An Interview with Comics Journalist Joe Sacco (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with comics journalist Joe Sacco (Palestine) as conducted by CMS Masters student Huma Yosef (herself a former professional journalist from Pakistan). Today, I continue this interview. It occurred to me as I was putting this together that it represents a fascinating contrast to the interview I ran a week or so back with comics Creator Rob Walton (Ragmop). Both artists are very interested in using comics to explore political issues but they approach these issues from very different vantage points: Sacco creates realist comics that document the everyday lives of people from war-torn countries while Walton uses fantasy and comedy to encourage us to reflect on the American political process. Between them, they suggest some of the ways that comics may function as civic media.

I now turn you over to Huma for the rest of her interview.

In what ways is your method of working akin to that of a journalist?

I conduct lots of rigorous, sit-down interviews, one after the other. Lots of things happen that aren’t part of the interview process, and I’m often in situations where I can’t take notes. In those instances, I duck behind a wall and frantically take as many notes as I can. In the evenings, I translate all my notes into a journal.

I also take photographs whenever I can. I’m currently doing a book about the Gaza Strip for which, after interviewing someone, I’d take his or her photograph. If someone refused to have a picture taken, then I’d try to quickly draw an image of the person in the margin of my notebook. Sometimes, there are things I realize I need to draw only after I start working. In that case, I visually research places later on. When I was working on Palestine, I wasn’t aware of a lot of things and had to draw a lot from memory. With Safe Area Gorazde, my process has evolved. Now, if anything, I take too many pictures.

On the job in Palestine, I also started following stories as they unfolded. Like any reporter who has a little freedom, you follow your nose and try to cover the stories that you don’t think anyone else will tell. For example, Gorazde opened up while I was there – I didn’t know I would write about it until I arrived in Bosnia. Once I identified my subject, I conducted preliminary interviews about what happened, then broke it down into component parts. No doubt, the second time around was a more methodical process as I was a little more self-conscious about what I was doing.


What extra measures do you have to take given the visual nature of your work?

I have to ask a lot of visual questions about what a street or a camp looked like. Still, you’re not always aware in the field of what visual stuff you’ll need when you start drawing. Over time, my method has been honed, and I’m more aware of what I’ll need later on.

I also need to do extra research sometimes. For example, the work I’m doing right now is sent in Gaza in 1956. I’ve made trips to United Nations archives to gather photographic evidence of Gaza city at that time. When I was interviewing people about what happened, I spent a significant amount of time talking about the visual details. I had people taking me around and showing me old houses, some of which had been built over, but still gave me a sense of how things looked.

Do you struggle with issues of journalistic integrity when drawing something that you haven’t seen or been able to find photographs of?

I’ve never had a situation where I couldn’t visualize something to some level of accuracy. I may not know exactly if there were trees or a hill there, but I’m not going to drop material because of details like that. I like to compare myself to a film director who’s making a movie about the 1700s: you just have to recreate something to the best of your ability sometimes. Granted, not every twig is going to be in the right place, it won’t literally be the same thing. But I’m clear about the fact that my work is an artistic rendition of something, a mixture of art and journalism. If I start obsessing about the details, I may as well be a photographer.

How do you respond to critics who argue that your work cannot be considered journalism because of its artistic dimension?

It’s perfectly valid to argue against what I do and wonder whether it can be considered journalistic. I describe my work as comic journalism, other people call it documentary journalism, but these are all just labels to me. The fact is that no one can tell an entire story, everyone concentrates on what they want to, details are cropped out of photographs, stories go through an editing process. Every portrayal is to some extent a filter, and on that level something that someone might find problematic. Ultimately, I try to be as accurate when putting down quotations and describing things. I’m not making things up even though there is an interpretive element to my work.

You told The Guardian that you do “comics, not graphic novels”. Could you elaborate on that distinction?

A novel to me is fiction. I think of myself as working in the non-fiction world and don’t like my work being considered fiction. I think of the term ‘graphic novel’ as a marketing moniker geared towards adults who are scared of comics. But it doesn’t bother me to talk about my work as comics. I consider myself a comic book artist. The notion of comics still has an underground feel to it, which is fun.

Have you had trouble explaining the medium that you work in to interviewees who may not be familiar with comics?

The main problem I’ve had is with myself. When I was working on Palestine, I would tell people I was working on a ‘project’ because I felt sheepish and unsure about what I was doing. By the time I was in Bosnia, things were different. Younger people were more open to me as they have a history of comics there. Moreover, by some weird coincidence, someone in Sarajevo reviewed my work just before I got there, so people were greased for it.

During my last few trips to Gaza, I would bring my book along and show it to people. Especially with older people, having my work with me worked to my advantage since they don’t speak English but can recognize the streets or camps that I’ve drawn. Different cultures might be different, but in the Middle East they can get their head around the idea of drawing and depicting historical events. In Iraq, when I was with marines, there was no getting around what I was doing because they could easily google me and find out exactly what I was up to. So I did meet some lieutenant colonels who were skeptical about my method but were willing to give it a shot because I had press credentials.

Do you manipulate comic conventions such as framing to express meaning?

Yes. My drawing is a very conscious process. The choice of frames, the decision to put captions in little bursts, each angle is very thought out. In Palestine, I feel I overdid some things and have since learned how to discipline my drawing. While working on Palestine, I’d get tired of drawing the same angle so I’d change angles. But now I know to stick with something if I need to maintain a tone.

Does your process involve much revision?

I try not to revise much. I write the script of the comic first and spend a while on this stage. Most of the editing occurs when I realize that I don’t need to write out something because I can draw it instead. Other than that, I try to keep the script as it is. In the drawing, on the other hand, I let myself be loose and problem solve as I’m working. I don’t story board the whole comic, which makes the process a little more lively and spontaneous. If it were a matter of connecting the dots, I don’t think I could carry on working without losing interest.

Where and how were you introduced to comic books?

I grew up in Australia where I read British war comics and some American western comics. I didn’t read many super hero comics, other than perhaps strips about The Phantom. It became a hobby because I’d draw my own little figures, mimicking the ones I saw in the comics I was reading.

Do you think working in the medium of comics liberates your journalism from the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle?

I don’t think the freedom from the conventional news cycle is peculiar to comics. Herr’s Dispatches, for example, is liberated from the constraints of time. I think it’s about the approach rather than the medium. With my work, it has to be about the approach. I look for stuff that people will respond to even if the material is dated. That said, I try to make my shorter pieces for magazine publication timelier.

What can traditional print journalism learn from your work?

I

‘ve been trained in classic American objective journalism, but I feel like a reporter should not treat a reader like a repository for facts, rather as someone you’re talking to across a table. When I’m reading about a place, I want to know what it’s like, what it feels like to be there. I think American journalism lacks the human element that is a bit more prevalent in the British press.

When I’d be sitting with US correspondents in Jerusalem, they’d tell me a story about something that happened to them, but would never write about it. They’re so focused on getting all the right quotes, telling this side of the story, that side of the story, interviewing the right spokesperson, and working by the numbers, that they end up doing a disservice to their readers by being objective. They’re so focused on being balanced, they don’t tell you what they know themselves. It’s difficult to maintain objectivity when you start writing that way, but I think reporters should be human beings with an opinion. Why can’t a reporter tell me exactly what he or she thinks? Why is all the talking left up to pundits who never leave their desks in DC?

How do you decide which events to cover?

The hardest thing about this kind of work is how much time you spend on the desk. There’s that impulse to always see more, but I have to choose the things that matter to me personally for whatever reason. To some extent, it used to be a financial thing. But it’s ultimately about what hits you in the gut. The Palestine issue really hit me in the gut. When you start thinking about it, you realize what a disservice has been done to the issue by its media coverage in the US, you realize how many tax dollars go into perpetuating the situation. Similarly, I felt compelled to go to Bosnia. And when I had the gut instinct to go to Iraq, I started calling up agents to see if anyone would be interested in my work about the war.

Of course, there are other things that I’m compelled to do, but if you spend three, four, or even five years on a book, the years start to go by and you can’t get to everything, even if it is compelling and interesting.

You also need to prepare yourself before you go, and it can take years of reading to learn the ten per cent you need to know so that you can be open to what’s happening there and not waste time asking the simple questions. That basic historical context is important, even though you learn the rest when you get there. That said, I now want to do some shorter pieces for magazines and get out more.

Do you consider returning to the territories you’ve covered in order to keep your work up to date?

I feel I’ve already gone pretty deep into the places I’ve covered. Ultimately, I don’t think I can really go much further than I’ve gone without becoming an Arabist. I think I’d need an academic base to go much further. But then question arises: am I a cartoonist or an Arabist? Also, I feel the urge to cover new ground and be creative for my own sake.

Do you think you’ve created a market for comic journalism that didn’t exist when you started working?

I just tried to do what I wanted to do and didn’t think about whether it would work out commercially for me. I thought I was committing commercial suicide with Palestine. Then, half way through Safe Area Gorazde, I had no success at all and was about to give up. But it’s always been about doing what I want to do and so I stuck with it. Other people have come to see value in it. It’s been a long road and it has taken many years for it to happen, but now I can pick and choose a lot more than I ever imagined possible. It helps that there’s been increased interest in comics too.

Does your methodological approach change as you cover topics as varied as rock bands and the Balkan war?

With most of my work, I try to draw relatively realistically, and that’s been a struggle since I’ve largely self-taught myself. When doing the rock band book, then, I’ve got a looser style and I enjoy doing it more. When doing funny work, I’m less worried about accuracy, the stakes are lower, and I can have more fun with the material.

Has there been a political backlash to your work?

Not really. Once in a while a store won’t put my work on the shelves, but I’ve never had to deal with anything I’ve been bothered about. When Palestine came out, it was under the radar. My next book may not be under the radar, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with that.

Given that your work reflects a political stance that is uncommon in the mainstream media, are you concerned about broadening your audience?

I probably get a bigger audience now, in this medium, than I would otherwise. No other medium is going to publish or broadcast this stuff. I also feel that if you popularize the material, you have to dumb it down. Overall, I think if I was to try any other tactic, I wouldn’t have gotten done what I have managed to do.