Nearly every day for seven years, Joe Sacco drew—frame by frame, letter by letter, crosshatch by crosshatch—a 390-page comic book reconstructing a story history had all but forgotten: the 1956 Israeli massacres of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Although suicide bombings, missile strikes, and surgical assassinations continue to be routine in this seemingly intractable conflict, Sacco chose to focus on two of the first attacks, Khan Younis and Rafah, which remain among the deadliest ever on Palestinian soil, even a half century later.
Sacco worked from interviews with witnesses, snapshots of the people and places today, and observations jotted in his notebook. He describes his technique as “extremely old-school”: laying down his first lines with No. 2 lead pencils on simple, two-ply Strathmore boards, followed by the careful strokes of a Speedball Crow Quill pen that has to be dipped in a jar of India ink every 30 seconds. The result is Footnotes in Gaza, hitting bookstores this month.
In the introduction to the American Book Award–winning Palestine —Sacco’s first book to merge comics and journalism—the Palestinian scholar Edward Said notes the artist’s keen eye for “history’s losers.” Drawn in pieces for the Guardian, the New York Times Magazine, and Harper’s, Sacco’s subjects have ranged from a Serbian wartime wheeler-dealer to the ragtag Iraqi army in Operation Iraqi Freedom. But Footnotes goes a step further, portraying not just the events that one Hamas official recalls as the moment that “planted hatred in our hearts” but also the elusive truth in the prismatic recollections of those who were there and survived.
Born in Malta, Sacco, 49, has lived in Australia, Germany, and New York City, but for the past seven years he has made Southeast Portland his home. With an assignment on African migrant workers in Malta penciled and awaiting ink, and a story on the poor of Camden, New Jersey, soon to commence, Sacco took a break to speak with Portland Monthly in his modest home office.