at every turn. The subjugation they face is too much.

Hillary Chute insists that Sacco most uniquely (but among comic artists, along with Art Spiegelman) “often uses the verb ‘inhabit’ to describe his experience of drawing,” inhabiting in particular “how traumatized people in their acts of memory, inhabit their own past selves.” (249-50) Thus, he “visualizes on the page and processes and effects of history…bringing memory forcefully into public discourse…” (p.254).

What is the value of this artistic effort? The political importance today is overwhelming: crowds across the world are marching for lives to be saved from the approaching apoclypse or genocide. But this effort rests upon another.

Memory, public memory, has perhaps never been employed with as much force as the memory of the (Jewish) Holocaust for something like four generations.To have accomplished something akin to this effort but with a different ending, to have created it within comic art, to have created an art equal to the task, seems to have been Joe Sacco’s destiny.

Paul Buhle is a frequent contributor to CounterPunch. Raymond Tyler is a radical comics writer; his newest book, “Black Coal and Red Bandanas: A Graphic History of the WV Mine Wars,” is forthcoming with PM Press.