I want to demystify the whole process ?of gathering ?a story.
Joe Sacco, 50
OF THE MANY INSPIRATIONS that led Joe Sacco to fuse comics and journalism into a serious new literary genre—?using comic books to do long-form journalism about the world’s toughest war zones—the first was a group of grown men in yellow jumpsuits dancing like robots. As a senior at Beaverton’s Sunset High School struggling with his suburban experience, Sacco witnessed a Saturday Night Live performance by Devo playing “Satisfaction” and “Jocko Homo.” The group’s mordant social satire set to a driving techno-punk beat and their name, founded on the idea that technology was “devolving,” put words and images to Sacco’s discontent.
“It’s good to come across things that don’t just open up a door but kick it down,” he recalls before a pile of Bristol-board drawings in his Southeast Portland studio. “Devo showed me it’s possible to take the piss out of society—it’s possible to be satirical.”
Devo became the gateway drug to a whole range of societal malcontents: journalists George Orwell, Hunter S. Thompson, and Michael Herr and political critics Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. Inspired by their abilities to blast away dominant political narratives and reveal instead the lives of the everyday people tossed aside by the juggernaut of history, Sacco studied journalism but couldn’t find a job in the field. So in 1992, he traveled to Palestine to try to marry the reporting he wanted to do with his love of cartooning. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but I had to do it,” he says. “Otherwise I couldn’t live with myself.”
The resulting Palestine weaves together his experiences with Palestinian detainees, Israeli soldiers, and international journalists in stories that are revelatory, heart wrenching, and self-deprecatingly funny. It won the prestigious American Book Award in 1996 and inadvertently established the new genre of comic-book journalism. It’s a bookstore shelf Sacco has continued to fill with reporting on the ’90s Balkan wars and, most recently, with Footnotes in Gaza, a 418-page graphic tome about two 1956 Israeli massacres of Palestinians—massacres that continue to shape the Palestinian psyche even though the rest of the world has long since forgotten them.
“Most cartoonists are navel-gazing moles holed up in apartments,” says Craig Thompson, another Portland-based graphic novelist who has won international accolades. “Joe’s work extends far beyond comics in its sociopolitical relevance.”
Sacco is currently at work on a book with former war correspondent Chris Hedges about Camden, New Jersey, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and coal mines of West Virginia. Places, as Sacco wryly puts it, where “capitalism has done its finest—or its worst, depending on your perspective.”
“Basically, if something hits me in the gut, then my brain goes in that direction,” he says. “If I get wrapped up in the emotion, that’s where I’ll direct my energy.” —Aaron Scott