Filed under: Book Reviews, Comics, Nonfiction | Tags: book review, books, comics, comics journalism, joe sacco, journalism, reading
One of the pleasures of coming back to the States after a three-year absence has been finding how busy the comics journalist Joe Sacco has been. In 2009 he published Footnotes in Gaza, and this year Journalism, a collection of short pieces previously published in magazines.
Journalism is a near-perfect addition to Sacco’s work for those who are already fans, and a perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with his work, or with comics journalism, or with comics altogether. For those not ready to make a commitment to one of Sacco’s longer works, like Safe Area Gorazde or Palestine, Journalism acts as a handy introduction to his style and intentions. Sacco includes a short preface and some written background on each of the comics, and although I’m a longtime fan this was my first time reading his thoughts on his work. Sacco raises some pressing questions about the state of journalism and about how comics journalism fits into the idea that journalism should be objective. It is, after all, hard to argue the objectivity of a form which can so readily reveal its maker’s thoughts on the people he deals with. As Sacco writes, “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful” (xiv).
On to the comics: Journalism collects pieces published between 2001 and 2011, ranging from just a couple pages to forty. The comics are divided into sections based on theme or location, but what unites most of these comics is their overarching concern with, as Sacco writes in the introduction, those people who are seldom heard. This includes everyone from American soldiers and Iraqi trainees in Iraq to the members of India’s very lowest caste to the overwhelming numbers of unwanted African migrants who land each year in Sacco’s homeland of Malta as they struggle to make their way to Europe.
Sacco’s comics are uniformly excellent, with his notes (describing everything from why he decided to focus on a particular story to problems encountered while reporting to disagreements with the publications that commissioned the comics) adding another layer to the reading. As ever, the only truly cartoonish character in these strips is Sacco himself, with blank eyes behind his glasses, mouth half open, the stylistic differences between his renderings of himself and those he interviews serving to reinforce the fact that he is an interloper here.
Somehow, the risk of taking advantage of a subject seems more acute when they’re represented visually, but by making his relationship with his subjects so clear, Sacco never does so. The moments when he chooses not to represent something are striking, as when a woman shows Sacco a photo of her dead daughter. Having shown so many other aspects of this woman’s life, Sacco leaves the photograph unknown, drawing nothing more than the outlines of the photograph (p. 68):
Sacco records his own impressions of his subjects’ lives along with his images, and it is this that makes his comics so powerful. Sacco never pretends to be an impartial observer, to be recording these stories in some objective way; and he seeks, again and again, to remind us of this. When Sacco draws his subjects speaking directly into the frame, as if to the reader, he occasionally draws a partial view of his own face, listening, to remind us that these stories have been interpreted. He includes panels in which he sits across from a subject, and others in which his notepad is visible, another reminder of how subjective the work of journalism is. (Below, a panel from page 97.)
One of Sacco’s (many) talents lies in giving the reader a sense of just how overwhelming these stories are. Frames overlap one another, and chaotic scenes are often given the bulk of a page, as the narrative unfolds in frames placed at the margins of this central image. Sacco shows, too, a certain claustrophic nature to the journalist’s work, as in the panel below (p. 137). Interviewing detained refugees, Sacco is surrounded by women trying to share their stories, as he drips with sweat. Images like these remind us of the degree to which Sacco curates these stories for us, sharing, as he writes, those that he wants to tell.
Sacco’s Journalism is that rare book that is just as pleasurable for the long-term fan as it is for the first-time reader. Journalism is a wide-ranging collection that manages to feel cohesive even as Sacco shifts continents and tells stories as different as those of American soldiers and female refugees from Chechnya. A fantastic collection, whether or not you’re a comics fan. (Though you probably will be after finishing.)