Graphic Writer Joe Sacco captures conflict with comic drawings

Joe Sacco, a graphic writer, talked about the art of comic book journalism as a Dedmon Writer-in-Residence.

By Emma Broder

Graphic journalist and Dedmon Writer-in-Residence Joe Sacco, who has written several books of graphic nonfiction about conflict in the Middle East (his new book about poverty in America, co-authored with the journalist Chris Hedges, will be out in June), spoke last Tuesday afternoon in Rosenwald. Sacco is the sixth writer to take part in the Dedmon Writer-in-Residence Program. The Dedmon fund annually brings to campus a writer engaged in interdisciplinary work—in Sacco’s case, the intersection is between journalism and cartooning.

Daniel Raeburn, a lecturer of creative writing, said that Sacco’s work is timeless, and that it expresses the point that “nobody ever wins a war; the only thing that wins a war is the war itself.”

The title slide of Sacco’s presentation read simply, “Comics as Journalism.” In Sacco’s slideshow, he elaborated on several types of richness that his interdisciplinary work engenders; he also summarized the methods he uses to ensure the visual accuracy of his renderings. Throughout the presentation, he showed example panels from both his earlier books (Palestine, The Fixer) and more recent publications (Footnotes in Gaza).

As he worked through his slides, Sacco spoke of the advantages genre-bending brings to his work. He said he uses images to create a pervasive mood. Showing the audience one panel in which many events occur simultaneously, Sacco said, “You want the reader to be as confused as you were.” He achieves this through cutting up blocks of type, or putting the panels in a state of disarray, so that it is not clear which should be read first. In another panel, he pointed out the tension between the accuracy of a quote from a witness to a scene, who was depicted in a separate panel in one corner of the page, and the subjectivity of his hand-drawn rendering of the scene, at which he had not been present. In yet another set of panels, Sacco said he was trying to give the reader the sense of how wet and muddy the weather in a refugee camp was, and that he wanted this idea to follow the reader through the panels like the weather would follow a person in real life.

Sacco was careful to distinguish between the methods he uses to gather visual information about events he has not witnessed (photo archive research, interviews, tours of the site) and those he has (extensive journaling, thorough photo documentation, help from friends).

The audience, of whom perhaps 20 lined up after the event to have their books signed by Sacco, took advantage of the question-and-answer session that followed. One member asked Sacco what he thought of subjectivity in journalism.

“It’s important to be honest,” Sacco said. “It’s a blessing that cartooning forces you to draw yourself into situations. It’s too bad that journalists are made to write themselves out of some of their best stories.”

Another attendee wanted to know why Sacco draws himself in a more cartoony style than others. Sacco offered the theory that “if you draw yourself more generally, it’s easier for people to identify with you.”

Some audience members were more complimentary and cheeky: “You allow yourself to be the brat, you know? It helps the reader, as a spoiled Westerner.” “Does anyone ever complain that their nose is too big?”

When asked why his book Footnotes in Gaza ends in silence, he talked about interviewing an old man who was having trouble narrating his story to Sacco. The man’s grandson asked, “What’s the one thing you remember from that day?” “Fear,” the old man answered. “That’s when I realized,” Sacco said, “that I knew his story better than he did. I was just returning the story to these people.”