Say the words “war journalism” and the first image that comes to mind is of a grizzly, brow-beaten correspondent clutching a microphone in a bullet-ridden, 30-second slot on the evening news. It’s certainly not of a comic book filled with meticulously rendered explosions and heartbreakingly candid interviews – but that’s how war appears in the hands of Joe Sacco. The journalist and comics artist has delivered a career’s worth of first-hand reportage from some of the world’s most hostile areas through his painstakingly researched comic books, portraying life in a war-zone with a beguiling humour that only half obscures the precarious reality of conflict.
It’s a disarming way to depict a violent atmosphere. “I personally think that photographs and film can be very effective, but sometimes they can show brutality so starkly that I feel a revulsion. Drawing somehow allows you to look. There’s enough of an unreality to it that you can look at things that, if you saw them in an image which purports to be real, you’d feel a need to turn away.”
Allowing a reader to peek through their fingers at the unspeakable atrocities of war isn’t the only advantage of comics journalism. “It can show you things that the camera can never see, too. You don’t get cameras going into a torture chamber. There were no cameras going over the top at the Battle of the Somme.”
Joe’s innately journalistic hunger to communicate what the camera never sees has led him to spend large stretches of time in refugee camps, desolate war-torn cities and front lines, from which he reports without ever losing sight of the people who experience conflict first-hand. And for every trip, there’s a comic book to report it.
Born in Malta, he grew up in Australia before moving to the United States. “All through grade school and high school I was experimenting and drawing comics, though I never really knew where that would go.” After a number of dissatisfying stints working at publishing companies and small newspapers, Joe’s frustration with the murky news reports fed to western media outlets from the Middle East led him to Palestine in search of more complete information. In 1991 and 1992 he spent time in the Gaza Strip and West Bank regions, drawing the stories of people he encountered. “On my first trip to the Middle East I was just doing comics about my experiences because I came from a tradition of first person autobiographical comics. But because I’d studied journalism that part of me sort of kicked in while I was there and I found myself interviewing people pretty thoroughly, looking to fit a story together journalistically.” The interviews Joe conducted in the region came to embody Palestine: A Nation Occupied, the first of many journalistic books written about political discord, alongside Safe Area Goražde, The Fixer and Footnotes in Gaza.
“I don’t have many illusions about being able to make change now, but I feel like a lot of the people I talk to don’t really have a voice. A lot of stories are misrepresented in the media or historically, or they’re episodes that are just forgotten. You do think, ‘Well, let’s go and talk to some of these people. They’re still alive!’ It’s clear to me that it should be done, and I’ll just do my little part in doing it.”
More often than not, Joe’s cartoons include a goofy, bespectacled caricature of himself somewhere in the foreground. “When I had been doing what ended up being my first book I thought of it as ‘Oh, I’ll tell my adventures, or whatever you want to call them’ so I was naturally just drawing myself in the scenes.” This narrative decision might have developed organically but it had interesting ramifications. American journalism in the 1990s had become increasingly detached in its style due to the (unsuccessful) pursuit of objectivity, a perspective which remains perpetually out-of-reach to any storyteller using an inherently subjective medium. “I realised later that it was just as well, because I didn’t believe that you could be objective about certain subjects.
“To me, drawing myself signals to the reader that I’m a filter between the information, the people and them.They know that I’m a presence, and that they’re seeing things through my eyes. It sort of takes away the illusion that a journalist is a fly on the wall, all seeing and all knowing. There are a lot of agendas along the road, and it’s a way of letting the reader in on that.”
Joe is under no illusions about how immersive his experiences can truly be. His 2003 book The Fixer is principally concerned with his relationship with his “fixer” in Sarajevo, an overbearing and theatrical army veteran who, for a price, will arrange for journalists to meet political figures and civilians that will inform their stories. The man in question, Neven, acts as “a microcosm of the Balkan conflict itself” to Joe, vacillating between recounting harrowing war stories and rousing uncertain frowns from his audiences. It’s a dry-witted account of Joe’s experience with the fine line dividing truth and sensationalism. “There are too many things that have to do with being an outsider in a community you’re trying to examine that’s left out of stories, and that to me is really vital. I’m interested in the contact, and how people with different frameworks negotiate what they’re going to talk about or how they’re going to react to each other. I’m always sorry when journalists put up a guard around themselves. It means that some of their best stories are cut out because they involve them too closely. I’ve always thought of the reader as someone I’m sitting across the table from, and they’re asking me ‘So how was it, in Bosnia?’ and I’m just gonna talk to them and tell them what my experiences were. It seems like the most natural thing to do.”
In spite of the transparency of his journalistic approach, Joe quickly admits that some characters are easier to identify with than others when it comes to the drawing process. “Whenever I’m drawing I feel like I’m sort of in the person I’m drawing. But I have to say, when I was drawing Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians in the book I did about Gaza, I had a hard time drawing the faces of the soldiers. I wasn’t really drawing them, most of them had their caps or a gun or some other implement obscuring their faces. I realised you have to inhabit them somehow in order to draw them properly, and the way I skirted that subconsciously was to not draw the face.”
If there’s one element of Joe’s work which demonstrates the journalistic imperative that drives him it’s his meticulous attention to detail; the research which goes into each project is mind-blowing. “There’s the documentary research, and then there’s going there. I prepare myself as well as I can. When I was preparing to write Footnotes in Gaza I was reading Israeli books, British books, whatever I could find, and I went to the UN archives and went through whatever they had. I wasn’t exactly sure of the story, but I thought it was not as the UN document said. You have the Israelis saying one thing, the Palestinians saying another, and I thought I’d just see which one it was. The more people you talk to the more you learn about little parts of the story you hadn’t heard before.
“There’s a lot of visual research you have to do too. So in that particular case, I went to the UN archives in Gaza City and they gave me copies of every photograph they had of the camps from the 1950s. That stuff is really vital. There are many visual questions that you have to ask people that aren’t your standard prose writer questions, because you don’t really know what certain things looked like. They would explain that there was a lot more cactus in the street, which is not something that I would have thought about, or I’d ask if there were any houses like those that used to exist, and an older guy would take me and show me and I’d take photographs. Whenever I’m working on something I end up working in an increasingly smaller space; no matter how clear my table is at the beginning of the process, by the end I’m covered in research materials.”
This is probably never more true than with his latest work, The Great War. The book seems to mark something of a turning point in Joe’s career; in a distinct move away from his earlier comics reportage, it takes the form of a wordless depiction of the defining monumental event of the First World War, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
On the 1st of July 1916, 120,000 British troops ploughed towards the German trenches in a decisive attack which, it was hoped, would end the stalemate that had paralysed battle thus far. Of these, half were either dead or injured before the end of the day, in what would go down as the blackest day of slaughter in the history of the British Army.
Joe’s fascination with the events of the first day on the Somme is detailed minutely in The Great War. A giant sprawling accordion-fold encyclopaedia of war imagery, the work consists of 24 plates, which are each a foot long, and spans the entire Western Front. No small feat, even for a cartoonist like Joe, “I mean, I’ve drawn a lot of double-page spreads in my time.”
He admits harbouring an obsession with the First World War since he was a at school. “I was just really struck by it, as a boy would be, by people wearing gas masks and fighting in trenches over small amounts of ground at staggering costs,” but the idea of creating a book about it didn’t come about until more recently. “An editor at Norton who I used to be roommates with in New York called me up and said, ‘Do you remember that one night many years ago when we were drinking and we said that it would be great if you drew a panorama of the Western Front that folded out?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I remember’ and he said, ‘Well, do you want to do it?’ My first reaction was not to, but then I thought in some ways I’ve spent so much time going over that ground in my mind. This is my penance now.
“It didn’t appeal to me to draw something static, but the first thing I thought about was the Bayeux Tapestry and that’s sort of what made me think that it could be done, and it could be interesting to me.” Strange though it might sound, the Bayeux Tapestry is not so obscure a reference. The early Medieval embroidered narrative documents the story of William the Conqueror leading his armies to the Battle of Hastings in a fashion oddly reminiscent of comics journalism. “You know, I’m a cartoonist, I want narrative in the drawing. We’re western readers and we read from left to right, so you start from the left and you can see the movement towards the Western Front, you can see the battle, and then you can see the movement away from the front. To me the idea was really simple at its core.”
He found the absence of words liberating too. “My stuff usually really focuses on people and trying to get into a person somehow and find out what they’re thinking. In this case it’s more just stepping back and looking at this entire human experience and not really making an issue of the blunder or the bravery. I didn’t want to make it histrionic. There’s no need to overdo something like the first day on the Battle of the Somme.
“You do think of the species, and I’m very interested in the concept of thinking you’re a part of something bigger, which the soldiers obviously did. When you’re drawing the same thing for so long it’s a real luxury to reflect on those things.” Talking to Joe about his work, it’s easy to see how the border that separates comics journalism from anthropology might begin to blur. “Ultimately journalism has taken me to a place where I can sometimes explain the politics of a situation, why people are doing what they’re doing.
“You know, if I had another life I think I would have been an anthropologist. I’m fascinated with how people live, how they structure their lives and how they relate to each other. It’s all basically anthropological.”
Insofar as his work aligns with anthropology’s study of the cultural and social customs of humankind this may well be true, but I’d be inclined to suggest that Joe’s mastery of comics journalism sits alone on another plane entirely. Still, in spite of his international acclaim and an intimidating list of awards to his name, Joe remains uncommonly humble. “It’s been a privilege to do some of that stuff, to go to some of the places I’ve gone. Obviously I’m trying as best I can, and I’m learning a lot, I really am.” Needless to say, we’re all the wiser for it.