By Joe Sacco
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
When I first started the London Graphic Novel Network Book Club back in 2014 (gosh) this comic was one of the first on the shortlist for all sorts of obvious reasons – mostly the whole “comics aren’t for kids anymore” thing and you know – serious comic journalism about a serious subject and sending out all of the right signals blah blah blah.But well yeah – I kept putting it off and putting it off and shunting it down the line until well here we are – it’s the 86th (!!!) Book Club book and I’m like: oh what the hell – let’s just do it. I’m sure it’ll look very nice sandwiched between Give Me Liberty and Daredevil and anyone that thinks that comics should be serious and believes in the prestige of the medium can nod their head when they see it’s there but then (much I suspect like the comic itself) not really bother to read the whole thing.
Don’t get me wrong – I like Joe Sacco and I think he’s good. I like the way his panels distort and bend like you’re seeing them through a fish-eye lens or something. I like the way his text pops out of the page and the words contort like they’re racing cars going through a chicane. Back when the Guardian was good and worth reading (and not pure evil) sometimes they used to publish 3 or 4 page Joe Sacco comics that always left you wanting more but I actually having a whole thick book of 285 pages is way more than I can take. I mean – I’m trying to reread it so I can write this with at least some kind of semi-informed opinion but I think it’s going to defeat me. I think a big part of that is that not all one big story about a character trying to get something or whatever – instead it’s just a bunch of vignettes connected only by a background hum of human misery. And yeah ok the world should know and increase awareness and etc but I’d rather fill my brain up with candy rather than rocks.
In fact my favourite bit of the book so far is the Edward Said introduction that got my brain considering a new idea – that comics help you to think differently.
“In ways that I still find fascinating to decode, comics in their relentless foregrounding—far more, say, than film cartoons or funnies, neither of which mattered much to me—seemed to say what couldn’t otherwise be said, perhaps what wasn’t permitted to be said or imagined, defying the ordinary processes of thought, which are policed, shaped and re-shaped by all sorts of pedagogical as well as ideological pressures. I knew nothing of this then, but I felt that comics freed me to think and imagine and see differently.”
I wonder tho if Palestine is a good example of that. Yeah I mean it’s superlative in terms of it’s put together and Sacco is always clear and always direct in a way that most other “serious comics” aren’t (most of which seem to fetishize the fact that they suck at drawing) but I just it wasn’t so opposed with being so literal and so… well journalistic. If there’s one thing that the world doesn’t need is more literal thinking. Which I guess is as good as reason as any why this book isn’t really for me…
And just in case you all think I’m being a hater – let me say that instead of Palestine I’d recommend you go and check out Sacco’s “Bumf” book instead which has him leaving the realms of reality behind for something that’s a lot stranger and weirder and more powerful and feels more potent in terms of what “comics can do.”
What do you think?
Technically I’m not even sure if Palestine even counts as a graphic novel but I think it’s brilliant and Sacco’s the best war reporter of this generation, using the form to do things that can’t be done in any other medium. His reporting and eye for details is excellent but what I find particularly powerful and immersive about his work is the way he draws all the characters he depicts with equal care and dignity, whether they’re at the center of his story or the periphery. For me his work here (and in the even better books Safe Area Goradze and Footnotes in Gaza) evokes what it must be like being a normal person trying to get on with your life in the middle of a horrible conflict better than anything else I’ve ever seen.
If you’re not familiar with his work (or its seemed too imposing), a good place to start is with this, his response to the Charile Hebdo massacre from a few years ago https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2015/jan/09/joe-sacco-on-satire-a-response-to-the-attacks
Sacco’s Palestine could be described as the first ‘graphic documentary’. I was thinking about what if it was a film – everyone would be trying so hard to look and sound justified, but Sacco’s drawings catch them just living. As a contrast on the same situation, at least in drawing style, check out Jerusalem by Guy Delisle.
Islington Comic Forum
I think the fact it’s not really a graphic novel also accounts for why it’s not something you can really read in one sitting. Unlike a novel, it’s more like reading a scholarly history book communicating a lot of complicated factual information and reading too much just leaves you overloaded. I discovered I get far more from his work when I read it in chunks of twenty to thirty pages at a time but I don’t think any fan of the medium is going to get much out of this unless they’re fairly interested in the history of Middle East
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I’ve found what people said so far to be pretty interesting and it’s helped me to work out what is it about Palestine that just leaves me kinda “blah” but also conversely what it is that other people love so much: and it’s basically what Tam said about how the book communicate “a lot of complicated factual information.” And well yeah please forgive me for sounding like a crazy person but I’m not sure that the truth of the world can be found in the facts of it… I mean yeah obviously as the history of this book club shows I have a pretty substantial preference for stuff that goes on wild flights of fantasy showing crazy worlds that don’t exist (cough Give Me Liberty cough The Forever War cough Judge Dredd cough The Filth cough) but I don’t think it’s a purely an aesthetical thing – I think it’s also a political / philosophical one too.
I felt this most strongly looking at Joe Sacco’s Charile Hebdo response that Tam sent out where basically I’m not sure that it’s possible to get anywhere insightful if you can only think along the lines that have already been laid out for you by everyone else. I mean – the conversation around Charile Hebdo (as with so many other things) is quite narrow and Joe manages to touch them all (Free Speech, Islamphobia, Jokes – he even manages to throw in a little thing about Anti-Semitism too for erm some reason?) instead of the conversations that never seem to happen that stray outside the world of facts and might make us ask instead – erm. Why do some people want to kill other people? And should we really take their words at face-value or should we try and think about the psychological and political factors that led us to this place? And – shoot – maybe the solution isn’t about whether or not we should allow people to publish things or whatever (which I don’t know – seems a little superficial maybe? And basically keeps everything in society still running in exactly the same way as before) we should actually think about changing our society in all sorts of radical ways?
(But whoops maybe I’ve said too much?).
Or to put it all another way: if you can only think of terms of the facts then you can only understand the way the world is as opposed to the way the world should be.
Barbican Comic Forum
Hello. I’m new. Early disclaimer… I’m not a comic book expert by any means but I occasionally like to ramble about literature, culture and stuff so indulge me. Disclaimer two… I’m also dusting off a few cobwebs with this foray so apologies if I’ve gone a little overboard.
I realised this morning that I’ve read this before a long time ago. I think then, like now, I found it hard work so it had been interned to the back of my memory. Today I tried to read it again in one sitting. That was a mistake. 195 pages in and my mind was wandering. I’d already reached my three-coffee limit and yet I was still consciously snapping my attention back to what I was reading every few minutes. That’s usually a sign that it’s time to give up so I did.
I like the art and it’s a fascinating subject so it’s hard to put my finger on why I wasn’t engaged. I think perhaps it was just “too political for me”, but that doesn’t sound like me when I say it out loud. I can be political. Something made this feel like hard work. Maybe it was just the context? Don’t get me wrong, I like to be challenged and Sacco obviously didn’t intend for this to be easily digestible. But do I read comics for political reasons? And the deeper question I keep asking myself, is it appropriate to use comics to discuss such a politically charged subjects?
For me Sacco seems to be a political journalist first a and a comic book writer second. He probably chooses to pair the two together because he is afforded freedoms he wouldn’t be allowed in traditional journalism (aside from his obviously insane talent from cartooning of course). Using his very cartoonish drawing style he can imbue the narrative with excessive emotion and interpretation without drawing criticism. Personally I see this is a political commentary not a documentary and one heavily filled with ideology at that: we’re not seeing an objective recital of things that actually happened, we’re reading Sacco’s opinion on events that he often didn’t witness himself. Why should that matter? Because I think he’s framing it as a documentary to an audience that’s probably receptive to viewing it as such which to me is perhaps morally questionable. Doesn’t this subject deserve to be written about more objectively and in more “serious” tones?
Whilst I can appreciate the art at times I was left feeling that imagery was so perverse he came across as just another occidental tourist portraying grotesque imagery of the East. I’m talking about the frantic and borderline insane caricatures he draws. Granted he’s doing it to highlight the absurdity of the Palestinian problem to a Western audience and from a visual perspective I can see how that draws attention. I get all that, but whilst reading this I was always conscious of the fact that he’s amplifying the emotion he wants me to feel as a reader, often turning it up to eleven. I can’t reconcile if that’s appropriate given the context. It loses as a sense of credibility. The monstrous caricatures he draws of real-life situations really depict the anger and anguish he wants you to see well: fervorous bloodshot eyes and gaping jaws – you know what I mean; as a comic reader they’re cool to look at but these images are clearly defined heavily by his own interpretation and yet claim to describe real world events. Ask yourself, how do these interpretations make you feel about the subjects? I know all mediums are open to the author’s interpretation but my point is that a cartoon can be crammed them much more densely with the ideology than a photograph. That’s the very definition of a caricature, right? Unlike a photojournalist a cartoonist is always able to capture the perfect moment to explain his message in the way he wants it explained because he is the one creating that moment, and he also isn’t confined by the normal boundaries of the real world. Cartoons are powerful things and we all know what comes with great power. So I ask you this: where do we draw the line between journalism and propaganda? How much artistic license can a “journalist” give to such a serious subject before it crosses the line? And back to my question, is it always appropriate to use comics to discuss such subjects?
I’ve read that Image Comics gave an apology for a politically charged cover on United States of Hysteria and withdrew the issue. I’ve not read the book yet but the cover sounds extreme (I won’t go into details – look it up if you’re interested but be warned it’s pretty grim). My question is was it the comic that was the problem or the fact that this image was published in comic book format? Edward Said says in his forward to Palestine that most adults tend to associate comics with the “frivolous or ephemeral”. I have a theory that this is exactly why it’s a potent medium for political commentary. Because society as a whole doesn’t take it seriously so the author can say things that wouldn’t generally be accepted in traditional journalism. Most of the time. Sorry in advance if I get a little deep here but in that way comics can serve the same role as a modern day court jester (yes I did just say that, stay with me). They are an object of fun through which the author can speak “truths” he wouldn’t normally be allowed to say in a way that will slip under the radar by trivialising them. I think Sacco knows this even nods to it on page 10 when he sarcastically trivialises the medium “Of course, of course! I’m off to fill my notebook! I will alert the world to your suffering! Watch your local comic book store…”. But the truth is that the audience who will read Palestine, the people Sacco is writing for, are the ones most open to hearing his story. Sacco is writing for the “liberated and subversive” comic book readers that Said describes in his forward. He knows they are the ones most receptive to the message. So is it appropriate?
Politics aside, at times it is really well crafted. I can really appreciate it as a work of art. From a literary perspective I also really enjoy the words he uses and I like his voice. He’s absolutely influenced by the Beats which is cool and I think that’s how he self-identifies as a writer. We can see that in a lot of the imagery, his references to music or the identification as a “Free Speech Junky”. I also felt the short-mismatched sentences he slams together at times really felt like was reading Borroughs.
The earlier chapters have a great rhythm and he uses visceral language that really captures emotion (“a two day sigh fest” – love that). The very first page captures this really well. Sadly this doesn’t continue and as you progress through the book the text becomes denser and denser, almost becoming a novel at one point (pages 41-50). That’s lazy cartooning in my view and I didn’t like it.
At other times though the visual storytelling is really well done. I think a great example of this is the chapter “Moderate Pressure” on pages 102 to 113 which tells the story of Ghassan’s internment. I loved the way the panelling becomes more structured once he imprisoned, gradually becoming more dense and repetitive as this continues. As soon as he’s released from prison we return to a more free format. Deftly done.
So whilst there is a lot to admire I don’t think I’ll be picking it up again any time soon. Like I said at the beginning that’s not why I read comics. I read to escape and I like to escape with a man in a cape. Most of the time. Reading Sacco slams my brain into a difficult subject that needs me to think far too much, and I’m not wholly comfortable doing so in such a caricatured world. I’m not averse to political commentary in comics, but I’d rather it was a bit more subtle. This felt too much like hard work. That being said I am glad I powered through as far as I did. It got me thinking which is, I guess, why I joined this group.
Is it right? I’ll let you decide but for me, at the moment, I think no. I realise I’m probably in the minority here though. Big Eddie Said and an American Book Award can’t be wrong. Maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow.
Looking forward to Daredevil after this mind melt. Kapow!
Granted that a ‘graphic documentary’ may be different to photojournalism. Yet Sacco’s book contains facts and is obviously a memoir of his visit to the place. I don’t think anyone will take it as a news report. (Is that the definition of objectivity?) But it’s not a cartoon, like a one-off response to Trump or ISIS. The style is semi-realistic and the attitude not celebratory of a particular faction. If the sequential art medium can’t deal with real-world subjects at all, what are we left with?
I reckon this might be the only time anyone has ever made this comparison but yeah – I think Palestine is like Calvin and Hobbes. In that – still down and reading the whole thing in one go just seems like a little too much. Of course it was originally published as nine separate issues and maybe that’s more it’s natural form and reading them all back-to-back is akin to binge-watching a particularly bleak Netflix series but also wel yeah – I feel like it’s operating on a different frequency than the types of comics I grew up with. If something is in comic form then basically I’m primed to try and digest it like I’m chewing bubblegum (oh wait – are you supposed to eat bubblegum?) but Palestine feels more like a 3 course meal and needs to be taken in a new way that well yeah – frankly I find a little bit exhausting… (sorry / not sorry).
Think that Owen gets to something quite important in terms of how comics work and how we think of them although when it comes to the question of “is it appropriate to use comics to discuss such a politically charged subjects?” my obvious take is: every subject is politically charged and hell yes comics are probably the best way to help us understand them.
Or to put it another way in a way that will probably make me sound like a crazy person but I don’t think that “an objective recital of things that actually happened” is ever really possible. And anything that presents itself as not being heavily filled with ideology is probably the most ideological take of all (yeah yeah I know – I should go get myself a tinfoil hat).
1. a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.
2. an ideology is a collection of normative beliefs and values that an individual or group holds for other than purely epistemic reasons. In other words, these rely on basic assumptions about reality that may or may not have any factual basis.
And yeah I can hear you in my head now all saying – but being objective is easy: you just record the world that’s there. I mean: if you want a proper objective comic book then you can just take photos of real stuff that happened: you can’t get more non-ideological than that. But of course that’s when the cracks start to show – because which angles do you choose to sort the scene? And from whose point of view? And which parts do you show? And which parts do you leave out? And well especially as we’re talking about Palestine – which part of the history / context do you use to fill in the blanks and which do you claim are unimportant?
Or in other words: seeing how the amount of data in the world is practically infinite – if you’re going to start to choose which data points to pick and choose then well – you’re going to need an ideology to tell you which bits are important and which bits aren’t. And yeah ok you can try and make it as objective as possible but then you know that the funny thing is that other people aren’t going to agree with and ok yeah sure you can claim that you’re the only rational person in the world but the funny thing about that is that everyone else is saying that too. So in conclusion: everyone has an ideology and true objectivity is impossible.
And but this is where I think comic books are so useful in capturing this basic fundamental truth about the world (which is that everyone sees it differently) by the fact that every comic book looks different. And how Joe Sacco sees the world is not the same as Frank Miller sees the world is not the same as Will Eisner sees the world is not the same as Steve Bell sees the world is not the same as Alison Bechdel sees the world etc etc and so on. Comics are the ultimate subjective medium and that’s why they’re so great and so gosh-darn political.
Also well yeah – it’s kinda funny that you mention The United States of Hysteria because it cropped up when we were talking about The Walking Dead and well yeah – you can see the results for yourself: https://londongraphicnovelnetwork.com/2017/07/13/book-club-a-constantly-escalating-level-of-violence/
Different people believe in different stuff and see the world in different ways.
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