Palestine: Joe Sacco’s insightful medium and reflections

Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco admitted that there is a tension inherent in his work between its journalistic aspect, which must adhere to a standard of accuracy as far as quotes and facts are concerned, and the drawings, which inherently are a subjective form.

On 17th November last, Joe Sacco, a Maltese-American cartoonist and journalist, was in Malta, where he received an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the Faculty of Arts of the University of Malta. Two days earlier, he also participated in the public talk titled ‘In Conversation with Joe Sacco’ at the Aula Magna of the Valletta Campus in Valletta.

Joe Sacco at the public talk at the University of Malta (Valletta Campus)

Joe Sacco, 63, was born in Malta on 2nd October 1960. His father, Leonard, was an engineer, and his mother, Carmen, was a schoolteacher. He is best known for his comics journalism, a form of journalism that covers news or non-fiction events using the framework of comics, a combination of words and drawn images, in particular in his books Palestine (1996) and Footnotes in Gaza (2009), on Israeli-Palestinian relations; and Safe Area Goražde (2000) and The Fixer (2003) on the Bosnian War. His most recent book was Paying the Land, which he released in 2020.

When Joe was still only one, he moved with his family to Melbourne, Australia, where he spent his childhood until he was 12. Then, in 1972, they moved to Los Angeles in the USA, where he began his journalism career working on the Sunset High School newspaper in Beaverton, Oregon. Journalism was his primary focus, but he also developed his penchant for humour and satire during this time. 

He graduated from Sunset High in 1978 and earned his BA in journalism three years later from the University of Oregon. He was said to be significantly frustrated with the journalism work that he found at the time because what he was looking for was the chance “to write hard-hitting interesting pieces that would make some sort of difference, after being briefly employed by the journal of the National Notary Association, a job that he found “exceedingly boring”, he forgot his journalism hopes and returned to Malta.

Joe forgot all about his love for journalism and instead went the other route, cartooning, his hobby, to see if he could make a living out of it. He began working for a local publisher writing guidebooks, and returning to his fondness for comics; he wrote a Maltese romantic comic named Imħabba Vera (True Love), one of the first art comics in the Maltese language.

At the time, he told The Village Voice, an American news and culture publication based in Greenwich Village, New York City – known for being the country’s first alternative newsweekly – that because Malta has no history of such comics, his comics weren’t considered suitable for kids. 

Eventually, he returned to the United States and, by 1985, he had founded a satirical, alternative comics magazine in Portland, Oregon, called Portland Permanent, which folded just fifteen months later. Joe then took a job as a staff writer at The Comics Journal, which provided him with the opportunity to create and edit another satire: the comics anthology Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, a name that he says he took from an overcomplicated children’s toy in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World published by The Comics Journal‘s parent company, Fantagraphics Books

Away from the USA

However, being more interested in travelling, in 1988, Joe Sacco again left the US to travel across Europe on a trip that led him towards the ongoing Gulf War. Then, in 1991, he found himself nearby to research the work he would eventually publish as Palestine, a documentary graphic novel that gathers testimonies of survivors of war and trauma. 

The Gulf War segment drew Joe into a study of Middle Eastern politics. Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine has led many prominent figures to call Gaza “the world’s largest open-air prison”. Of course, the situation is more political than religious, as the international community recognises the State of Israel (created and institutionalised in 1948), but not all recognise the Palestinian State. Palestine is a land significant to both peoples, and Western societies keep trying to understand what has happened and what continues to happen in the region.

With such a background, Joe travelled to Israel and the Palestinian territories to research his first long work, Palestine, which was a collection of short and long pieces, some depicting his travels and encounters with Palestinians (and several Israelis). Between 1993 and 1995,  Palestine was serialised as a comic book and then published in several collections, the first of which, in 1996, won him an American Book Award. In the UK, it sold more than 30,000 copies.

A simmering conflict flares up

Then, on the morning of 7th October this year, an unprecedented attack was carried out by Hamas (Islamic Resistance Movement militants) on recognised Israeli soil. It re-ignited a significant conflict that had lain dormant for many years. They broke down the barrier dividing Palestinian territory from Israel, killed civilians, and took hostages from near the border with the Gaza Strip.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s immediate response was to declare war on Hamas. As has been seen across the world’s media in recent weeks, this was much to the detriment of the Palestinian people. Israel invaded the Gaza Strip with its full force. For over two months, Israel’s forces have been pounding at Gaza in a bid to destroy the place to reduce it to rubble. 

What started as revenge on Hamas has turned out to be an effort of destruction of the Palestine people. There is nowhere safe for them. If the bombardment does not kill them, they face death through starvation and lack of sanitation. No wonder their death toll has overreached the 18,000 mark. 

During these turbulent times, with his comics and graphic novels, Sacco could offer an intelligent, insightful medium for thoughtfulness and reflection about the Palestine he came to know. His critically acclaimed strips and graphic novels focusing mainly on war-torn countries and geopolitical issues won him the name of the father of comics journalism.

Publications and awards

Sacco also travelled to Sarajevo and Goražde near the end of the Bosnian War and produced a series of reports in the same style as Palestine: the comics Safe Area Goražde and The Fixer and the stories collected in War’s End. His winning of the Guggenheim Fellowship in April 2001 aided the financing.In 2001, Safe Area Goražde won the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel.

The Maltese-American also contributed short pieces of graphic reportage to various magazines on subjects ranging from war crimes to blues and was a frequent illustrator of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendour. In 2005, he wrote and drew two eight-page comics depicting events in Iraq that were published in The Guardian. In April 2007, he contributed a 16-page piece in that year’s issue of Harper’s Magazine, entitled ‘Down! Up! You’re in the Iraqi Army Now’.

Joe Sacco in Iraq in 2005 with 1st Battalion, 23rd Marines inside the Haditha Dam

In 2009, Joe published Footnotes in Gaza, which investigates two forgotten massacres that took place in Khan Younis and Rafah in November 1956. It was nominated for the 2009 Los Angeles Times Book Prizeaphic Novel award. He followed in June 2012 with a book on poverty in the United States, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, co-written with journalist Chris Hedges. That same year, he earned the PEN Literary Award in Graphic Literature for Outstanding Body of Work.

Five years later, in 2014, Joe Sacco’s graphic novel collection Journalism received the Pacific Northwest College of Art Graphic Literature Award from the Oregon Book Awards, and last November, the University of Malta awarded him the degree of Doctor of Literature (Honoris Causa).

His latest work is Paying The Land (2020). It discusses climate change and the indigenous Dene community, a group of First Nations who inhabit the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada, who, he says, were subject to cultural genocide using compulsory residential schooling, treaties, and capitalism.

In Valletta

During his public talk at the Aula Magna in Valletta last month, Joe Sacco admitted that there is a tension inherent in his work between its journalistic aspect, which must adhere to a standard of accuracy as far as quotes and facts are concerned, and the drawings, which inherently are a subjective form.

He said that nowadays, with AI technology, one can convincingly create “photos” or “videos” of something that didn’t happen. “The drawings I do, on the other hand, are an interpretation of events, whether something historical or something I saw with my own eyes. The reader

can accept them for what they are,” he said.

He remarked that many comic book artists are now working at a high level, and he cannot keep up. But he was glad he was “an heir to the great underground cartoonists of the counterculture”.

Joe Sacco said that most comic books were 24- or 32-page “floppy” pamphlets when he started. Then comic books became long-form “graphic novels” and ended up in bookstores. He said this “made it possible to earn some money, but the process turned a low art form (which he did not mean in a derogatory way) into something genteel and self-conscious.”

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