Monday, September 10, 2007

Joe Sacco

Over the course of this year, I really got into the works of comics artist/war correspondent/travelogue writer, Joe Sacco. I’d been seeing his collected Palestine at the library for the last few years in the comics section, but for a variety of reasons I hadn’t picked it up. I’d seen snippets of his stuff in various places, and if you’ve ever spent much time perusing collections of underground comix or the like, you’ve probably come across his works here and there.

The style is his own idiosyncratic blend of beautiful and grotesque — he’s been likened to a modern Breughel for both the quantity of content that ends up in many panels, as well as for its compelling brutality. Usually most deformed of all characters on his page layouts is himself, he being a frequent character in his tales.

And generally speaking, his tales are heartbreaking and harrowing, chilling and hysterical in sudden fits and starts. You are laughing at a joke made on one page, the next page you simply die inside. Such is the nature of war, so we are told, and Sacco’s black and white pen and ink drawings capture this in an immediate and straightforward fashion.

Currently I’m inching my way through the shorter pieces he did prior to the work for which he’s predominantly known. The volume Notes From A Defeatist is made up of five issues of his Yahoo comic, a sort of grab bag of humorous sketches such as the tales of eight characters with such names as Mark Victorystooge, Zachary Mindbiscuit, and Alessio Easelsmear. Offerings such as this are entertaining bathroom reading as they are short and sweet.

The longer more meaningful pieces—and this is what makes Notes From A Defeatist so interesting—are collected toward the back and what you see as you read is the evolution of not only a cartooning style, but also a political consciousness. Why this is so interesting for me is because I started out with Sacco’s later political work and this early stuff shows not exactly a different side, but that sardonic morbid humor that bubbles through the surface of his more explicit and serious tales.

A simply done serious piece called “When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People” painfully recounts all the positive statements made in the press and by politicians regarding the bombing of civilians. The single, full page accompany pictures are by turns catalog-spec accurate and protest poster plain, the last panel a heartbreaker of a blacked out crowd, on the ground before them a blacked out body, obviously a child’s. This is paired with “More Women, More Children, More Quickly,” a biography of his mother in war-time Malta and the pressures faced there.

Other parts include an autobiographical account/skewering of the library system, “How I Learned to Love the War” about Sacco’s obsession with the first Persian Gulf War, and several short pieces documenting his on-the-road adventures with a rock band, titled “In the Company of Long Hair,” most or all of which would turn up in his most recent book about the same time But I Like It.

The first work I read of Sacco’s of any length was The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. This is one of three volumes Sacco did regarding the Bosnian War. More singular in its focus than the other two, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 and War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96, this book follows the life and the accounts of a sniper’s activities in the Bosnian War. As I’ve already said, it’s by turns horrifying and hilarious, the kind of manic mood shifts that only arise under extreme duress. What makes Sacco’s comics exceptional in these instances is that he actually produces them much as a war correspondent might. He travels to the area, lives there for weeks or months at a time, and conducts numerous on-site interviews.

Safe Area Goražde, for which Sacco won an Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001, has one of the most profoundly affecting pages I’ve read in any graphic novel. After reading the page and its accompanying text, I had to put the book down, pace the house feeling sick to my stomach (my well-fed, still inside my body guts, luckily for me), before returning shaking to the comic. It is a larger account of the conflict there, the utter hopelessness of the Bosnian Muslims at the time, the dilly-dallying of U.N. peacekeepers, and the constant threat of Serbian shelling.

It is for Palestine, of course, that Sacco is most well-known which almost assuredly helped him secure the Guggenheim Fellowship to finance War’s End, a collection of shorter pieces from Bosnia. An observational, journalistic endeavor, Palestine recounts Sacco’s time in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over a two-month period in 1991 and 1992. His panels go from large single pages of market scenes to multiple panels crowded with dialogue and action.

Unable to remain a neutral observer amidst the struggles and squalor surrounding the Palestinians, Sacco demonstrates explicitly what it means to be constantly under surveillance and occupied. The one-sidedness of the work is addressed near the end, Sacco tacitly admitting that it would take an entire new book and more months in Israel to present the other side of the story.

But as Sacco’s entire catalog shows, his interest and his sympathies lie more firmly in the camp of the oppressed and the underdogs than in their oppressors. Documenting the master in any power relationship remains a far more complicated exercise, avoiding the pitfalls of too much caricature of the abuse of power or slavishly representing how noble the master is in relation to the oppressed. I for one, though, hope Sacco does create a companion piece to Palestine, for both parties in that relationship are caught up in a struggle that turns them into monsters, willing to accept any degradation of their perceived enemies, and both parties are equally capable of great acts of charity, kindness, and forgiveness.

As far as recent events go, Sacco has been busy cataloging the current Iraq War and its various ramifications. The Guardian published a few years ago an eight page account of the war (PDF), typical for Sacco’s work, which is to say, of course, brilliant and tragic all in one fell swoop.

No comments: