Black and White and Red All Over
The Revolutionary Journalism of Joe Sacco
Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
by Chris Hedges, Joe Sacco
(Nation Books, $28)
Joe Sacco is a cartoonist whose work as a foreign correspondent should be the envy of any journalist with even a little gravel in the guts.
He's covered life in Bosnia, Chechnya, the Palestinian territories, refugee camps, Iraq, villages of Dalits ("untouchables") in India, and many other countries. On its own, that list sounds flat—a familiar litany of abstracted place names you see in newspaper headlines. But in Sacco's carefully illustrated stories, those places become real. When he draws a boat overstuffed with terrified African immigrants in a storm as they try to cross the Mediterranean, or grit on the floor of a Chechen refugee camp, or the bullet-pocked houses of a Palestinian family in Gaza, or the face of an old woman as she breaks into tears while telling her life story, people suffering (and doing) horrendous things cease to be an abstraction. And the dry, familiar facts become outrageous.
Despite its subject matter, Sacco's work glows with warmth, humanity, and even humor, but it also has an undercurrent of urgency—like it's shaking us by the lapels, insisting that we pay attention. "The worst sin you can commit," he said in an interview recently, "is to have something important to say, and say it in a dull way."
Sacco was born in Malta, moved to Australia as a child, and then moved to the tough and racially charged Inglewood neighborhood in Los Angeles. That was a shock. "I thought America would be like The Brady Bunch," he said.
A few years later, after his father had finished his schooling, the family moved to a comfortable suburb in Portland, a world away from Inglewood. "I liked the life in the suburbs," he said, "but I was very aware that there were other things going on in the world." He studied journalism at the University of Oregon and tried to be a reporter, but he found the industry frustratingly boring and trivial. So he became a cartoonist and did the 1980s cartooning thing, publishing satirical and autobiographical comics. He also traveled and, in the early 1990s, made one of those choices that, at the time, you don't realize will change everything—he decided to visit the Palestinian territories.
"I grew up thinking all Palestinians are terrorists and I had to wonder why," he said. "I realized it was because of American-style journalism, and even studying that journalism hadn't taught me a damn thing. Journalism had provided facts: Palestinians blew up a bus, that's a fact." But, he added, if the only time you hear "Palestinian" is when you hear about a bus blowing up, your sense of what a "Palestinian" is will be warped.
"So I was deconstructing this and being pissed off at the American media for not providing context—not to excuse anything, but there are reasons why things happen. By just providing facts, you don't tell anyone why anything is happening." He didn't have a precise plan for what he was going to do in the Palestinian territories—take a trip, see what happened, draw about it—but his journalistic instincts kicked in. He wound up with Palestine, a collection of cartoon journalism that brought the people in the conflict to life and won an American Book Award in 1996.
He's been charging at his new medium-meets-message vocation ever since with comics such as The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo, War's End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995–96, Footnotes in Gaza, and this year's excellent Journalism, a collection of shorter pieces he'd done for newspapers, magazines, and quarterly journals. (Sacco, as you might have guessed by now, does not mince words or hide his opinions—Journalism includes amusing endnotes that detail his frustrations with various institutions, sources, and editors while working on the stories.)
Sacco isn't a fan of the current state of institutional journalism and especially laments its reluctance—and, increasingly, inability—to invest in long-form, context-giving stories that explain why people do the horrible, headline-generating things that they do. But he's not all that keen on the new wave of citizen journalism, either. "Even publications I might not like," he said, "at least they're vetting their information."
The phenomenon of artists (like Sacco) turning to journalism has similar pitfalls. He discussed the Mike Daisey fiasco, in which the monologuist went to China to report on labor conditions at factories that make products for Apple, and was later exposed for fabricating facts and inventing conversations he'd never had with people he'd never met. That wasn't objective journalism, Sacco said, nor was it subjective journalism: "It's just lying, which isn't acceptable in any medium—print, film, whatever."
Drawing, of course, is always a subjective act, but Sacco said he has fact-checkers for every story and he tries to verify his sources' information as best as he can. If someone claims Israeli soldiers were hitting people on the head with rifle butts, he'll ask a dozen other people about it—not just whether someone was hit on the head but how hard—before drawing that individual's story. His books sometimes present the same event from multiple points of view—notably in Footnotes in Gaza—depending on who's telling the story. "Any drawing mark, any line on the paper, is subjective," he said. "But I want to inform the subjectivity in a way that I feel comfortable with."
Sacco has made his reputation with international stories, but Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt—a collaboration with journalist Chris Hedges—drills down on America and the parts of the country that the rest of us try to ignore. The two visited what Hedges describes in his introduction as "the sacrifice zones, those areas of the country that have been offered up for exploitation in the name of profit."
It's a scorching look at communities burned out not by foreign bombs but by American capitalism, starting at the Pine Ridge Reservation, detouring through West Virginia and Camden, New Jersey, and ending at Occupy Wall Street.
"I was shocked by what I saw in the States," Sacco said. "I had spent so much time abroad, and to see these parts of the United States that reminded me of places I'd been abroad—it was sort of a wake-up call, at least to me." Not only is American journalism failing to explain what's happening in far-off lands, he said, it's failing to explain what's happening in its own country.
"There are good journalists out there," he says, "but they're expected to upload video, too, and wear all these different hats. That can't be good. The best journalism is just sending someone somewhere to get to know people." Fortunately for us, Joe Sacco has made it his business to do just that.