Joe Sacco is a Maltese-born comics artist and journalist known for his techniques of eyewitness reportage with graphic storytelling to explore complex, emotionally weighted situations in some of the most volatile regions of the globe. He earned his journalism degree from University of Portland, but found his prospects for doing hard hitting reporting very grim after working for the National Notary Association. He decided to return to Malta and try to make a living doing what he loved best-cartooning. There he wrote the first comic in a country that had no history of comic books. After traveling across Europe to chronicle the antics of a rock and roll group on tour he started doing research for Palestine in 1991. His encounters, stories, and research culminated in a serialized comic from 1993-2001, the first of which won the American Book Award. He then traveled to Sarajevo and Gorade, a small Muslim enclave, near the end of the Bosnian war to write Safe Area Gorade and the Fixer.
Education and Community Programs Manager Allison Herrera was lucky enough to interview him through email. Sacco will be here at the Walker on November 13th to give us a visual tour of his work. His talk is part the Mack Lecture series Writing Conflict Drawing War , which is related to the exhibition Brave New Worlds. The second speaker in the series, veteran war reporter Janine di Giovanni, will be speaking on November 27th. Her interview with Allison Herrera will be available on these pages very soon. Get your tickets here for Sacco’s talk. Joe Sacco’s talk is beingco-presented by Rain Taxi Review of Books
You were born in Malta–can you tell us a little about that country? I don’t think a lot of people know much about it. I also heard that you did the first Maltese comic book–what was it about?
Malta is a group of small islands in the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily. It’s been an independent nation since 1964, but before that it was run by any number of historically dominant forces in the area. My family immigrated to Australia when I was a baby, but I returned to Malta a couple of times as an adult, once when I was just out of college. A publisher there saw some of my work and asked me to do a comic book series. He gave me a range of options, but I chose romance comics because I thought they’d be a kick to try. The series was called Imhabba Vera’ (True Love). It was poorly drawn, but I amused myself with the plots. In one of the comics, a girl got pregnant and had to fly to The Netherlands for an abortion.Malta had no real history of comics, so there was no argument about whether or not such a story was appropriate – and this is in a Catholic nation that doesn’t allow abortion. I can’t call it the first Maltese comic book, but it was the first Maltese comics series. It lasted for six issues.
Having made books aboutplaces like Bosnia and Palestine, you have said that there are always stories that come out after the shooting stops. What stories do you think will come out of Iraq?
Well, it’s always hard to anticipate the depth and breadth of the fall-out from the
Iraq war, particularly when the war is ongoing. But clearly one of the main issues is the huge number of refugees now living in neighboring states, like Syria and Jordan. Such large, dispirited foreign populations are bound to have an impact on their host countries and the future of the region. That’s the sort of story I’m interested in because it’s not clear when the refugees will feel safe returning to Iraq or what they will find there.
I read the piece you did for Harper’s about US troops training the Iraqi Army. Are you working on any other stories based in Iraq?
Well, I’m not working on any other Iraq stories at the moment, but I have two or three in mind. It’s all a matter of available time. I’m working on a long project now that needs almost all of my attention, and it’s hard to switch gears from one idea to another, at least for me. Anyway, I don’t think I have enough material from my short Iraqi excursion – which was not even four weeks – for a cohesive book.
There is a moment in Safe Area Gorazde where Riki continues to sing after he eats breakfast with you and Edin; he’s leaving to join the battle lines. You wrote, “at that moment I came as close as I ever had to bursting into tears in Bosnia”. What was it about that moment that got to you, when you have heard so many brutal stories about the war?
I think the answer to that question should lie in the pages you mentioned and not in any exposition I can make now. Like many other writers or artists, I’ve fallen into the bad habit of explaining myself in interviews and at talks. I am beginning to understand that the work needs to speak for itself, and that the reader’s imagination has to be allowed to put things together. I realize that will be an unsatisfactory answer for people who are unfamiliar with the work, but…
You are able to seize an emotion, a moment, so clearly and then make it resonate–what kinds of strategies, visual or otherwise, help you do that when you deal with so many interviewees, so much information? How do you bring those stories and information back to the quiet of your home and produce books of such emotional weight?
I think any journalist or writer who travels listens to his or her gut. The way I look at it, what resonates with me will probably resonate with my readers. What makes me laugh will probably make my readers laugh. What makes me want to throw up will – well, you get the picture. I am on the same level as my readers, when it comes down to it. I’m not overly analytical or ceaselessly morose. As far as visual information is concerned, I take photos for reference or I write “ visual” notes to myself so that I’ll be reminded of the atmosphere when I finally get around to drawing. When I get back home, I go through all my notes, journal entries, and interviews. I index and cross-reference them. It can take weeks or even months. I write a script. Another few months. I start drawing. A book can take years. The problem is always what I am going to leave out. It’s difficult cutting poignant stories, but sometimes it’s necessary. I try to bring out some of the emotion I felt when I was there without bombarding the reader with so much visceral information that he or she feels overwhelmed. I make a lot of personal connections “ in the field” and to the extent that I can I try to connect the reader with the people I met. I want the reader to care about these people like I did. That’s all. But it ain’t easy!
Art Spiegelman says that cartoons are defamatory by nature, referring to political cartoons. While I know you aren’t a political cartoonist per se, what do you think of that genre? Has it become either too soft or too controversial?
I am a great admirer of political cartoonists. Their specialty is summing up the essence of a situation in one stroke. It doesn’t necessarily allow for nuance, but it sure has an impact. The recent Danish cartoon controversy is a case in point.
What has been the reaction to your work in the Muslim world, if any?
Well, I can’t talk about the impact of my work in the “ Muslim world,” if any. I think that in general Arab readers have been positive. I’m showing something of the reality of the Palestinian existence under occupation, and they mostly appreciate my efforts. My reaction from Bosnian Muslims has also been generally positive. But we’re talking about populations that have felt sidelined and victimized, and it’s no wonder that any work sympathetic to their viewpoint will be relatively well received.