What keeps bringing you back to the Middle East?
I studied journalism at the University of Oregon and, it being an American university, what’s drummed into your head is “objectivity.” When I moved to Europe and began to see that the situation in the Middle East wasn’t quite like it was being presented by the US media, I was furious. American journalism is very self-congratulatory about its ability to tell two sides of the story. But it’s like watching a tennis game, where the ball is being hit back and forth by this spokesman to that spokesman. And then it’s up to the reader to decide. That didn’t seem a good model, especially in the Middle East. Clearly the Israeli point of view is very well represented, and the Palestinian point of view is not. I grew up with the notion that Palestinians were terrorists. Whenever I heard a Palestinian name, it was in relation to a hijacking or a bombing. There was never any context given. That was what really started to anger me once I realized what was really going on.
You graduated in 1981, when Bernstein and Woodward’s Watergate exposé was still blowing wind in journalism’s sails.
Yeah, in fact, it was hard to get a job because there were so many great journalism graduates around at that time.
You gigged with trade publications, worked on the Downtowner, and started a magazine …
[It was called] the Portland Permanent Press. It was comedy and satire. We interviewed visiting comedians.
But you had always drawn cartoons. When did you put the two pieces—journalism and cartooning—together?
Well, I had given up journalism and was trying to make a living in Berlin, mainly drawing album covers and posters. I toured Europe with a Portland band called the Miracle Workers, and I did a comic about that, writing down what they were saying and sketching them. That was a precursor. I had been interested in the Middle East for a while, but while in Berlin, I decided to go see what was happening for myself. And so I wouldn’t feel like I was wasting my own time, I decided to do some comics about it. I came out of that autobiographical tradition of cartooning, so it didn’t seem like much of a stretch. I thought, maybe I’ll talk to people, though I didn’t really think of it as “interviewing” at that time. But when I was there, all this journalistic stuff just kicked in. And suddenly I was taking notes, and being careful how I quoted people, and that sort of thing. Then I started thinking, “Oh, I’ve seen this part, but there’s this aspect or that aspect I should see.” And I started filling in the gaps. So, for example, I knew all the Palestinians’ ancient olive trees were being bulldozed by the Israelis, so I knew I should do something about that. I did not have a theory of comics and journalism, really, which is good. I think that’s why the first book (Palestine) will always seem kind of fresh.
Who is your audience?
When I first started out doing this, I thought, I’m going to cut my throat commercially. Who’s going to read a comic book about the Palestinians? And actually, as a comic book, it really failed. Over nine issues, the sales kept going down, worse and worse. It only succeeded when I put it into book form. After my Bosnia book came out (2000’s Safe Area Goražde), I realized there was an audience for it. With the rise of comics—not just because of me, but because other cartoonists were doing good work—it just seemed like comics reached this critical mass and I just happened to be there.