If the mention of comic books still calls to mind images of caped crusaders and anthropomorphic mice, the graphic front-line reportage of Joe Sacco should upend your preconceptions. While the comic-book form typically deals with fantasy of a lurid and questionable kind, Sacco's cartoons address the extremes of an altogether different world - our own.
Originally published in 1993 as a nine-issue comic series, ‘Palestine’ is an illustrated account of the cartoonist's visit to the Occupied Territories during 1991 and 1992. Focusing on how private lives are impacted by public policies, Sacco depicts a retaliatory loop of routine horror, while navigating the region's infernal history and political sensitivities. Now republished in a single 300-page volume with a new introduction by the critic and historian Edward Said, Palestine remains, in light of recent events, as pertinent as ever. With luck, the graphic novel format will afford some measure of contact with booksellers beyond the ghetto of specialist comic stores and introduce Sacco's work to the wider audience it undoubtedly deserves.
Drawing on first-hand experiences, extensive research and more than 100 interviews with Palestinians and Jews, Sacco has gained access to unusually intimate testimony, giving space to details and perspectives normally excluded by mainstream media coverage. The enthusiasm and frequency with which Sacco is hauled into the homes of those he meets - to listen, take notes and drink endless cups of tea - underlines the desperation of the people he encounters; their hopes are pinned not on political promises but on telling their stories to a stranger who writes comic books.
Although the critical response to the American edition of Palestine has been overwhelmingly positive, a number of stridently Zionist web sites have, perversely, accused Sacco of 'Jew-bashing' and his Seattle publisher receives the occasional piece of hate mail. Yet Palestine is a remarkably even-handed work and essentially humanist in tone: 'What can happen to someone who thinks he has all the power? What becomes of someone when he believes himself to have none?'
The original Palestine comic series won the 1996 American Book Award and the illustrations have since been exhibited across the US. The book's imagery is vivid, memorably atmospheric and faithful to the landscapes and cities of Palestine. It also evokes an almost surreal routine of bureaucratic harassment, roadblocks and tear gas, punctuated only by moments of mordant humour.
Despite the careful characterisation of those around him, Sacco's cartoon self is slightly unreal - a grotesquely exaggerated figure, complete with enormously elastic lips - a formlessness that, curiously, invites identification. However, his draughtsmanship is perhaps best demonstrated by his complex crowd scenes, with their differentiated faces, pointed detail and disjointed snippets of overheard speech and interior narrative.
Although Palestine is both visually engaging and a labour of artistic love, at its heart lies a commitment to hard-edged journalism and a challenge to the objectivity of the Western (and particularly American) media: 'I came from the standpoint of "Palestinian equals terrorist". That's what filtered down in the course of watching the regular network news.' Sacco makes no pretence of the observer's invisibility and depicts his own initial disbelief of reported detentions and torture. Nor does he shy away from revealing his own ambiguities as a visiting Western journalist. (As a street demonstration threatens to erupt into violence, we see him bolstering his confidence by repeating to himself: 'It's good for the comic, it's good for the comic.')
With Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, Sacco has assumed the unlikely role of the pre-photography war artist, while exploiting the narrative and textual devices of the comic book. Others have employed the comics form to tell political, non-fictional or biographical stories, among them Steve Darnall, Marjane Satrapi and Ho Che Anderson, but Sacco's work is unique in its scale and ambition.
Approaching such daunting topics with a disreputable and supposedly juvenile medium may seem futile, even absurd, yet Sacco's greatest achievement is to have so poignantly depicted contradiction, oppression and horror in a form that manages to be both disarming and disquieting. Palestine not only demonstrates the versatility and potency of its medium, but it also sets the benchmark for a new, uncharted genre of graphic reportage.
(edited review from The Observer, Sunday 5 January 2003)
From Palestine, I make my way back through the bureaucratic labyrinth of the Rafah Border Crossing to Egypt, as described in my previous review – just in reverse! Once back at Cairo I get a Royal Jordanian flight to Tel Aviv in Israel (for US$311), leaving at 15.30 and arriving 21.45 in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport (after a brief stopover in Amman in Jordan).
From the airport I take a taxi to Bat Yam, a city located on Israel's Mediterranean Sea coast, on the central coastal strip, just south of Tel Aviv, where I commence my next leg of my round the world trip with “The Same Sea,” a poetic novel by renowned Israeli author Amos Oz….