An Interview with Comics Journalist Joe Sacco (Part One)

Every year, I ask students in my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to apply what we are learning in the class and do an interview with a media maker. The goal is to pull to the surface their "theory" of the medium in which they operate -- the often unarticulated, sometimes well considered, assumptions they make about their audience, their creative context, their techniques, their technology, their cultural status, and so forth. I will be getting a chance this week to see what my students have produced. I knew going into the process this year that I would be interested to see what Huma Yusuf produced. Huma Yusuf graduated from Harvard in 2002 with a degree in English and American Literature, and returned to Pakistan to work as a journalist. She specializes in writing about social trends as represented in media and media and society issues, in addition to addressing subjects such as low-income housing, 'honor' killings, gang wars and the state's ineffective prosecution of rape cases. Her writing garnered the UNESCO/Pakistan Press Foundation 'Gender in Journalism 2005' Award and the European Commission's 2006 Natali Lorenzo Prize for Human Rights Journalism. Yusuf is interested in investigating the interface among media, local politics and global trends - an intersection that she will explore through sites such as community radio, trends in media consumption, and online environments. With the support of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, she is currently launching a first-of-its-kind webzine, the goal of which is to provide an alternate forum where journalists, academics, and media students can examine and critique the Pakistani media industry at large.

I knew because Huma is an interesting person with a journalist's impulses but also because she was connecting with Joe Sacco, the journalist who has used comics as a vehicle to capture the perspectives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Occupied Territories and to tell the story of the Bosnian War. We had been lucky enough to have Sacco as a speaker at a CMS colloquium event several years ago (alas, before we started our podcasts!) and I thought interesting things might happen if the two of them got on the phone together. When I heard she was doing the interview, I asked if we could run it on the blog.

Everything from here comes from Huma's account of the interview:

Working as a reporter in Karachi, Pakistan, I was often frustrated by the limitations imposed on my work by the parameters of traditional journalism. When I filed an interview with the Police Surgeon of Karachi, the man who oversees all forensic evidence gathering and related medico-legal issues in the city, I hated that I couldn't describe the homophobic graffiti that had been scratched onto the surface of his desk and filing cabinet, the best indication of the kind of pressure under which his team operated. While reporting on a horrific rape case, I would have given anything to describe the self-satisfied way in which the police official I interviewed scratched his crotch using a fly swatter throughout our conversation. That one crude yet probably unconscious gesture said more about the sense of physical entitlement that Pakistani men enjoy than anything I ever wrote. Similarly, if I could have admitted in print that I found myself throwing up in a back alley after visiting the sewage-ridden tin shacks of hundreds of homeless Karachiites, perhaps more people would have been outraged by a government scam that denied access to low-income housing.

I wasted many evenings arguing with my editor about the value of first-person narrative journalism and the shortcomings of objectivity. Unfortunately, neither of us could conjure a reporting template that would be considered appropriate within the standards set by the mainstream media, yet simultaneously capture everything that was raw and repulsive about the reality I was documenting.

Enter Joe Sacco. At the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston last fall, soon after my arrival in the US, I happened upon Palestine, Sacco's comic journalism tour de force. Although conference participants had spent the weekend brainstorming ways in which to make journalism more textured, insightful, and human, no one had come close to suggesting a technique that could rival the satirical, brutally honest, and profoundly immersive experience that is Sacco's work.

Often compared to Art Spiegelman's Maus, Sacco's award-winning Palestine: In the Gaza Strip (1996) has been hailed for setting new standards in the genre of non-fiction graphic novels, or, as Sacco terms it, comic journalism. With his follow-up effort Safe Area Gorazde: The War In Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, Sacco established himself as a journalist to be reckoned with. He has since covered all manner of "compelling" events from Ingushetia to Iraq, from rock bands on the road to raids in Ramallah. Each comic is reportage at its best, daring to go behind-the-scenes of journalistic objectivity, using alternating visual chaos and clarity to render a reporter's all-encompassing experience of a situation. Even better, Sacco's frames are replete with the adrenaline and anxiety, humor and humanity that are never granted any column inches.

While it would be inappropriate for me to compare Pakistan to Palestine, I do believe that there are some realities so absurd that they demand new ways of telling. Sacco's work serves as a reminder to all journalists that they should strive to recount the reality that drives their investigations by whatever means necessary. Sacco is currently working on another comic on the Gaza Strip. Until that hits bookstores, we can content ourselves with some thoughts from the cartoonist:

You've been described as a pioneer in the field of comic journalism, yet one could argue that your work is part of a long tradition, an evolution of the political cartoon. How do you contextualize your work?

I primarily think of myself as a cartoonist, but also as someone who is interested in political matters and what's going on in the world. I know there's a long tradition of illustrators dating back to the London Illustrated and Harper's coverage of the Civil War as well as another tradition of artists who deal with political matters, political cartoons, and editorializing news through pictures. In the end, though, my interests have just come together. I wanted to be a journalist and then fell back on an intense hobby to make a living. I don't think too much about where I place myself and I never really had a theory about what I was doing. People keep asking me about my work, so I'm coming up with something to say post-fact. But the truth is, it's quite accidental. If you've done something for 15 years, you need to build some theory around it, but I wasn't aware of what I was doing when I started doing it


Who or what has influenced your work?

George Orwell, Robert Crumb, Hunter S. Thompson, and Michael Herr's Dispatches. I really care about journalism and it's very important to me to get the facts. But I also like getting the taste of something in my mouth, being a part of the same swirl that the writer is in. Herr's work, for example, is more atmospheric and so tells more about war from a universal standpoint that can be accessed in different ways.

Given your influences, do you consider your work to be in line with that of the New Journalists?

I hesitate to make the direct connection. I studied standard American journalism and wanted to write hard news. I only wrote feature material later on. I discovered Herr half way through college and Thompson long after graduating. Other people have assigned me a place among the New Journalists, whatever that means. In my work, I'm just trying to create the flavor of a place I've been.

Did the New Journalists influence your decision to insert yourself into the narrative?

My work process has always been organic so I never made the conscious decision to appear in the narrative. When I started doing comics, I was doing autobiographical material. When I went to the Middle East, however, I wasn't exactly sure what I was going to do. But it wasn't such a stretch to think that I would reflect my own experiences in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, along the lines of a travelogue.

Looking back, I think having myself in it is a strong part of the work, not because I want to be a character, but because I want to point out that this material isn't objective, this is my point of view, these are the impressions I got. I'm interested in the facts, but that's not the same as being objective. My figure represents the personal pronoun 'I' and emphasizes that this isn't 'fly on the wall' journalism.

By inserting yourself in the narrative, you can also write the stuff that journalists don't, for example, about how people interact with you. I want to get away from the pretense of the reporter as artificial construct. Reporters have feelings about a situation and that impacts the way they write. My work is a way to demystify a process that may otherwise seem strange to people.