Picking through the rubble of memory
This article was originally published at ArtThreat.net.
As a kid I developed a quiet obsession for Archie comics. No car trip, camping outing or family reunion was complete without my stack of thick dog-eared volumes, containing in their small borders the multiple-page narratives that now seem so dull.
This early development of bad taste thankfully morphed into membership in a book club and the subsequent devouring of several books per month during my junior high years. Aside from the odd Mad magazine perusal, I had abandoned my old companion the comic book, even misplaced my coveted collection that numbered in the hundreds. Boxes full of dusty Archies may still be languishing in solitude in some random attic somewhere in British Columbia.
It wasn’t until years later, in adulthood, that I discovered “graphic novels” — long form storytelling through comics. Blissfully unaware of the dork-factor, I sunk into tales of fantasy, sci-fi, and medieval adventures with gusto, borrowing books by the anxious mitt-full from my Star Wars-obsessed friend Cam.
“Graphic Novel,” that dignified moniker that gave sophisticated credence to the diminutive “comic book” allowed me to proudly consume my “visual literature” in public, with an air of headiness thinly concealing the dork beneath. But that was then, and this is now.
Today, comics are no longer the singular territory of geeks and outcasts — widely read across a diverse demographic, they win praise in the NY Review of books, gather literary awards, turn into movie franchises and make up their own niche market worth millions. It’s safe to say they’ve proliferated, and from this vast comics landscape a few creators have emerged who continue to carve out a style that blends fictional storytelling, historical analysis, journalism, and art.
This sub-genre of comics is championed by the absurdly talented, thoughtful and daring Joe Sacco. His books, from Safe Area Goražde to The Fixer to Palestine to his most recent, Footnotes in Gaza, sketch out the complicated and often brutal terrain of war, memory, violence, and oppression, rendered in the ink of Sacco’s attentive and empathic pen. Sacco has travelled to some of the world’s most scarred corners, like Bosnia and Palestine, and armed with notebook, pencil, camera and “fixers” (locals who Sacco pays to guide him through complex social networks) he translates the past into illustrations and words.
His books are often so hard to read and look at that I have put them down on more than one occasion to take a break. They are the stuff of nightmares: mass murder, terror, torture, total inhumanity. And they are stories otherwise often visually absent from the history record and the public sphere.
War and conflict has its itinerant reporters – diligent and eager journalists following the “action” as they say. Stories and photographs of atrocities exist but they are fragments of larger narratives, larger contexts, histories and memories. The multiple interlocking experiences that make up the history of those who are oppressed and subjugated are seldom shaped into one compelling and coherent document, offering intimate proximity to the befores, the afters and the in betweens that compose the moments around singular events. Such is the work of Art Spiegelman who brilliantly puts us in the spaces of persecuted jews during the Nazi holocaust in Maus.
And such is the work of Joe Sacco who excavates the memories of survivors of the war in former Yugoslavia and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and translates their thoughts into words and images. So much of what Sacco has put on to paper in his books cannot be translated into other media, at least not with the same impact. Of course his books can be made into movies, and perhaps one day they will be, but for now they triumph over the singularity of photos and words.
Sacco’s work has revived my passion for comics and the graphic novel (however imperfect the category). His work is a significant contribution to the art world, journalism, history, literature and to the people whose stories he transforms. It’s just a hunch, but I’m guessing his books won’t end up forgotten in a random attic — rather they will be passed on to future generations to learn from, enjoy, and to hold in their hands the brilliant potential of art to translate experience into powerful and meaningful stories.
Art Threat was fortunate enough to catch up with Sacco for a solid hour and talk about his work, his latest book, and the future of “comics journalism.”
From comics, to journalism, to comics journalism
Art Threat: I don’t know a lot about your background, I was wondering if we could just start there — where you grew up, any formative experiences and perhaps how you got into comics.
Joe Sacco: Okay. I’ll try to give you a brief run down. I was born in Malta, in Europe and when I was baby, our family immigrated to Australia. So I spent my childhood in Australia. And we moved to the United States when I was 11 or 12. So, I went to high school in the United States and college in the United States.
I was doing comics since I was kid — since about 6 years old — because I liked telling stories and I liked drawing and there’s no other way of really putting things together, unless you have a film crew, then comics really can achieve that kind of storytelling. So I’ve been doing comics since I was a kid, but you know I never really thought that I was going to make any kind of living at that.
I studied journalism when I was in university because I loved writing, and I loved the idea of writing for a newspaper, doing hard news. So that sort of gets you to the point where you’re prepared. I graduated from university and I didn’t find any jobs really that I felt was worth my time, or that I felt I would be fulfilled from in any meaningful way.
I mean, why I got into journalism is because I wanted to tell stories and I wanted to think about the world, and go into the world, and present it somehow in my own way. And there simply was no opportunity to do that. I mean I was working for association publications, city magazines which are heavily dependent on advertising and, the content reflected that.
So, I ended up getting back into comics, which I’d been doing on the side anyway, and thinking: well, is there a way of making a living at this? So that sort of gets you to how I got into what I do now.
But concerning any formative moments, there’s my parents experience of war. Like a lot of other people in Europe growing up during the 30s and 40s, they lived through World War II, and in Australia especially, a lot of the people around us were immigrants from Europe, post-World War II, and those were all of our family friends. So around the kitchen table, around the dining room table I heard a lot of stories from different people from different countries in Europe, talking to my parents about, basically their experiences in the war.
And also hearing my parents’ own stories about the war, perhaps that got me thinking in certain ways where I realized that war is, in some ways, it’s a part of the human experience. It didn’t seem like a foreign concept to me. And maybe that’s part of the reason I became interested in that topic. Beyond that, I’ve studied, moved around and lived in different places. It puts you in a different frame of mind living in different parts of the world — you begin to see connections and how things work. So that’s my relatively condensed history.
Orwell, Crumb and Hunter S. Thompson
Who were some of your major influences, in terms of journalism and in terms of comics?
Well, in terms of journalism, I was very impressed by a book by Michael Herr called Dispatches, which is about the Vietnam war, and at the time I was reading a lot of books about the Vietnam war. This was in the late 70s, early 80s. And, that was the one that sort of gave me an atmosphere, it made me feel like I was there in a way others hadn’t.
Another great journalist, although I think his power has really waned as time has gone by, is Hunter S. Thompson. His book, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, showed that he could look freshly at the same subject that many mainstream journalists were looking at, but had really made stale. Thompson really cared about what was going on in the country. He really understood the political process and was trying to convey with a great passion, his feelings and what life was really like on the campaign trail. I mean, he put the reader — he put me — in the picture. I mean you really understand what was going on.
But the biggest influence on me journalistically speaking has been George Orwell. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book Road to Wigan Pier, but Orwell spent time in the industrial areas of Britain during the depression and took a room with a miner, lived with miners. He went down into the mine shaft with the miners. His ability to go to these places and really look at things from a ground level, that was impressive to me. And for other reasons too: because he was so dedicated to his work, and he felt that his work was sort of bigger than himself as a human being. I appreciated that dedication.
As far as comics go, Robert Crumb is one of my main influences because when he draws, things seem to be alive. He’ll draw even an inanimate object and it seems to have character and even a soul. So that’s what essentially impressed me about him. But, you know the truth is, there are many influences you pick up when you’re drawing, and some of them are really subconscious, and some of them are conscious, but a lot of things go into what’s called someone’s “style” in the end.
And your style, like George Orwell’s, is a kind of in-the-trenches humanistic rendering of what you see and learn about in your surroundings.
I would hope so, because I think that’s really an important thing. And it’s often a thing that’s missing in mainstream journalism. I mean in mainstream journalism you’ll often see quotes from people on the street, but it’s seldom that that person who said the quote gets fleshed out. That person is just basically a vehicle for a quote. And people are much more than that. People say what they say for various reasons and to understand why they’re saying what they’re saying, you’ve got to understand how they live and who they are as individuals, beyond their political feelings.
It’s almost accidental but part of the reason I’ve looked at things from the ground level up is because I wasn’t a mainstream journalist — I didn’t have access to the people in power. Whenever I went to some place, I thought, these people aren’t going to talk to a cartoonist. I mean, what politician or general is going to say, “Oh, a cartoonist? Yes, let him in and I’ll give him my time.” So, almost by default you end up in cafes and bars and places like that where you’re mixing with people more than you are with those in charge, the ones who call the shots.
Which is why at the beginning of Footnotes, you were dismayed to not to have a press pass and then so excited half way through in the book when you finally got that golden ticket.
Well you know the truth of the matter is a press pass can be important. Because if you do want to speak to the people in power — if you want to have some backup, or if you’re trying to get into a place like Gaza — then something like a press pass can really help. In terms of Footnotes in Gaza, I was fortunate to be able to get in without a press pass the first time around. But, it wouldn’t have been really possible the second time because by then the Israeli position on who was allowed into Gaza had changed completely. There’d been a bombing a couple of months earlier in Gaza so at that point the gates were shut for most people. But it was with a press pass on the second trip that I was able to get in.
The educational possibilities of comics
Speaking of Palestine, the World Education Forum is going on right as we speak in Ramallah, and I’m wondering about the educational quality of comics and graphic novels and the work that you do, and how it contributes to people getting a holistic education on various political and social issues by engaging with all kinds of different media. Have you ever thought about your work in that light, in regards to education?
Well, clearly the works are meant to inform people, and so on that very basic level, yes I think of them as educational in the sense that I’ve been to this place, I’ve seen these things and now I’m trying to let readers in on the same situation I was in. That is by its very nature is educational.
I haven’t really, or I hadn’t I should say, thought of my books as educational in a sort of more formal setting other than a reader just sitting on his or her sofa, reading the book at night. But it turns out a lot of universities have used my books; even high schools have used them, and for very different reasons. Sometimes in journalism classes, sometimes in comparative literature classes, sometimes in classes about the Middle East. And that just occurred without me really planning it to happen.
It was never my intention to think of my books in a formal classroom setting. But clearly anything can be used in the classroom if a professor or teacher thinks it might have some merit. I’m one of those people who think that it’s important to get that information across and there are very standard or traditional ways that work — let’s say, just reading a book on your own.
But I think a lot of people get information from things like songs. You can hear a song about some social issue and if it can be forceful, it can really create a feeling. And of course film can do the same thing, and I think comics are just another medium that can impart information effectively. And each medium has its strength, obviously I think the comics form has its strength, and I happen to be a cartoonist so I try to work with those strengths.
Yes, I agree in the power of a multitude of media to educate. This past weekend in Montreal there was the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions conference, and John Greyson — a filmmaker and educator from Toronto — spoke, and he talked about the role of pop culture and especially pop music, in terms of creating brain worms in our consciousness and how those catchy hooks can play over and over again and how they can be politically leveraged.
It’s a fascinating topic and that’s why I’m interested in this idea of education because I think there are so many different mediums and I think that film hogs the spotlight, or film and news, in terms of political issues. I don’t think comics really gets enough credit and it might be because there’s not as much out there. Do you have thoughts on this?
I think there’s not as much out there, I think that’s a big part of it.
But take Art Spiegelman’s Maus for example — I’ve read a number of books about the holocaust, and there comes a point where you think, I’m not going read anymore about it because I feel like I know it already. But then you see it in a different form like Maus, and you’re intrigued, and suddenly you’re back into the subject and it’s pulled you in in a different way. It might not be a better way — it’s not a question of comparing what can work in better ways — but it’s a fresh way and that’s great, because people should be knowledgeable on an issue like that, and the more avenues and perspectives the better.
Or take Marjane Satrapi’s work on Iran — it’s a very palatable introduction into a larger subject by showing us how regular people live in Iran. I read a lot of prose — I spend more time with non-fiction books than anything else, so I’m a big advocate of prose. But I think a lot of writers know a subject but don’t know how to get people interested in that subject.
And I think the great thing about pop culture is, at its heart, it knows it needs to entertain. And I always think of my books, even something as grim as Footnotes, as something I need to carry the readers through. I wouldn’t call it entertainment necessarily, but you appreciate that the reader needs to be pulled along and has to want to turn the page. And I think that’s where a ‘pop sensibility’ comes into effect.
Because you can think of any number of pop songs, I mean think of [Bob] Dylan for example. Sometimes people know something is wrong, or might be agitated in some way, and then they’ll hear a song of his, and they’ll say “yes, that’s exactly what I’m feeling but I couldn’t put my finger on it.”
And that’s why I think a good popular culture stab at something can offer something meaningful.
War, history and the truth
You mentioned the grim nature of the subjects that you’ve been tackling. There are so many fascinating stories out there in the universe, why the focus on war? And relatedly, you seem to be comfortable in that sticky space of history and truth, where the facts get fuzzy and documentation becomes an art of interpretation. How does this play out in your process of documenting war and atrocities?
Well, as far as truth and all that sort of thing, including the fuzziness of it, it’s not that I ever thought theoretically about this issue, it’s just there I am constructing a story and I’m aware of discrepancies. One guy’s saying that, and the other guy’s saying another thing. Now maybe they’re both talking about the same thing and on some level their stories agree, but in the fine details they don’t.
And you begin to understand that there are two ways to approach this. The first, which I think is the wrong way, is to get a kind of literary mallet and just start pounding down until you get a smooth surface. But it became clear to me when I’m doing these kinds of things there is a second way: I’m confronted with these problems and I’m going confront the reader with these problems.
This is why it’s difficult to get at history — it becomes an interesting subject in and of itself. And then I think when you’re honest in that way it makes the stories themselves somehow more credible, because then you begin to look for the commonality that shows that, well yes, there actually was story arc despite all the diversion or false memories or whatever it might be, that there’s a straight story arc that is true no matter who’s speaking.
Okay, and in this story arc, and the various people that you talk to, do you feel that these are subjugated truths, that you’re rendering or sculpting into one document? I ask because so many of the subjects are people that are marginalized or oppressed, or had just really terrible things happen to them.
What do you mean by subjugated exactly?
It’s a derivative of Foucault’s concept of “subjugated knowledge” — subjugated truths would be the stories that haven’t been told (or heard) because of other dominant narratives crowding them out or silencing them. So in terms of Palestine-Israel…
Oh, clearly, clearly. I mean, that’s an interesting term, I haven’t read Foucault so I should probably do so. At the very heart of the reasons for doing this particular story about Gaza, I’m speaking of Footnotes in Gaza, is this awareness that the only reference to the massacre is a UN document. I mean, any author who writes about the Suez war, or about what happened in ’56, basically just always refers back to the same document. That document’s been there for half a century, and it’s always sort of thrown up, but does that document present competing narratives?
To me it’s like, okay, some of these people are still alive who went through it. I’m not saying it’s a simple matter, but one could go and ask those people, and see if there’s a coherent story there. You know, one of the interesting things about doing a story like this — and I try to get it across in the book — is that so many things happened to these people, that that’s part of the reason for some of them get the stories mixed up in their heads. They might confuse ‘56 with something that happened to them in ’67 — when a similar thing has happened to them.
There are many of these intricacies and the idea is, how much of this can we resurrect? How much of this can we salvage from the depths of memory? And, on some level that depends on those people, some of the stories. And on some level it depends on me, because at some point you say, okay that’s enough. Now maybe there’s another hundred or two hundred people I could probably talk to who would be lucid, but you say to yourself, well you’ve got pretty much everything, you’ve got the story and it’s got to stop at some point. And that to me is always a sad point, because then you realize you’ve got your main arc of the story, [but] many individual stories will never really be heard for a larger audience. But that’s when a historian has to make a decision.
In Footnotes you mention there is a woman that you are interviewing and she’s having difficulty getting everything straight in her memories. You make reference to her crumbling tower of memories, and that what she’s doing — she’s trying to share some of the rubble with you.
Yes, that’s how it felt.
As an artist and a journalist seeking out the most accurate renderings of history, but often finding these inconsistencies and sometimes exaggerations, and sometimes totally misplaced memories, how do you feel the reader is meant to interpret the rubble?
I’m asking because in contradistinction to, mainstream journalism, where the narrative is always implied to be one that’s built on totally solid ground, there’s unsure foundations built from what could be called questionable sources or people that have trouble remembering something.