A Sorry Spectacle: Comics Journo Joe Sacco On Palestine, Israel, Bush

Joe Sacco can give you a headache.

A cartoonist who is more often recognized as a journalist, he straddles so many fences that he makes you realize that life really isn’t simply a choice between black and white. Ironic, considering that his comics are mostly in black and white, and that he spent much of his early years after graduating with a journo degree from the University of Oregon in 1981 trying to find a job writing legit investigations about matters of consequence. That went nowhere, so he turned to comics, which took him seriously, and then took him where he was looking to go all the time.

It is that type of reversible flux that marks his compelling work, usually delivered from embattled regions like Sarajevo, Gorazde, and the mother of all geopolitical clusterfucks, the Palestinian territories. Or Palestine, as he calls it in his American Book Award-winning collection of the same name, now receiving the deluxe-reissue treatment from comics powerhouse Fantagraphics. He was overdue for an upgrade: Sacco has created panels on subjects as different as indie rock and war crimes for Harper’s, The Guardian, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor and other publications. Plus, Palestine is his Great American Novel, and is making the rounds not just at comics houses, but at universities, J-schools and more.

“It was originally published as a trade paperback,” he told me recently. “The fact that it’s getting the hardcover treatment means it’s a book with long-term merit.”

Merit? Palestine bleeds gravitas, even as it is populated by avatars leaning closer to caricature than photo-realism. And it’s not a polemic, which is why it has stuck around so long and blown down so many doors. Sacco analyzes the Israelis and the Palestinians on equal time, giving their intractable, millennia-old tribal conflict the type of complexity you rarely experience elsewhere.

And given that complexity, it is miles away from a solution, according to Sacco. Even with the recent agreement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to restart talks to build a Palestinian state by the end of Bush’s second term, not to mention Bush’s recent crazy-bold promise to deliver a peace treaty by the time he leaves office — or the fact that he has actually called Israel’s iron grip on the region an “occupation.”

But Sacco is less than convinced that a political solution is at hand, and he’s not alone in that perspective, especially in the region itself: A Yediot Achronot survey taken after the summit, as well as one from Ha’aretz, found that a commanding majority of Israelis consider the meeting a failure. The Palestinians, surrounded by walls and searched and seized within inches of their lives, are equally suspicious of a detente. The reasons range from religious and political differences to water rights and birthrates.

Like I said, a headache. A splitting migraine.

So Bush restarted the road map in Annapolis. Does he honestly believe he can broker a Palestinian state by the end of his term in office?

Nothing substantial came out of it. If Bush was serious about moving this issue, he’d demand settlement activity stop and roadblocks be removed. He’d give the Palestinians a reason to hope they are on the road to a nation and not a series of self-policing Bantustans.

You’re siding with the region, which polled pretty negatively on the summit?

I don’t think anyone’s expectations were raised. Everyone’s seen these talks about talking before. But it’s a sorry spectacle to see a president of the United States using such a wretched conflict to get himself a Clintonesque photo on the front pages and three or four days of lukewarm press coverage. The man can’t see further than next week.

What are your thoughts on the progress, or regress, of the regional relationship, this long after the publication of Palestine?

I’m rather pessimistic. Not only has the occupation continued, it has gotten worse. My first visit to the region came before the famous handshake between Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn. But since that Oslo agreement, the number of Israeli settlers has doubled, the ability of Palestinians to move between towns has dramatically diminished, a wall is being used to carve off more of the West Bank, and the level of violence on both sides has reached higher plateaus.

Is there any light at the end of that tunnel?

My book is based on a time before suicide bombings and regular attacks by jets and tanks. Even if Gaza has been vacated by the Israelis, it is now locked in a vise, blockaded, strangled. But against the background of the war on terror, few people seem to notice. The two-state solution, whose main components once seemed clear, is becoming increasingly more difficult to achieve.

What is the alternative? A single democratic state?

That might be the best thing for everyone, but I don’t see it happening. You’d have to bang a lot of heads together for an awfully long time. I can imagine a single state, but not a democratic one. Fifty years from now, the map of the region might be unrecognizable to us. And we shouldn’t assume the U.S. will always be Israel’s benefactor: The U.S. might not be able to take care of itself, much less Israel. At some point, demographic forces might take over. The Arab birthrate — not just in the occupied territories, but in Israel proper — is higher than the Jewish birthrate. That demographic fear could lead to radical moves. I can see a dozen ways things can go very wrong.

We often capitalize on millennia-old rivalries to get what we want.

Right, I suppose wrong is a relative term. Some might be preparing and hoping for those eventualities.

Do you think your book brought new perspective or complexity to their dilemma?

My intention was to tell something of the Palestinian point of view, not simply portray them as victims with a capital “V.” On some level, perhaps because of the nature of a first-person comics narrative, I was able to show the humanity of people living in very difficult conditions. But when it was serialized in comic form, it sold very poorly. It wasn’t until it was collected into a single volume and got into bookstores that it seemed to take off.

Did you see it coming?

Its success has been a bit of a surprise to me. What’s more of a surprise to me is its longevity. But I think that’s an unfortunate function of its dealing with a situation that hasn’t gotten any better.

What are your feelings on comics journalism? Buzzword? Occupational hazard?

I’m a cartoonist. I studied journalism. I use comics to pursue journalistic ends, but at the end of the day, I’m a cartoonist. The term describes what I do as well as any two words can. I hold myself to a high journalistic standard. I interview people and try to get down quotes as accurately as possible. But my drawings, by necessity, though based on my own observations and photos or other people’s visual descriptions, cannot be absolutely accurate representations in every conceivable detail. But my drawings are quite detailed and provide as much of the essence of a scene as possible.

How has the industry changed since Palestine?

Greatly. Most importantly, comics are now distributed in bookstores; that’s immensely increased readership. And where readers go, editors and reviewers follow, so now major publishing houses woo cartoonists, and mainstream magazines review comics as a matter of course. That has enabled those like me to survive and continue. But it was touch-and-go for a long time.

At this point, comics seem like some of the only books that will survive the digital age.

I have no idea if things will continue this way, but it seems there are very good creators working in the medium. Some of whom, like Marjane Satrapi, have become international stars. We’re at the infancy of this trend.

What do you think of your deluxe edition?

I’m very pleased with the design, which was handled by Adam Grano at Fantagraphics. The new edition includes a long prose section devoted to explaining my working methods, since I get asked questions about that sort of thing a lot. I included excerpts from my journals, so readers can compare those to how I put them into comics form. I juxtaposed photos against their drawings, and inserted outtakes side by side with panels that replaced them. Of course, I’ll be happy if the book generates income, but I’m simply glad it’s finally been issued as a hardcover volume.

It should be made mandatory reading at the high school and university level.

It’s used in many university classes already. Required reading is not for me to decide. But if it was, my answer would be yes!

This interview appeared at LA Weekly

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