One of the more embarrassing events in my life was the time I burst into tears on a crowded 49 bus reading Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde—it was the part about Bosnian girls desperate for Levi's jeans that did it. Sacco is an exceptional journalist. In his nonfiction comics—Safe Area Gorazde (1998), Palestine (1996)—he's painted profiles of lives trampled by war and the wartime media circus. His latest comic book, But I Like It, ventures into a dark underbelly of a different sort: his experience touring Europe with a punk band in the early '90s.
Did you really want to be a punk musician and you just got sidetracked into being a journalist?
I think everyone and his brother has gone through a phase of wishing he were rock star but, uh, never seriously. I don't like being onstage for one thing and I don't have any musical talent, so at some point I decided to remove myself from the running. After touring with the Miracle Workers, a band from Portland and L.A., I stayed on in Europe and was doing rock posters. And that's sort of how I got involved, by way of making art in the rock scene, not by way of music.
Have you ever done any rock posters in America?
I never had a rock career in the States. I think by the time I got back to the States, I was really jaded by the rock scene.
Did you wind up touring with the band because of the same impulse for exploring that led you to the West Bank and Bosnia?
I thought it would be funny just to go on tour with the band... it's as simple as that. It wasn't like I had some grand journalistic notion. It may have been, in some ways, the start of my sort of journalistic comics. But I just thought it would be funny to go and do it and see what it was like. But, yeah, I like to see things, I like to be in the middle of everything.
It's funny you say you like being in the middle of everything, since in your work about the Middle East, you're somewhat removed. You're always aware that you're a Westerner and a journalist.
In some ways you have to be somewhat removed if you're going to be writing about it and if you're going to be in the least bit journalistic. I'm trying to keep some perspective on things, but I ultimately always get close to the people I'm hanging out with. You always develop relationships with people, even if you don't like their politics, even if you think they represent something awful.
It seems really dangerous to be drawing comics in a place where visual ethnic stereotypes are the stuff people are killing each other over.
That's true, especially because I never learned how to draw properly. At some point, I sort of looked at my earlier work and thought, you know, I should draw a bit more representationally because some people might take this the wrong way—it doesn't really fit the seriousness of what I'm trying to get across. But as time's gone by, for good or for bad, I still can't get the cartooniness out of my hands.
You went to journalism school, so do you feel any lingering pressure to be objective?
I think there are a lot of good journalists who get trapped in the whole objectivity thing. It's the whole way of American journalism: there are two sides to every story and you tell one side and then you give equal weight the other side. But if you are actually someplace observing something, you might feel like there are two sides or three sides to this story, but they don't have equal weight. I feel like my job is to discern where things actually stand and what things are about. When a journalist is saying, "I have no opinion," then, okay, you've got both sides—so what? It's not the same as someone saying, "I know the situation, I've been here." I'd rather hear something straight like that.
Are you sick of justifying comics as a legitimate medium for journalism?
I think comics have turned a corner, in a certain way. I think most cartoonists who are getting interviewed aren't getting asked the same question over and over again.
Is there a question you're tired of being asked?
Yeah: "Why don't you draw your eyes?"
Joe Sacco reads at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way NE, 366-3333, on Mon Sept 25 at 7 pm.