Acclaimed graphic writer Joe Sacco came to the U of C as the Dedmon Writer-in-Residence for two days last week to speak with students about his work. Sacco’s prominent works include books on Palestine and the Bosnian Civil War. Sacco has won the Eisner Award, the Ridenhour Book Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.The Maroon spoke with Sacco about his work, his early start with drawing, and the limits of journalism.
CHICAGO MAROON: What do you think the value is of coming to a college campus and talking to students?
Joe Sacco: They pay me well. That’s the value [laughs]. I actually like meeting people who are reading
my work, and students especially tend to be relatively thoughtful about the work. And they often
ask really good, fresh questions. To me it’s kind of a pleasure talking to students. So, there’s that.
I get asked to speak at a lot of places, and I don’t accept all places, not because I wouldn’t want to
if I had the time, but I simply don’t have the time. This is just one of those ones that I thought I’d
CM: Is there something different about talking on a campus?
JS: Yeah, well like I said, usually it’s students, and usually at least some of them have read my
work, which makes it a lot easier. Because the people who haven’t read your work, you feel like
you’re just trying to convince them of the value of what you’ve done, and if they have read your
work, then you feel like OK they’ve got questions about it.
CM: When did you get started with drawing?
JS: Since I was a kid. I’ve been drawing since I was like six years old. But unlike a lot of people I
just continued drawing. Most people stop, it seems, when they hit adolescence.
CM: What were you drawing at that age?
JS: I stole cartoon characters and drew my own adventures using them—spy stories, adventure
stories. You know, stuff like that.
CM: What kind of comics did you read back then?
JS: Early MAD magazines, the MAD comics when they were reprinted in MAD magazine, which
were much more interesting than the magazine itself. I never read superhero comics. I never read
CM: What made you continue drawing?
JS: It’s just what I do. I couldn’t think of myself other than drawing. It’s just one of those things.
You think of yourself in those terms and you don’t know who you’d be without a certain thing.
CM: And how did that lead into a career? When did you decide that that was something you
should be doing?
JS: Well when I decided that I wasn’t going to get a job in journalism or that it wasn’t remotely
satisfying…I mean you can make a living in journalism and not like it. I just didn’t want to spend
my life doing something I didn’t like. I just sort of fell back on cartooning without really knowing
how to make a living at it. It took a long time to get to that point, a really long time. Ten years I
CM: And what were your experiences in college with drawing?
JS: I didn’t do much drawing in college. I did a couple of drawings for the student newspaper but
I never thought of drawing as a career. I thought of journalism as something that I was going to
do to make a living.
CM: Do you ever engage directly with the art world?
JS: Fine art departments wouldn’t be interested in what I’m doing I think. I’m not sure but I don’t
think they would be.
CM: How do you think this medium fits into the art world?
JS: That doesn’t really interest me. I see it as fitting into the world of literature more than the
world of fine art. I think of it, you read images, so I think of it in more of a literary sort of way.
Fine art is it’s own world and I feel sorry for my fine artist friends. It’s a strange world.
CM: As someone who has traveled extensively, what do you think the importance is of studying
and practicing journalism? We’re on a campus that isn’t pre-professional, so people don’t get as
much practice with journalistic craft…
JS: Frankly I think every student in the end kind of wants to know how things are going to go
when they get out of school. You can talk all you want about…unless you’re going to be in the
academic setting all your life, you’re going to enter the so called real world, and I think people
have a interest in finding out what they might be like, especially someone who hasn’t gone a
traditional route. So I think that’s a big part of it.
CM: How do cartoons relate to journalism as a medium?
JS: To me they related sort of accidentally. It wasn’t like I came up with some theory of putting it
together. Basically I would say the advantage of comics is they’re visceral. You open up a book
and you can find yourself in a refugee camp in Gaza or in a town in Eastern Bosnia. We’re visual
creatures, and I think drawings can put us into a scene. Through multiple drawings, because
comics are a series of multiple drawings mostly, you can get a sense of the atmosphere of a place,
perhaps easier than one photograph. The real thing about photo journalism is they’re trying to
use one photograph, one image, to sum up a whole situation. Whereas with comics, many images
create sort of an atmosphere. The other things are you can go back in time, and a major thing is
it helps you look at things that are difficult to look at in a photograph. Sometimes a drawing of
something is just a bit easier…seeing photographs of certain things can be really disturbing. Not
that drawings aren’t, but it helps you look.
CM: So what pushed you away from journalism and back towards drawing?
JS: Just lousy jobs. Jobs where you’re just not going to be fulfilled in any respect. I wanted to
write hard news and it’s very hard to get. At the time, probably now even more, it wasn’t very
common to get that sort of a job when you got out of college. So the only jobs available were like
association magazines and that could be pretty boring. Finally I got a job with a city newspaper,
a weekly, and that was even worse because an ad salesman would sell an add and then throw a
business card on the table and say ‘maybe you should do a story about this guy, he bought an ad.’
That’s just not…this relationship between money and journalism, of course you’ve got to make a
living and newspapers have got to thrive somehow, but I couldn’t deal with that.
CM: Did you find that freelancing really freed you from that? Were you able to subsist outside of
JS: For a long time I needed other jobs. I started working at a library when I first started doing my
comics because you don’t start out making money doing comics. You have to sort of build it up
and I had, I worked at a library and eventually I moved to Berlin and I was making a living doing
rock posters and album covers and t-shirt designs, trying to do comics too. But to me it was all,
everything had to sort of fit to make it work. And there it’s one of the cheapest cities in Western
Europe and probably still is. I was younger and could live in a certain way that I don’t want to
live in now.
CM: Graphic writing is sort of an emerging literary form. How do you think this frees it from
more traditional boundaries?
JS: Just the medium itself makes you think in different ways. It’s hard to draw yourself out of a
scene, for example, so then you start drawing yourself into a scene, which means you’re wearing
your subjectivity more on your sleeve. That’s part of it. Any medium has its own…there’s a lot
to explore in graphic literature. Every medium has its own rules. And thinking about graphic
medium is it doesn’t really have rules yet. Maybe one day it will begin to calcify a bit. Right now,
it seems like there are many experiments you can do, and no one is going to say no you can’t do
that in this form. It feels more free right now.
CM: Who are some other graphic writers who you admire or read?
JS: Robert Crumb, I admire a lot of my colleagues. A lot of them from Chicago, Ivan Brunetti,
Chris Ware, people like Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, Marjane Satrapi, Aison Bechdel. There are
actually a lot of cartoonists that I admire.
CM: Cartoons have long had a history in shaping public opinion? How do you think they’re still
JS: I think political cartoons are still really valuable. They’re different from what I do, but I really
admire them. And I wouldn’t say I have that kind of talent. Again, with one image, you strike at
the heart of some situation. It’s not nuance necessarily, but it really makes a powerful message.
There’s a value in that. And there’s sometimes an image that’s so true. I don’t know if you know
the famous picture of LBJ…there’s a photograph of him showing his scar, some operation scar.
Then a cartoonist drew him in the same pose but showing the scars of Vietnam. That sort of thing
just hits you in the face right away, and has a lot of power.
CM: What do you think the place is of graphic writing in today’s literary world?
JS: I don’t know. It seems like it has to make its own place. And it has a place, whether it’s
overblown now or actually is here to stay, I can’t say for sure. It seems like there are a lot of
people doing really good work. And you know the more people doing good work, the more
critical mass it seems to have. There was a time when I was starting out, when it felt like a
backwater, and now you get good reviews, sometimes better reviews than you deserve, because
people don’t know how to judge it. So we’re at this golden moment when we’re getting a pass. So
we’ll see how it’ll continue.
CM: How do you think your books have shaped public perceptions of Gaza, Bosnia, and
Palestine, as a few examples?
JS: They’ve helped individuals begin to look at things from a different perspective. I still do those
sorts of books because I have to, and then of course I hope the reader is going to get something
out of them. But it’s hard for me to say how I’ve shaped things. I don’t stop to think about the
effect I’ve had. I know individuals come up to me and say they read something I’ve done. It made them think in a different way about a certain situation, which is really gratifying.
CM: Why do you find yourself so interested in politics?
JS: I’m interested in a lot of other things but comics just take so much time so that it looks
like you’re just obsessed with certain subjects. If it takes me seven years to do a book about
something or five years or whatever it looks [like] you’ve really devoted a lot of your life to this,
and I have but there are a lot of things I’m interested in. If you had to really look at it, I think it’s
a matter of social justice. That’s what interests me. Things bother me. They anger me sometimes
and they motivate me to do something. Whatever it is. I’m not saying what I do is effective. I just
have to do whatever I can do to find put about this and tell people about it. It’s a simple sort of
equation. If something bothers me, I want to do something about it.
CM: We’ve heard that you’re currently working on a project about poverty. Could you tell us
JS: I’ve spent so much time focusing on overseas…to me it was a way of actually finding out what
was going on in the States, which was worthwhile. And I’m doing this book with a journalist
named Chris Hedges, and he’s writing prose and I’m doing the drawings for it. There’s prose in it
and it’s his prose, then there’s comics which are based on his interviews, my back up interviews
and I’m also doing illustrations just to show what places look like. But the places we focused
on… we basically came up with a number of places. It’s hard to cover the whole United States so
we just picked places that represent certain things. One of those is Camden, New Jersey, [also]
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Amocoli, Florida where migrant workers are
doing harvesting of crops, especially tomatoes, and coal mine areas of West Virginia. To his
mind and to my mind each of those represents something about America but ultimately about
the triumph of capitalism. So we’re just seeing how people live. The book ends with the Occupy
Movement. We actually went to New York and spent some time at Zuccotti Park to see the
pushback, which we didn’t think was ever going to happen. But it sort of began to happen.
CM: How did you see poverty differently in those various locations? How did it compare? What
differences emerged in modes of poverty in the United States?
JS: Well I saw places that reminded me of places you see in the Third World. You see
resignation. Especially in America what you see is people self-medicating. I mean people are
strung out on painkillers and alcohol. People have to deal with this and some people are fighting
back even in those places. It’s always really good to see that. You realize that human spirit just
continues somehow on some level. The vast majority, there are a lot of people who are sort of
CM: What were the differences in those areas?
JS: Well the Pine Ridge has its own, it’s sort of self-governed. They have their own police force
and all that. It’s a place where the average life expectancy of a male is 47 because of health
issues, alcoholism perhaps, [and] car crashes which is really a big killer over there. In a place like
Camden it’s very violent…Often places that used to sell things like vegetables just don’t exist
anymore. In West Virginia people drive 45 minutes to buy vegetables at a WalMart. There are
just all these sort of things. I live on the West Coast and you live in Chicago…and it’s surprising
to see what’s going on in other parts of America. It’s really surprising.
CM: What are your future plans? What’s the book you’re working on at Norton with [editor] Matt
JS: That’s a book about the First World War. That’s going to be one illustration in a fold out book
that goes on for about 24 feet.
CM: Do you have any other future plans outside of these two?
JS: I’m doing something for a French publisher at the Louvre Museum about their Mesopotamian
collection because I’m interested in first civilizations. I kind of want to get away from journalism
now for a while and just look at other things.
CM: Do you find yourself doing a lot of research, more academic research for these sort of
JS: Well there was research for the book on Gaza because I had to go through archives. I don’t
know if that’s considered academic research. It’s a little more historical. I’m doing more research
now if the book requires that. I always research. Even my earliest books I research because
you’re reading beforehand. You’re reading primary source material, documents about the time, or
whatever. There’s always research that goes into it but it probably shows more in my last book,
which seemed more like a historical book.
CM: What has precipitated you wanting to move away from journalism?
JS: I just don’t think journalism answers all the questions and I just have other questions now.
I’m curious about other things and I think just creatively I need a break. Creatively I need to do