Friday, February 25, 2011

Not a Mystery -- But Adventure, Oh Yes -- Joe Sacco

Photo by Josh Kramer -- see end of post.
Dave and I booked it down to Dartmouth College yesterday to meet the author and cartoonist Joe Sacco and hear him talk. The event, sponsored by the Center for Cartoon Studies (, brought Sacco from Portland, Oregon, to give a half-hour lecture on "Comics as Journalism," with a nifty set of visuals from his books and illustrated journal, followed by half an hour of questions from students. Also salted into the crowd were long-time fans like us, and people whose interests clicked with the regions Sacco has visited and portrayed in his mix of black-and-white drawings and carefully authentic voices from the people he wants to promote: "people who are dispossessed, swept under the rug of history," he said.

Born on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, Sacco grew up in Australia and on the American West Coast (Los Angeles, Portland). He provides a solid explanation for the power of his work. "Over time I realized this accidental bringing together of first-person narrative and journalism has real impact." Most important to him in his choices on the page is a determination to admit his own subjectiveness as an observer. But from the start of his journalistic portrayals, Sacco has given the page character who represent him "blanked out" eyes behind glasses, denying readers a look directly into Sacco and pushing them instead to examine the world he visits, whether in Palestine or Bosnia or, now in a work in progress, "post-industrial America."

Sacco's desire to "take the reader viscerally to a time and place" results in his use of comics to build up, through sequential images, an accumulating set of evidence that makes a point about what he witnesses. "Drawing is interpretive and I am a filter," he repeated. The inherent tension between his literal quotes (collected with the help of local interpreters) and his drawings is meant to dig up truth -- "It's more an interpretive truth than a literal truth," he adds. He dances between the effect of "being there" in person, and being a motivated observer who wants to take the words and situation to the bigger screens of the rest of the world. "You've got to keep some emotional distance," he admits, "otherwise there's no point in you being there. You'd just collapse."

Sacco's work takes two or three years from idea to pages, so he constantly tests his ideas, struggling for what will still be worthwhile by the time it comes to fruition. He won an American Book Award for his Palestine and shook readers with Safe Area Gorazde, introduced by political commentator Christopher Hitchens. See more of his titles at Fantagraphics Books. His current work on post-industrial America has already taken him and collaborator Chris Hedges to Camden, New Jersey, and to West Virginia mountaintop removal sites. Yes!

My thanks to Josh Kramer, a 2011 student at the Center for Cartoon Studies, for the photo of Joe Sacco here. Kramer's blog ( is well worth visiting; I like his use of color, and his B&W drawings are already provocative. Here's to seeing more of his work, like Joe Sacco's, in the years ahead.

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