Confessions of a war junkie

Crusading journalist. Quasi-historian. Artist. Kabir Babar on the many hats of Joe Sacco

Confessions of a war junkie
One of the main features of the 2015 Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) was the appearance of Maltese-American “comics journalist” Joe Sacco, on his first visit to Pakistan. Sacco has achieved fame and respect for his reportage from conflict zones such as Palestine, Bosnia and Iraq, and is often cited as a pioneer of comics journalism – a medium of reportage that has distinct advantages over more conventional methods. “The cartoonist,” writes Sacco in the preface to his short-pieces collection Journalism, “draws with the essential truth in mind, not the literal truth [...].” As such, the comics journalist can blend the artist’s duty to truth with the reporter’s obligation to fact. The comic-book format allows the artist to set present conflicts in their historical context – an important element when dealing with people who have been “run over by historical events”, as Sacco puts it. The story can shift easily back and forth through time and juxtapose accurately realised images of today with imaginatively renditioned memories.


The result is forceful, emotive narratives in which the precise dates and locations are sometimes less important than the atmosphere evoked by the artist, who, dismissing the notion of being an objective observer, is a creative force whenever he puts pencil to paper. In this way does Sacco break the line between straightforward “fiction” and “nonfiction” in a way comparable to The Battle of Algiers. Rabih Alameddine, a Lebanese-American novelist and Sacco’s fellow panellist at the LLF, acknowledged the power of the comic-book format by declaring that he had seen comic panels depicting something that would take him sixteen pages of text to describe. These visuals have the added power of being able to transcend linguistic and cultural barriers; one need only open a comic book to be instantly transported to an experience of another time and place.

Yet, it would be a mistake to think that, by virtue of artistic licence, the comic-book form requires less effort or is less serious than traditional journalistic prose. While he does make use of a camera and tape recorder, much of Sacco’s journal is written by hand and his drawings are entirely hand-drawn. Errors are corrected by painstakingly cutting and pasting directly to paper. And Sacco, while acknowledging the subjectivity of all journalism, nevertheless takes great pains in researching his work.

From 'Journalism'
From 'Journalism'

Footnotes in Gaza, in which he investigated two alleged Israeli massacres of Palestinians during the Suez crisis of 1956, took seven years to produce. For the project, he went through UN documents, hired researchers to scour Israeli archives, consulted dozens of eyewitnesses, travelled to various locations and studied old photographs to better enable him to render scenes accurately. One panel was not completed until a year after it was first pencilled – not until he could find a book that allowed him to draw an Egyptian uniform correctly. He uses brackets and ellipses to indicate when, for clarity, he has altered testimony that he is quoting, and also, of course, provides footnotes – techniques not routinely found in either comics or journalism. But such techniques can be found in history writing, and thus it is not without justification that Sacco can refer to himself as a “quasi-historian”, unearthing facts and perspectives previously either underreported or reported not at all. And like any discerning historian, Sacco does not shy away from questioning either his sources or himself.

The legendary cartoonist Al Capp once said: “People have been brainwashed into thinking that, if it appears in a comic strip and in your daily newspaper, and done with pen and ink, it is a contemptible trifle, it isn’t art. That is self-swindling snobbishness.” Of course, Capp also made the more questionable assertion that “the genuine art today is the art of the auto ads, fashion magazines and comic strips”, but there is indeed a certain prejudice against comics as being little more than a medium for juvenile storylines accompanied by simplistic art.

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Certainly, there do exist many such comics, but in every method of expression can be found both quality and mediocrity. Fortunately, the negative attitude to comic books has been declining in recent years; this is perhaps related to the simultaneous rise of the “graphic novel” (a term which neither Sacco nor many other prominent figures in comics – such as Alan Moore – care much for). According to Sacco, the United States print industry is in general decline with the exception of the graphic novel; this format is seeing an increase in production and sales. This development bodes well if it means that more writers and artists will use the format to chronicle their age, or even past ages – one of the long-term projects Sacco is working on revolves around ancient Mesopotamian civilisation.
The comics journalist can blend the artist's duty to truth with the reporter's obligation to fact

Babar: One of the things you’ve always emphasised is the subjective nature of journalism and how including yourself in your stories signals that subjectivity. But you go further than that and challenge your own motivations for reporting, most memorably in Journalism’s “Trauma on Loan”, where you connect the interrogation of two Iraqis by American soldiers to your own later interview with the same Iraqis. At the LLF, when asked why you chose to tackle difficult subjects, you responded “compulsion” – a loaded word that reminded me of some lines from Alan Moore’s Watchmen: “We do not do this because it is permitted. We do it because we have to. We do it because we are compelled.” Is there ever any conflict between the desire to report someone’s story because it is something that should be better known to the public, and the drive to discover truths that satisfy your own creative or intellectual needs, perhaps at the risk of those you interview? Or are the two always easily conflated? When do you stop being a crusading journalist and become a war junkie?

Sacco: My primary motivation has always been to explore issues that interest me, and not just interest me but that somehow hit me in the gut. It’s not always clear to me why one thing affects me more viscerally than another. If we take the topic of Palestine, for example, as someone living in the United States I was and am appalled that my taxes in someway go to propping up a situation – the occupation of the Palestinian people and the colonizing of their land – and the way so-called objective newspapers were and are mishandling the issue. In other words, I can intellectualize my reasons for wanting to go and see for myself. But there are other places where the same sort of things hold true – let’s say in Central America – so why Gaza and not Guatemala? Again, at some point, the analysis of my own motives gives over simply to what I feel I have to do. So I go where my instinct tells me to go. And yes, at a younger age especially, one is also caught up in the adventure of it all, the adrenalin rush, but that dissipates as one gets older, or at least it has in my case. I still enjoy reporting, I still consider it a privilege to be invited into people’s homes, but the “junkie” part of it has faded. The world doesn’t seem so much a wild and interesting place as a cruel and difficult one, and it is increasingly difficult to leave home. After doing this for 20 years or more, one sobers up.

Sacco at work in 'Palestine'

Babar: In other interviews, you’ve mentioned several influences on you, ranging from writers such as Edward Said and Michael Herr to artists such as Robert Crumb and Bruegel the Elder, not to mention the Bayeux Tapestry [an 11th century depiction of the Norman conquest of England, which inspired Sacco’s The Great War: a 24-foot long wordless series of images illustrating the Battle of the Somme in 1916]. It is these last two influences that I find especially interesting. A set or series of images accompanied by captions is a narrative technique going back centuries. One thinks of William Blake and of Francisco Goya’s series of etchings Los Caprichos and The Disasters of War. I once read Goya’s work being described as “straightforward reportage” and “the truth as he saw it”, which in turn reminds me of what Art Spiegelman [creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic book Maus] once said regarding the original function of the artist being a reporter. Do you see the comic-book form, and your own work in particular, as being a direct descendant of these works?

Sacco: Some influences are clear-cut. Robert Crumb and Bruegel, for example, definitely inform my work visually. They both looked at the world as an organic whole – everything in what they drew seems alive. But my primary influences, as far as tone or inspiration go, have been writers. You mentioned Michael Herr. He gave me the taste of Vietnam in my mouth. That’s what I aim for – imparting the taste of something to a reader. Hunter S. Thompson wrote the best book ever written about American politics, and he showed me it was possible to write it in a thoroughly entertaining and deeply subjective way. George Orwell has been my model of integrity and a certain stoicism. I don’t necessarily think of my work as a descendant of any of these people or their works. But certainly they have helped shaped me as a writer and an illustrator.
"I deal with people run over by historical events, by political events" (Joe Sacco)

Babar: After reading Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza more or less back to back, I got the impression that the latter pushed to the edges of the format; it was a much more skilful exercise than the former. Footnotes ranges easily across time, connecting multiple events. Sequential panels shift from testimony to testimony and in mood as well as style, but without loss of coherence in the pictorial narrative. Four-hundred pages in length, years in the making, with footnotes and appendices and transcriptions and references... Footnotes in Gaza seems like the epitome of what the format can produce – combining art, journalism, memoir, history, historiography, and self-reflective commentary on it all. Following the release of The Great War, you spoke of the possibility of moving away from a journalistic format to a more artistic mode in order to explore more deeply the psychology of events. Was it the Footnotes in Gaza experience and your historical studies for both it and The Great War that induced this shift in attitude and deepening perspective? Do you feel that you have reached the limits of the traditional comic-book format? If so, can we expect more wordless, symbolic works from you in the future? Or will there be yet more historical investigations to come?

Sacco: I don’t feel I’ve reached the limits of the comic-book format with Footnotes in Gaza, but I may have reached the limits of what I can do physically. Spending so many years on one subject makes for a complete work, but drawing comics is so labour-intensive that you wake up one day and you are no longer a young man and you wonder how many more seven-year projects do you have in you. I have many things I want to write and draw about, and at this point I want to do shorter, tighter books. I want to explore issues having to do with human nature that are not strictly journalistic. I also want to do more free-form material – humorous, satirical work. In other words, though Footnotes in Gaza will always feel like the anchor holding my work in place, I want to go in different directions creatively. That’s what will keep me interested and looking forward to returning to my drawing table.


"In a world where Photoshop has outed the photograph to be a liar, one can now allow artists to return to their original function as reporters" (Art Spiegelman)

Babar: A couple of times in Palestine, you were challenged by Palestinians as to what you hoped to achieve with your reporting, but you did not draw a comprehensive answer. How would you answer them?

Sacco: I’m still not sure I could answer them to their or my own satisfaction. How does what I do affect the individual I am speaking to positively? Reporting on someone’s story is not the same as dressing their physical or psychological wounds, rebuilding their demolished home, or returning their loved ones to life. Reporting is simply telling their story. Does it make a difference? I can never say for sure. The alternative is ignoring people and their troubles and worrying more, instead, about how Manchester United are doing. In the United States, there has been a slow shift to some recognition that the Palestinian people have been historically wronged, on campus if not in the halls of power. I like to think I’ve made my miniscule contribution to moving the thinking forward, but it takes a united front from all sorts of disciplines to make the little progress we’ve made today.

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Babar: You described once how Palestine garnered approval when you went back to Gaza and your comic was shown to some of the Palestinians. But did any of your interviewees, either in Gaza or elsewhere, ever take you to task for your portrayal of people or events? Ever make you think that you might have done things differently?

Sacco: I can’t say this has happened. I do worry quite a bit about what people I am portraying will think of my work. In the end, I want them to recognize themselves – not literally but in terms of their own essence. There’s no doubt that my drawings are an interpretation of someone’s life and story though I try to make it as [...] informed an interpretation as possible.
"The people [Sacco] lives among are history's losers" (Edward Said)

Babar: You’ve mentioned working on a piece on the 2013 Hindu–Muslim clashes in Uttar Pradesh and you earlier did a piece on the poverty of India. Did your recent engagement with Pakistan give you any ideas for a piece revolving around this country?

Sacco: Perhaps. I enjoyed visiting Pakistan. I wouldn’t mind traveling there again. Let’s see.

It seems appropriate to close with the words of the intellectual Edward Said, who wrote an introduction to the single-volume edition of Palestine titled “Homage to Joe Sacco”. Said wrote: “Recall that most of the comics we read almost routinely conclude with someone’s victory, the triumph of good over evil, or the routing of the unjust by the just, or even the marriage of two young lovers. Superman’s villains get thrown out and we hear of and see them no more. Tarzan foils the plans of evil white men and they are shipped out of Africa in disgrace. Sacco’s Palestine is not at all like that. The people he lives among are history’s losers [...] Sacco’s art has the power to detain us, to keep us from impatiently wandering off in order to follow a catch-phrase or a lamentably predictable narrative of triumph and fulfilment. And this is perhaps the greatest of his achievements.”

Kabir Babar is an antiquarian and bibliophile who discusses books at