Graphic Lit: An interview with Joe Sacco
In 1991, cartoonist Joe Sacco took a trip to Israel and the occupied territories.
"I had begun to understand something of the oppression of the Palestinians," he recently wrote. "I was appalled, and I was overwhelmed with an almost physical need to act."
He then turned his travelogue into a nine-issue comic book series, "Palestine."
Though it sold poorly at the time, it's since gone on to become one of Sacco's most popular works, showing readers a new way to think about the medium's potential for exploring nonfiction material.
Sacco, meanwhile, has gone on to make a name for himself as a comics journalist, repeatedly traveling to areas such as Bosnia, the Middle East and Iraq to report on the human dramas found in these war-torn areas.
Now, the book that started it all, "Palestine," has been lovingly repackaged in a hardbound "Special Anniversary Edition."
The new collection comes complete with extended notes by Sacco, photos from his initial trip, early sketches, rejected pages and more, making it the graphic novel equivalent of a "Criteron Collection" release.
I recently talked to Sacco about "Palestine" and its influence. Here's what he had to say:
Q: How does it feel to be revisiting "Palestine" after all this time?
A: Well, you know, once you finish a book you kind of want to move away from it, not so much because you disown it, but because it seemed like a lot of work and you just creatively were in its grip for so long that it can be difficult to go back to it.
On the other hand, it was interesting to look at because so much of the way I work, the way I draw especially, has changed. It’s interesting to go back and see the energy I had in those days and in some ways the freedom I felt to explore what you could do with the idiom.
And of course now, inevitably, just because you get more experienced, you hone your craft, you know what you’re doing more, you’re more self-conscious, you kind of miss that abandon. I think there’s a certain abandon in the way I drew Palestine.
Q: Like an aloofness?
A: Yeah, that’s one way of defining it.
Q: I know you were talking about this in the introduction, but if you could just go over again why you decided to visit Israel and the occupied territories and turn your travels into a comic.
A: Well there were two main reasons. If I had to disentangle them -- and often these things are quite entangled for purposes of this conversation -- the two main reasons would be I was pretty much appalled by what was going on in the Palestinian occupied territories and I felt compelled to go and see for myself. In some ways that’s part of and is in tandem with this feeling that I’d been fed a lot of bullshit about what was going on in the region by the American media. Having studied journalism, I was plainly upset by the fact that I’d studied journalism, I thought I understood what objective journalism was all about, and then I began to realize that so-called objective journalism hadn’t shown me a damn thing. In fact, it had, as far as I'm concerned, misinformed me about what was going on. Or didn’t inform me, that’s probably the lightest way of putting it.
And so, having studied journalism I felt somehow betrayed by other journalists or other media outlets, because it’s not just the fault of journalists. That was another reason I was propelled to go. It’s the thing itself and the way the thing had been presented.
Q: In what way did your visit affect your initial perceptions?
A: Well, in that particular trip, and it doesn’t always happen, but in that trip my initial perceptions, my perceptions from afar, were re-enforced. What I thought I’d see, I saw. But of course, you’re seeing it in a very clear way and you’re seeing things you didn’t know you’d see necessarily, other parts of the puzzle, but ultimately what it led down to was what it was about before and when I got there was the brutality of the occupation.
Q: Now did you initially go with the idea of making it into a comic or was it more along the lines of “I just want to go and see for myself.”
A: It’s both. I wanted to go see for myself. I was compelled to do that. But I also didn’t like the idea of just going and being sort of a tourist in the occupied territories soaking up stuff with no real reason except to edify myself. That might be fine, but I thought I’ve already started this career — I wasn’t in high gear with the career, but I was already a cartoonist doing comic books -- and I thought well, I might as well make my trip useful. I thought when I went there I would pretty much thought of making it a travelouge of my experiences there. It would be autobiographical.
I knew that studying journalism I would want to talk to Palestinians there. I knew that would work its way into the book. It wasn’t going to be about me bumbling about. It was going to be other people's stories. I had a loose idea of what I was going to do, but when I went there I had no understanding ... I wasn’t 100 percent sure of what I was doing or whether I would be able to produce a book. Of course you go there without any experience and the fear is you’re not going to be up to the task of doing what you think you should be doing. That was a question to me.
Q: Was there, either during the trip or after when you started working on the comic, an aha moment for you where you thought "Hey I’m on the verge of something here. I could make a career out of this?"
A: No, strangely it was the opposite. There’s the creative part of you and fortunately, I let the creative part of me just go where it was going to go. You through away the bridle and let the horse run. But there was that other part of me that worries about eating and paying rent that was thinking “This is commercial suicide. I should just keep doing comics about rock and roll because I know about that stuff.” I was living in Berlin at the time and a lot of interesting things were happening there. Why not do that, that makes more sense from a commercial standpoint.
It was interesting to me, it wasn’t just like the philistine in me thinking. I wasn’t sure this was going to fly at all. There was no great "a-ha" moment becuase the comic was serialized and there were nine issues and each issue, if I remember right, was selling less than the one before it. So there was no a-ha, it was more like “OK, I’ve committed myself to doing this, it’s going to take a number of years to do, I’m going to finish it and that’s all there is to it. I’m just going to keep my eye on the ball." Because creatively I was enjoying it and I was sort of reliving the experience which was a good thing for me personally but I didn’t really think it was leading me anywhere commercially.
The "a-ha" moment would come when you feel others are responding to it. Critically it seemed to do really well, I had good comments from people who knew the region and all that, but if you don’t see readers reading it in the United States of America ultimately something has to sell for it to fly. If you want to make a living at it. If I was going to be an outsider artist all my life, which is fine, but that’s not who I am, I’d like to live just like anyone else would like to live.
Q: It’s funny you say that because it is your most well-known book and it did turn into a career for you so it’s interesting that you were so unsure that people would respond considering what it’s led to for you.
A: You know, what made "Palestine," I guess I’d have to call it a modest success and one that’s fine for me, and it’s done well, is the book on Bosnia. When I did the "Gorazde" book, I was at a low ebb for different reasons but I was almost about to give up cartooning completely. That book did well. It got reviewed in substantial mainstream markets. That book got a lot of attention. It was actually after that book was released that "Palestine" was collected into a single volume. That’s when "Palestine" began to do well, when it got into bookstores too. So actually it’s almost the success of the Bosnia stuff that led to the door opening for "Palestine," which was at that point being done for years.
And it’s true, I guess I’m more well known for "Palestine" on a certain level, but I’d say that has to do with the topic. That’s the reason.
Q: Recently Tom Spurgeon said something along the lines of publishers didn’t know what to do with your work or how to promote it. Do you feel that’s changed significantly? That the market has changed enough to support you doing these kinds of comics?
A: The market has changed immeasurably since I started doing "Palestine." Then I had no perception, no concept of myself in comics. I quite naively thought that based on what I’d done with "Palestine" I could get someone to sponsor my trip to Bosnia. That was laughable because even though people might like what I did with the "Palestine" comic, at that point it hadn’t been collected into a book and there was no proof that it had sold. I basically got a lot of nos and had to self-finance the trip to Bosnia too.
So that was two major trips I had to self-finance and that’s why I was at the end of my rope. But because the "Gorzade" book did well and then the "Palestine" book did well, and I started getting a lot more attention from people like yourself. Suddenly doors started to open. Editors were more interested and to make a long story short I’m at a point now where if I really wanted to travel somewhere and do a story I would just have to call my agent and mention it and see if she thinks anyone will buy it.
Editors are much more receptive. Often they seek me out. I think partly that has to do with the fact that comics it seems in the last few years, and it’s not just because of my work, comics have just achieved a critical mass. Of course there were great comics before, but for some reason it just happened now.
Also, editors are younger. and that makes a difference. when you’re dealing with someone who’s in his 60s, unless he’s up to date or willing to try something new, they would just sort of look at you and think “Nah, I don’t think so.” It’s really changed a lot.
Q: What do you feel is the general reaction towards "Palestine?" How do you feel it is regarded both in the ensuing years and initially? And also, what are some of the more interesting reactions you’ve gotten from people?
A: I think generally "Palestine" has been pretty well-regarded. I think clearly it’s not a unobjective piece of work, but that’s clear, I’m not trying to pretend otherwise. But I do think, as I said in the intro, I think it’s an honest piece of work.
So to me the best response, the ones I enjoy the most are from people who’ve spent time in the region and say my experiences really resonate with them because they remind them of their own. There have been occasional attacks on it. but the great thing about having done it the way I did it, despite the fact that it was disheartening not to have any attention, on the other hand, it was under the radar, which allowed me to do it without worrying about critical response. I was maybe less steeled for that than I am now.
Q: Are you more concerned about a critical response now?
A: No, just as much as anyone. I’m older now, a bit more mature, I could probably handle it better.
Q: I didn’t mean to the extent that you would change something in the book but more that you were aware of it moreso than before.
A: I think I’m just more confident in my work now than I was during "Palestine."
Q: I wanted to ask you how the work evolved as you wrote it, because the tone changes a lot. I think that’s one of the good things about the book, but it starts out very self-effacing and then takes a much darker tone as you get into Gaza.
A: Well, the thing about the West Bank episodes is that they are self-contained chapters. When I got to Gaza I actually fell in with two or three people that end up being characters in the book. and I think that’s where the emphasis shifts. And I think I was sort of overwhelmed and stupified by what I saw in Gaza that Gaza itself becomes a character in the book and I have to recede. It might have almost been a subconscious decision with me but clearly my self-effacement is very secondary to the grimness of the situation. I’m not sure it was something I thought out. I knew the Gaza chapters would come at the end of my book because that was the chronology of my trip. Not that the book was entirely chronological, but that’s how it turned out. And I think it serves the book, sort of bumbling, funny to purely grim.
Q: You also make a lot of different stylistic choices as the book goes on, for example in “Moderate Pressure Part 2” you slowly divide into smaller and smaller panels or you have pages with lots of text. You mix it up a lot and I was wondering how conscious that was and in a general sense how you arrived at those sorts of choices.
A: Well some of those choices were just the maturing of an artist. One of the interesting things about the "Palestine" book is I think I matured as an artist in that period. It’s funny because in some ways it’s not a consistent book as far as the drawings go. Initially if you look at the first few pages, they’re very cartoony. If you look at the last few pages, they’re still cartoony but they’re much more representational. I purposely tried to tone down the cartooniness because it didn’t seem appropriate to the kind of journalistic story I was telling. It took effort, because I was never trained to draw. That’s something I’ve had to push myself toward.
That was a very conscious decision. Another conscious decision was to lose the wild panels and angles. Now some of those are in the later part of the book, but especially in the beginning, I’m much freer and looser with how I'm showing things. And I’m sorry to say that a lot of that had to do with the fact that I wanted to keep myself interested in the drawing. One of the hardest things to do is to draw the same thing over and over again at a certain angle, even if it’s necessary to tell your story. I’ve learned to do that. It doesn’t necessarily make for a splashy looking page, but it keeps the story going. I’ve learned maybe not to arrest the reader at the wrong time with a fancy drawing.
One thing I do like about the book and that I’ve continued to use is the use of very large two page spreads or long big panels detailing a lot of things going on. That give a very broad perspective of what a place looks like. A lot of that came from children’s books I read when I was a kid, these history book that would have castles of the middle ages with all these people walking around.
Now I’d say my art, I think I get better. I just draw better. I’m definitely at a plateau now where I know when to rein in certain tendencies I have. It doesn’t make for as spectacular a book as "Palestine," but it makes for one that reads a bit more smoothly.
Q: Are you still in touch with any of the people you met during your initial travel?
A: No, not during my initial travel. I sent books to five or seven people and never received a reply. But you know you have to send those books through Israel so I don’t ...
Q: They may never have gotten them.
A: I don’t know, I can’t say. When I was there recently I tried to look some people up but I just couldn’t find them.
Q: I was curious whatever happened to Sameh.
A: I was curious too. When I was lost in Jabalia Camp I really tried to find him. Maybe on some other trip.
Q: You were back again recently?
A: I’ve been back about five times since the book came out. Most recently I’m working on a book about Gaza based on three trips I took there. That was 2003 was the last trip I took and a lot’s happened since then.
Q: What can comics do for journalism that photos or pure prose can’t? What are the benefits of doing a journalistic story in comics?
A: There’s a number of them. I think comics are a very subversive sort of medium. I think people are attracted by images, they’re attracted by the pictures. They also think “Oh, it’s comics, it’s going to be easy.” A reader’s going to say "I’ve never read a book about this in my life, but it looks like I can get into this." They get sucked into it and then the story becomes the main thing and they’re getting a lot of information. I think that easily rivals a documentary series.
I think a comic because of repeated images also can create an atmosphere of a place. It’s repeated images so there are certain things going on in the background that you don’t have to mention over and over again. If you’re writing about how much graffiti was on the wall in prose, you write it once, you don’t write it every paragraph. Whereas in comics, it can be in the background every panel so it sort of sinks into the reader’s consciousness.
The other thing I think you can do with comics is take people back and forward through time. You can be in the present, you can switch to the past, and because of the way you draw, it seems seamless, with no actors acting out the way they do sometimes with documentaries that makes you kind of wince.
Q: I definitely agree with you about place setting, because one of the things I got out of "Gorazde" was a sense of what that place was like.
A: Thank you. That was very important to me, because I remember reading John Byrne’s article, he’s a New York Times correspondent, from Gorazde when he actually walked across those fountains and spent a week there in 1993. And they were very compelling and very evocative but on the other hand I had no clue what the place looked like. When I go there I had nothing that I could say this is what the place looks like. When I got there there were tall apartment buildings and wow this is a town. From reading the articles I had no clue whether it was a village with little houses or what. So to me, to make something real, you can do it with drawings.
Q: What lessons did you take away from "Palestine" as an artist?
A: Many things. A very specific thing is I wouldn’t do that long text piece and just had illustrations like you mentioned. However, the main thing I learned is that I could do this. That at least to my satisfaction I was able to accomplish something. That gave me the confidence to go to Bosnia. That’s really the main thing. The other thing is you learn over the course of three years, drawing day in, day out, your drawings get better. That’s the hope.
Q: As I’m talking to you the big news this week has been about the meeting in Annapolis, so what do you make of the current Mideast situation? Is it better or worse than the situation you portray in Palestine.
A: I think it’s much worse. Since I was there for that first trip there was the second infantada with great amounts of violence. The whole thing with Annapolis, I’m not the first person to say this but at first they made it sound like something substantial was going to come from it, and now they just met to say they’ll be meeting later. It seems ridiculous. Everyone’s putting themselves on the line for nothing. I don’t see anything coming from this. I’m pessimistic.
Q: If you could look into your crystal ball, what do you see for the future of Israel and Palestine?
A: If things continue the way they’re going, if they’re not arrested, if my crystal ball could go 20-30 years down the road, I don’t see a very good outcome for this for either the Israelis or the Palestinians. I think one or the other is going to be seriously hurt when it comes down to it. I fear for the Israelis actually and I fear for the Palestinians. the worst case scenarios are that Israelis lose what they have or Palestinians are completely evicted from the land. Either of those events are possible. They better figure it out sooner rather than later is what I’m saying. The longer it goes on, the more entrenched the problem’s going to become. It’s already one of the longest running problems in the history of the world.
Q: Do you see anything that gives you hope?
A: The only thing that gives me cause for hope is that individuals on both sides and probably the majority, really want to settle the problem. Most people are pretty sensible and just want to have an ordinary life and want to move on. Things like dignity and justice are very important, no doubt about it, but there’s a need to live an average life that people have and the hope is that there will be enough pressure from below to make the leaders figure it out. It seems like the problem is some of the things that have happened were made specifically to make the problem intractable. There’s no other explanation as far as I’m concerned for the settlements. Putting 500,000 people and I’m including Jerusalem, which is often excluded from conversations like this, but putting people in an occupied territory is not an easy thing to undo. And that was the thinking behind it, to make it impossible to go back. They’ve done a good job of that. It’s unfortunate. Unless that is significantly reversed, I don’t know what else to say about it. You’re really leading to endless conflict.
Q: Part of the reason I ask that question is in Palestine, and I hesitate to use the word fatalistic, but there is a sense of an overwhelming problem that Americans are a) not aware of and b) so divisive that — there’s very much a sense of being overwhelmed by the time you reach the end of the book. I mean that as a compliment (laughter).
A: That’s interesting. I was only putting down what I felt and what I saw. I think it’s unfortunate that — it seems that America would be a friend to Israel by saying now is the time to deal with the situation. Under every American administration, but particularly under this one, they’ve allowed Israel to sort of just ...
Q: ... do whatever they want?
A: Yeah, that’s basically it. I don’t think that’s good for Israel. Actually there are saner voices in Israel that keep saying we can’t have the Americans allowing us to continue this.
Q: Again, there’s that sequence at the end of Gaza strip, where you leave this wrenching sequence, and the guy in the car has yet another story. So again, there’s the sense of this enormous problem. And at the end you ask what happens, what comes next?
A: Well, that was it. You see some kid being humiliated like that, and you put yourself in that person’s shoes and you think this could turn out a lot of ways that might not be for the best. And then you wonder why people do what they do? In some cases you see a direct link to what they’ve lived and what they’ve seen and what they do. And that was an open-ended question that I wanted to leave because that’s how I felt. How long are you going to keep a lid on this? You can't do this to people continually. One generation gets battered down and then rises and then the next generation gets battered down and rises but at some point people break. They either break or they fight. It’s one or the other.
Q: What do you think the influence of "Palestine" has been, especially within comic circles. It seemed to me when the book came out and also "Gorazde" years later, it won a lot of critical acclaim, but when I was getting ready to interview you I was trying to think of other cartoonists that were trying journalism, but I couldn’t think of any. What influence do you think you’ve had?
A: That’s a question for my many future biographers. I’m not sure what influence I’ve had. I’ve been contacted by cartoonists who’ve said they’d like to do something like this. I think other people have done this sort of thing. There are some French cartoonists who have. Even Art Spiegelman was once an editor at Details magazine and pretty much his approach was to send people out on journalistic assignments.
Some of those were lighter than others, but the idea was still to send someone out to report. I don’t know if that’s related to me and I don’t think an artist should think too much about that sort of thing. I’ve always thought of myself as a little anomalous. I see other cartoonists that are much more influential stylistically on others. I don’t see much of me in most of my peers. But I do know that there are some younger cartoonists who talk about wanting to do something like this. They say they’re inspired by me. And I’m glad for that, but any influence I’ve had I don’t see it yet.I don’t see myself as the granddaddy of anything. And I don’t want to consider myself that. You start to ossify when you think of yourself as that (laughs). I think the door is open to this sort of thing.
Q: Would you like to see more people try their hand at this sort of thing?
A: Yeah, comics are so well suited for this sort of thing. There’s a Canadian cartoonists working on a book about mining. Canadian mining comics or something.
Q: What are you proudest of about "Palestine?"
A: The sequence in Gaza, and I’m not sure I can ever duplicate it or do as good a job, there’s sequence in Gaza where I’m with Sameh and we’re just walking through the camp. I feel like I created a mood and atmosphere there that I just allowed myself to do. I got my own experience down properly. That’s probably what I’m proudest of.
I’m proud of the book as a whole. Of course I am. But then again, I wnat to move on and I don’t want to be just known as the guy who did "Palestine." I don’t want to be creatively trapped by it either.
Q: Tell me about this new book you’re working on.
A: I won’t tell you too much about it. I’m more than 2/3 of the way done. It’s a very long book. I’m up to page 230 now as we speak. It’s Gaza and some time I spent in southern -- Khan Yunis and Rasah. I spent time there in 2003 but it’s mainly a book of history. It’s a book about what happened in Gaza during Israel’s very short occupation of the Gaza strip in the 1956 war. So mainly I was just speaking to old people.
Q: Who’s going to be publishing that?
A: Metropolitan. They’re a division of Holt. They’ve never done a comic before, so this is something new for them.
Q: When will this be coming out?
A: Well I won’t be finished it until late next year, so my guess is 2009. And the way I’m going, I’ve got a lot to do.