This is the second half of a two-part interview with comics journalist Joe Sacco. We spent an hour with the award-winning writer and illustrator discussing his approach to comics and journalism, the relationship between comics and education, and how he copes with war and tragedy, among other fascinating topics. Click here to read part one before reading the rest of the conversation below.
Putting ink onto paper and words into mouths
Art Threat: I want to talk about process on a practical level. How long does it take you on average to complete one of those pages in your books? Where do you work? Do you show it to anyone else before you send it into the publisher?
Joe Sacco: I work at home. I kind of dedicated a room, a bedroom to work in. I mean, it’s nothing but desks and books and all that stuff. And it takes about two days to do a page.
That’s from beginning to end?
Beginning to end. And normally I’m working on two pages at a time, so in five days I’ll get two pages done. But you know sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less. The thing about drawing, what I found over time, is I can pretty much accurately tell myself, I have this many pages to draw, it’s going to take this many weeks or months.
What I’m not figuring into that equation — and what can take a lot of time — is the writing. I write complete scripts before I start doing any drawing at all, because I need to know that the story is there. I’m not going to draw and write at the same time because there are a lot of loose ends, and you can see that this book has so many components, it all has to fit and work together and be coherent.
So I had to really outline it properly, write it completely, and I never know with writing. Writing can take six weeks to six months, depending on if I can get the words right. Because words matter a lot to me, I’m never sure how long something’s going take to write. And then of course there’s the research that comes before that, and that’s quite a long process also.
As far as showing them [to other people], you know, not really. I basically finish the book and send it off to my editor when it’s done. Maybe I’d show it to someone who’d come over to the house, like my girlfriend, and say hey, look what I did, aren’t you proud of me? I’ve never really relied on people and I’ve never really had a muse, if that’s what you mean.
No, it’s just that sometimes we have our personal editors before the professional editors take a look, people that we show stuff to before we send it off. Because we’re so close to the work, sometimes we can’t see it as others might.
You know the problem with drawing though: when you’ve worked on something you can show it to someone, and if they don’t like it, then you say, well I’m not going to redraw it. It’s harder to change things around, so I think a lot of cartoonists — maybe I’m projecting my own neuroses here — but I think a lot of cartoonists are afraid of hearing something they don’t want to hear that’s going to mean changing, whether it’s a panel or a page, it can be weeks of work. So you just say, okay, I’m done with it, I’m sending it in, and we’ll see what happens.
Drawing yourself into the story
Part of what you’re drawing is yourself — you draw yourself in to the story. I think it’s a self-reflexivity that allows for moments of levity and self-criticism. And in this way I feel like it seems to be more personal than mainstream journalism.
So I’m wondering about the decision to put yourself in there and to have those moments where, for instance, you’ve just felt good about something you’ve done in the story and the text is like, Whoa, aren’t I great? I’m the king of the world! I’m the best journalist out there … [Joe laughs] … it’s obvious you’re writing and drawing that sequence much later and it’s a self-reflexive kind of poking at yourself.
The truth of the matter is some of my earliest comics were in some form autobiography. A lot of the cartoonists who came out around the same time I did were influenced by people like Harvey Pekar and Robert Crumb, and they did autobiographical work. So when I first started doing my journalism comics, in some ways they were a continuation of my life — it wasn’t strange for me to draw myself as a character in a story.
When I went to Palestine for the first time, I thought, well, I’ll do a comic about my experiences and what I’m finding out here. But I was going to be in the comic. Obviously it would be a subjective way of looking at things.
A lot of people have asked me why do I draw myself in the comic. It was sort of a natural growth, an organic outgrowth of the autobiographical trend. But it does have real advantages. I’ve tried once to draw myself out of a comic, it was a story about Hebron for Time magazine, and it was, to me, sort of unsuccessful. It’s possible on some level to draw yourself out of a comic, but what you lose then are these great interactions you have with people that might be interesting to a reader who wants to know how they might fit in in that society and how they might react, and how people might respond to them.
You lose a lot of great stories. Like you were saying — stories that are funny, because sometimes you’re in these situations and you realize well, even here, people are joking with you, they’re trying to cheer you up sometimes, and I find that aspect, on a human level, really fascinating. For example, we can be, as an outsider, depressed about their [the Palestinians] situation, we see it in their eyes, and even though they’re living it, they kind of want to make you feel better.
So I think if you have yourself in the story, then you can really show human interaction in a better way, and that’s kind of what it’s about, especially if you’re a foreigner. You’re a foreigner in their land, there’s going to be a gap, and you want to explain that gap and you want to show it. Hopefully it works for the reader.
I know people will say it’s not objective and I agree — it’s subjective. But I’m also trying to be honest about what I’m portraying. So if there’s something that rubs me the wrong way, or even doesn’t mesh with my own political ideas, or my own take on a situation, I still want to put it in because you want to be honest if you’re in a place like that. That’s why you’re there — it’s to be honest for the readers’ sake.
I think it does exactly that. Sometimes you get that idea that this is perhaps going to be a political argument that’s clearly pro-Palestinian, and then suddenly you’re turning the page and there’s some kind of critical angle of some interaction with Palestinians. It wouldn’t be [like that] in a more dogmatic artwork or piece of writing.
For me, dogma kills art.
Art is about making someone interested in what you’re interested in, maybe giving them another viewpoint. You’ve got to rely on the reader’s intelligence, I think. I cannot stand reading stuff that’s dogmatic. It just takes all the air out of things.
Part of those relationships you’re able to show in your books, because you are inserting yourself into the narrative, shows some pretty strong bonds and friendships with some of the characters, especially your various fixers. Have you kept in touch with those people? Do you send them books? Do you feel compelled to go back to those places and show your work as a way to respond to the question that you seem to encounter so much in the book, which is: what’s the point of what you’re doing?
Well, it’s funny. I mean the last couple of days I received a little e-mail from Neven, the fixer in The Fixer. And also, from Ashraf, from the Footnotes in Gaza book. So yes, I’m in touch with those guys. And Neven has seen the book The Fixer, and even though it’s not necessarily what you’d call a glowing personal biography, it’s very honest. He’s a problematic individual and I try not to hide that. He still loved it. I mean he still thought it was basically a true picture of himself.
As for the books, it’s hard to get books into Gaza, but some did manage to get through. Some people took them in, and I know people have seen them. And I’ve heard pretty much positive things about the reactions. And that matters to me more than anything, to be honest. When you’re telling someone’s history, you’re telling their stories of the past, and you’re working with some very raw emotion. I don’t think people mind if you expose that raw emotion, but you have to do it in a way that, for them, feels true.
What I hope is that, for them, it does feel true when they’ve seen the book. Like I said, I’ve heard positive things. But I’m sure there are going to be people who might look at it and say, no, that’s not how I remember it, or he’s not showing it right. That’s always possible. That matters to me though, you know?
Making a difference
In occupied Palestine when people are saying to you that you’re the hundredth journalist who has come in and asked us these questions, so what’s the point in all of it — is that the heart of it? In Footnotes a kid asks you why you’re writing about something that happened 50 years ago and not the current oppression and occupation, and you respond that his own story, his own history, could also be forgotten just as the ’56 massacre has been largely relegated to a footnote in the pages of history.
That’s true. For the people in Rafah at that time, the most important thing while I was there, and the thing that was most present as a violent act, was the demolition of homes along the border. That was really affecting the town, it was rendering many people homeless, and people in their homes along the border were basically waiting their turn. So that to them is what mattered. Now the Israelis no longer technically occupy the Gaza strip, they’re no longer bulldozing those homes, and here we go again — that’s another footnote. So in some ways, I think I was pretty right, that that’s just another episode in this long series of brutalities that risk becoming footnotes. There might be references to them, but that part of history is done now.
I think it’s important every now and then to stop and take stock of what’s going on. And I think the unfortunate thing for certain people, let’s say the Palestinians, is that so many things are happening one after the other that they cannot take the time to sit and think back on one or two episodes, and think, Okay, let me think about what that meant for me, what it did to us, how we responded to it. It’s such an ongoing thing. This is another theme I try to bring up in the book, it’s almost difficult for them to comprehend their own situation.
I mean, of course they comprehend it as wrong, and they’re against it, but to sort of understand what’s going on and what’s been working inside them over many decades, I think it’s very difficult to do while it continues to happen to you.
“When the native sees you, the tourist, they envy you. They envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom. They envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.”
I’m not suggesting that’s what you do exactly, but the notion of travel and being a tourist comes up in your books in a different way, where you’re turning very interesting, heartbreaking, and very human stories from the people that you document into interpreted testimonies that, despite being so grim, do provide the reader with some pleasure. They give me pleasure when I read them, and I think it’s a strange feeling to be reading about such awful things but also to enjoy the work.
Can you comment on this idea, the privilege of being able to travel there, extract these things and then put them together into something pleasing to behold. Because you were saying how so much is going on for the Palestinians — happening to them — they can’t even sometimes see it all. But you get to. And you get to parlay their struggle and suffering into something potentially pleasurable for an audience elsewhere.
It’s hard to know where you fit in and, on some level, I can justify what I’m doing and why I’m there. I know there’s almost an imperative to work on these sorts of things and think about them with these things in mind. And because I’m interested in these things I think, well, I don’t want to go as just the tourist. When I first went to Palestine, I was interested in the subject, but I knew I didn’t want to go as a voyeur. I had to come up with some reason why I went, which is why I had to do a series of comics about it. That way it felt like I wasn’t just taking up space. But the truth of the matter is that I’m constantly questioning my motivation and what I’m getting out of it as opposed to what I’m actually giving back.
It’s not a question I’ve been able to answer. It’s a question I’m constantly thinking about, and let’s face it, I’ll look at my work and I’ll say, Well has this done anything? I mean people like you and others might appreciate it and might even learn something and all that, but did it move the issue at all? Will it ever move the issue? Maybe you can inform a lot of people about something and people can be interested and it doesn’t do a damn thing. I don’t want to be totally cynical about the whole process, but I sometimes question the value of what I’m doing.
You know, I see the book Footnotes in Gaza and I think to myself, okay, at least this is down on paper! At least there’s another narrative besides that damn UN document that didn’t tell any real part of the story. At least that’s there in the records. But whether it makes a difference is not something I can answer. I know I just have to do it.
There is a great privilege in doing what I do. I’m seeing people that I would never be able to see otherwise. That’s the great thing about being a journalist from a personal standpoint, is that you can be sitting in a home in Gaza, you can be sitting in a home in rural India and you can be sitting in the presidential palace of so and so, and you can navigate through all these places, and the thing you have to remember is [that] there’s got to be a good reason that you’re there. Because really you know you’re basically bothering people. It reminds me of some of the things that you mentioned before — it’s like you’re there, they’re looking at you as someone who can lead his life and come here and look at our miserable existence and get something out of it. There is an oddness to it, and there’s no point in obscuring the oddness.
I think it’s healthy to question it and I don’t expect concrete answers, but I think it’s a fundamental question about what art does and what the role of the artist is. It’s one of those strange juxtapositions between pain and pleasure. But I think you know that because your work is art it does more than just educate and raise awareness on the issues you explore – it creates different visions and perspectives that as image-rich work is wont to do, can burn into people’s brains…
I hope so and I hope that does some good.
Coping with the repulsive imagery of war
So I’m wondering about you — what are the images or scenes burned in your brain, with so many having been absorbed during your career, and why do you think some stick while others don’t, and why does it always seem to be that the harsher images, the images of conflict and suffering that, at least for myself, seem to stick?
It might be a different thing when you approach this as the art of just making those images. The ones that have really troubled me, you’re right, they happen to be unfortunately the most violent ones. And there’s something about comics in that you’re drawing the same thing from panel to panel in different ways. So much so that a chapter can be, let’s say 10-15 pages long, and you’re drawing a lot of bodies. After awhile, for lack of a better way to put it, it gets very old.
You begin to think about how a body feels because you have to put yourself in anything you draw, especially with the human body. If it’s someone raising a club, you have to think, this shoulder’s up and this shoulder goes down, and the forearm does this, and you’re constantly making the motions yourself to see how the body looks or how it would feel, to render something properly. There’s a disturbing quality to doing something like that.
So when you’re drawing bodies on the ground, you’re thinking about all the weight going wherever it’s going to go. You’re thinking about how a hand would flop, how fingers would look. All that stuff, it’s not one image necessarily, but you’ve been thinking about something a bit too long. And that stuff sometimes sticks in your head, and it’s repellant after awhile. After drawing that stuff it became absolutely repellant, and even now when I think about it, I don’t even want to look at it, some of it. Because it’s repulsive, because it took a lot of time to do, and I kind of just came out of those images. I spent a long time working on them so that stuff sticks in your head, I guess.
How do you cope with that? Because, as you know there’s a stereotypical image of the war correspondent or war photographer who is macho and thick skinned. You’re not exactly a war correspondent because you’re extracting images from people’s memories in a lot of your work, but then you go back home and you spend a lot of time with them. How do you cope with that, because clearly you’re not the callous macho war journalist?
Well, I’m not sure how you cope with it, it’s not something I thought about before. I’ve been doing this kind of thing for a long time now, it’s only recently that it sort of hit me quite in this way. Maybe it’s a little cumulative, I’m not sure. But you cope, you just realize you have to get through it. Because you started it and you’re going to get yourself through it and you’re going do what it takes.
Now, how I cope with it these days is I’m trying to work on something else. One of your questions which I don’t think I answered was about war and suffering and all that. Well part of the reason when you really look at it, is that the main places I’ve been to are war-torn: Bosnia, Israel, Palestine. And it’s not as if I’m not interested in anything else, it’s just that comics take such a long time to do, that you work on a couple of books and suddenly 15 years have gone by.
And so you’re known for doing war comics. But since completing Footnotes, I did a story about African migrants trying to get to Europe and a story about poverty in rural India. So believe me, I’m not just interested in violence and I think the way I’m going deal with this is try to get away from that sort of stuff. I need to do journals that are a bit different from what I’ve been doing because I think I’m kind of done with certain things.
I also need to step away from journalism itself and work on fiction and humour. That’s the reason I got into comics in the first place, believe it or not. So sometimes you just deal with it by stepping away.
What’s in a name, anyway?
I haven’t heard of those other stories. The only whay I encounter your work is once it comes out in book form, and I think perhaps a lot of people encounter your work that way. These other stories you’re mentioning, they’re for various publications?
That’s right. One was in Virginia Quarterly Review, which has a very small circulation. And one is for a French magazine that won’t be published until January 2011. But I think next year I’m going to collect a lot of short stories, a lot of shorter journalism pieces. I did one about Chechen refugees in Southern Russia for instance. A lot of the smaller pieces I’ve done along the way are going be collected, so hopefully they’ll reach a wider audience.
And how do you feel about comics on the web?
It’s great. I haven’t done anything like that myself, but obviously it has to conform to the strictures of being on a screen and there might be only so much details you can put up and load so that it’s going to load quickly. Whatever, why not? I don’t see any issue with it. Myself, I like books because I like to transport them around. To this day there’s no screen that really feels good on my eye.
I was born and raised a print person and I’ll probably die that way, even when it’s out-of-date. But that’s okay, it doesn’t mean I don’t think that the web matters or that even that it should be the next way of doing things. It’s just going to happen that way anyway.
And what about film, I’m thinking about Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and how it was turned into a pretty great film. Do you see that happening or has there been any opportunities for any of the work you’ve done?
Well, opportunities there have been, I haven’t responded to most queries. I’m a bit weary of being dragged into film work because it will make me feel like this is not my life. I want to sit at my desk and draw comics.
One thing that I didn’t ask you is why you don’t like the term graphic novel?
Well it’s my work in particular, it’s not a novel. Novels mean fiction.
Now, I also understand that some words or some phrases end up meaning something else. We call something movies, and it doesn’t sound like a bad word to us, but when you think about it, they were called movies because something was moving, and then suddenly it sounds really silly.
So it’s a feeling and weight. And you know I prefer to use the word comics because that’s the word I grew up with, and to me graphic novel is a marketing term. But my opinion doesn’t really matter. If that’s what people use, that’s what people use.