Thursday, January 31, 2013

Joe Sacco: Comics Journalism and Conflict

For a few weeks now, I have been reading (and viewing) the award-winning comics journalism of Joe Sacco. It has really made a strong and unexpected impact on me.

I started with Sacco's recent work in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which is primarily made up of text written by Chris Hedges (discussed in my previous post). I like Sacco's work in this book, but Hedges's text plays the starring role.

In Sacco's most acclaimed books (and all his own), Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, all the text is provided in comics panels. The images convey as much meaning and drama and reportage as the words. Unlike traditional journalism, Sacco is part of the story: his thin, worried figure makes its way through muddy streets in war-torn Bosnia (1992-95) or the West Bank or Gaza Strip (from 1990-91). We see him as outsider impacting the story -- and he also stands in for us -- amazed and befuddled at the destruction and survival of the places he visits.

I'm not a comics or graphic novel aficionado, but I would say that Sacco's drawings are loosely in an R. Crumb style, but a little more realistic (in his later works) and finely detailed. Sacco's birds-eye panoramas are especially compelling, showing wide angles and bustling activity that aren't usually caught in a photograph. Perhaps an apt comparison would be Brueghel. To my mind, the tension between the subject matter -- serious and deadly -- and the comics style gives the work great vitality.

Sacco mostly focuses on the nature of civilian life in conflict-torn areas. He also provides some history and context, especially in Gorazde. The U.N. comes off very poorly.

Sacco doesn't have a website, though you can find some images online. It's far better to dive into the over-sized books. I've included a couple of covers and one author self-drawing (much like what appears in his books; taken from the publisher Drawn & Quarterly's website). I believe this constitutes fair use, but I want to respect copyright, so if image owners (e.g., Sacco, his publishers) want images removed, please say so in the comments.