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Joe Sacco draws Mideast conflict

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Pulitzer prize winner Art Spiegelman is America’s foremost practitioner of comics as current events and history. However, Joe Sacco, who has brought his pencil to bear on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is coming on strong. I had reason to think about the oppression of Palestinians anew after Little Green Football‘s proprietor Charles Johnson attempted to stifle to discussion of the invasion of Iraq at Blogcritics. That interest happened to coincide with the return of Sacco, who spent much of his youth here, to Portland.

Joe Sacco has a motto. – “Me like to party.” – The 43-year-old, who is one of the most original cartoonists in the world, moved back to Portland this summer.

“I couldn’t handle being hung-over all the time,” he says with a smile.

Sacco spent the last year in Switzerland and the previous two in New York, where his work was endorsed by political writers Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens.

“And now I have a deadline.”

Sacco expects to deliver his next manuscript in spring 2006. The man who wrote the book on “cartoon journalism” has done the shoe-leather reporting on Rafah, a refugee camp in Gaza. Now he just needs his peace and quiet.

The new book will be the second Sacco has set in the Middle East. Palestine described the experience of a novice in that war-torn territory in the 1992-93. A reviewer at Amazon captures the zeitgeist of the revelatory comic.

Starting with a typical attitude of “Who cares?” Sacco shows us how his visit to the West Bank and Gaza in the early 1990s transformed him completely. Palestinians have much against them in todays world, not least the stereotypes of “supporting terror” . . . that the Israeli propaganda machine heaps on them every day. These stereotypes create a formidable barrier between the Palestinian people and Americans. Americans do not feel like they should even pay attention to these “insignificant terrorists” – and that is precisely the goal of the propagandists in the first place: to silence the Palestinians and prevent their very humanity (let alone their message) from being recognized.

Enter Joe Sacco, with master strokes of a cartoonist’s pencil, he succeeds singlehandedly in shattering those barriers. For the first time in an American [publication], you actually see Palestinians as people, you enter their households, you talk to them, you listen to their problems, and you think about it. Well, so what?

If you always thought that the middle east problem is “too complicated” or “has been going on for too long” to be able to understand it, it is time to get out your credit card and buy this book. In the most enjoyable cartoon style that makes it hard for you to let go of the book, you will see things like you’ve never witnessed them before. This is the raw human story, not the clinically sterilized CNN version of events, or the dry history book polemics. I guarantee that after reading Sacco’s Palestine, something will click and you will finally understand what’s been going on, more clearly than you ever have before.

WARNING: Not for the faint of heart!

If the West Bank is purgatory, then the Gaza Strip is Hell. So, Sacco returned to live there there for a time.

“I like Gaza. I like the people,” he says in his soft voice, still tinged by the Australian accent, where he lived until he was 12. “You don’t have this middle-class moaning that you hear in Ramallah and east Jerusalem from Palestinians. These people are refugees. They’ve got something to moan about.”

Sacco was determined to get a close-up look at the second intifada.

“The intifada now is militarized. They’ve picked up Kalashnikovs, and they fire mortars and rockets, while the Israelis have gone from Jeeps to tanks, Apache helicopters and F-16s,” he says.

So he made trips to Rafah, on the border with Egypt, where the Israeli army demolishes houses and gun-smuggling tunnels, last November, then February through March, and May. Through connections, he rented a six-room house (with three toilets and four balconies) for $150 a month.

“You see people who are doing OK and people in abject poverty,” he says.

The press corps rarely goes there, though, because roadblocks make it a long drive from Jerusalem. Western reporters don’t stay for two months. Journalistically, he’s shooting fish in a barrel.

The writer is careful not to surrender his journalistic objectivity.

He’s more interested in how the locals react to the bombers, what they say. Old people in his books often make anti-Jewish remarks: “I might be sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, but if (they) were saying things that I felt made them look bad, they’re still going to go in.”

Take it from someone who worked in journalism for years, the average reporter is not about to give up a comfortable leather swivel chair in front of his computer to run around in places where people get killed. So, where, did is Joe Sacco coming from?

Sacco received his bachelor of arts degree in journalism at the University of Oregon in 1981. Two years later he returned to his native Malta, where his first professional cartooning work (a series of romance comics) was published. After relocating back to Portland, he co-edited and co-published the monthly comics newspaper Portland Permanent Press from 1985 to 1986; PPP lasted 15 issues, and included early work by such cartoonists as John Callahan and J.R. Williams. In 1986, Sacco moved to the Los Angeles area, where he worked on staff for Fantagraphics Books, editing the news section for the trade publication The Comics Journal and creating the satirical comic magazine Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy.

From 1988 to 1992, Sacco criss-crossed the globe, producing six issues of his own comic book Yahoo for Fantagraphics Books as he traveled. He returned to Malta for a half a year; he spent a couple of months traveling around Europe with a rock band (an experience he recorded in Yahoo #2); he lived for close to two years in Berlin, where he drew dozens of record sleeves and posters for German record labels and concert promoters; and, in late 1991 and early 1992, he spent two months in Israel and the occupied territories, traveling and taking notes. When he finally returned again to Portland in mid-1992, it was with the intention of communicating what he had witnessed and heard during his Mid-Eastern jaunt – to combine the techniques of eyewitness reportage with the medium of comics storytelling to explore this complex, emotionally weighted situation. Palestine, the first issue of which was released in January, 1993, was the result.

If you have read Maus, Spiegelman’s epic about the dehumanization and destruction of Jews in Germany, I’m sure it is an experience that stayed with you. You will find Sacco’s works just as stimulating.

A major aspect of the blogosphere being dominated by the Right is that too many bloggers conform to received wisdom that is not necessarily wise. One is not ‘supposed to’ criticize the hateful motivation behind a large blog such as Little Green Footballs. So, most bloggers either bow in obeisance or ignore the harm being done to the dissemination of information by the squelching of anything other than a Zionist perspective. Mac-a-ro-nies will do neither.

I await the release of Sacco’s latest two years from now. Meanwhile, I’m going to reread his earlier books, which include The Fixer and Notes from a Defeatist. What this cartoonist and journalist is achieving is no ordinary feat. But, then, he is not your average Joe.

Note: This entry also appeared at Mac-a-ro-nies.

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About The Diva

  • Shark

    McD: You’ve called me a racist explicitly a number of times on BC. Time to put up or shut up.

    I’ll stop when you meet my challenge:

    Find one derogatory post I’ve written about “…people of color’s’ basketball, singing, thinking, or writing abilities.”

  • Shark

    “Take it from someone who worked in journalism for years…”

    PLEASE PROVIDE ONE LINK TO A STORY YOU’VE WRITTEN AS A PAID JOURNALIST.

    JUST ONE.