A cell from Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza shows Sacco (left) interviewing one of his many subjects.
From Palestine to Bosnia, journalist Joe Sacco has seen a lot. He’s also written a lot. And last but not least, he’s drawn a lot. The author of a number of books, the latest of which is Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco has earned numerous awards for his work. Footnotes in Gaza, which was praised in the pages of Time magazine, the New York Times, the Forward and more, chronicles two forgotten massacres commited by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip during Israel’s brief 1956 occupation of the Strip.
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I recently caught up with Sacco for a phone interview on Israel/Palestine, comic-style journalism, his future projects and more.
Alex Kane: For Mondoweiss readers who may not know, tell me about yourself and your work.
Joe Sacco (Photo: Richard Saker/Guardian)
Joe Sacco: (Laughs) Well, I guess most of the work I’ve done over the last twenty or so years has been journalistic, and I’ve done work that relates to the Palestinians, I’ve done work that relates to the war in Bosnia, and I’ve done shorter pieces that have taken me, you know, to India, to southern Russia and other places. So pretty much what I’ve done is journalism for the last couple of decades, I studied journalism, and I’m a cartoonist so I just sort of put the two things together. I’ll probably be branching out in the future and trying something else other than journalism just because I need a creative change.
AK: So how did you get started writing about Palestine?
JS: Well, you know, having studied journalism, anyone who goes into the journalism profession, I would hope, is interested in the world around them, and I was particularly interested in what was going on in Palestine because growing up, I had considered Palestinians terrorists. Without really paying attention to what was going on in the Middle East, that’s what I was getting from, basically, osmosis. That’s what was filtering down to me without doing any of my own research into it. And slowly my impression began to change when I did begin to pay attention, which was around the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s. That’s when my thinking about what was going on in the Middle East began to shift somewhat, where I no longer thought exclusively that Israel was beleaguered on all sides by hundreds of millions of Arabs who wanted to push the Jews into the sea. I began to think that something else was going on, and that was around the time of the Sabra and Shatila massacres when Israel invaded Lebanon.
And so slowly I began to educate myself, and then I was sort of aghast for a couple of reasons, one being, having studied journalism, I realized that the so-called objective journalism that you find in the United States hadn’t really educated me about what was going on. I mean, it provided facts, without any sort of context, which is probably why I thought, “well, Palestinians are terrorists,” because the only time I hear the word Palestinian is in relation to a hijacking or bombing or something like that. And the other reason was, being a U.S. taxpayer, you’re basically shoveling money in the direction of the Middle East, and I didn’t like what was going on there, and I felt a little responsible on some level, because my money, like your money, like any American taxpayer’s money, is going to policies that you might not necessarily like when you begin to understand them.
AK: And so obviously, you’ve been to Palestine quite a lot.
JS: Well, you know “quite a lot” might not be the way to put it. I’ve been there for months at a time, but cartooning is the sort of the work that requires, every month of work you spend in the field, you’ve got years in front of the desk trying to put that month into drawings. So I’ve spent months there, sometimes as long as two months at a time, but I can’t say I’ve spent years, consecutive years there. To me, it’s a lot of time. I mean, two months in Gaza is a long time, a long time for me as a Westerner not used to that sort of thing, and you can imagine what it’s like for the people of Gaza who have a very difficult time getting out.
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AK: Right. I think it’s incredibly that your book Footnotes highlights horrific events that, had it not been for that UN report footnoted in the Chomsky book you referenced, they would have, perhaps, disappeared from the pages of history. What do you think those massacres in Khan Younis and Rafah that you documented in your book tell us about the conflict.
JS: They give you insight into the violence committed against the Palestinians. I mean, obviously, there’s been violence committed against the Israelis, but we tend not to understand or really look at the violence committed against the Palestinians and understand, sort of, the historical narrative that has brought us to where we are now. I mean, people who turn on the television and just see angry Palestinians, for example, they don’t understand what’s happened in their history that brought them to that point. And what was interesting to me is, what happened in Khan Younis in 1956 was the biggest single killing of civilians on Palestinian soil ever. I mean there were bigger massacres of Palestinians, for example in Beirut, but not on Palestinian soil, and it was interesting to me, this is a conflict that is ever present in the news, people go over it and over it, historians go over it and over it, and yet there was no single study about what happened in ‘56 that I could find in English. And that was interesting to me. Like why is this just sort of not in the public consciousness? Or even people who know about the Middle East didn’t know about these massacres. So, you know, history has always been important to me. History is important because it shows, it gives us an idea of how we got to where we are today, and it gives us an understanding of why people feel the way they do today.
AK: That was the greatest single massacre on Palestinian soil. But didn’t ‘Cast Lead’, the events of ‘Cast Lead,’ at least the first couple of days when hundreds of police officers were killed in an airstrike–didn’t that surpass ‘56?
JS: It may have. I can’t say exactly–it certainly may have. But of course then you begin defining, like who is a combatant and who isn’t a combatant. Of course it was a surprise attack and, yes, it was an attack at an assembly of Palestinian police in Gaza, and I don’t know if you can call police combatants, especially the people who need a job, who are just about to graduate. Yeah, so you might very well be right, but I haven’t really parsed all those numbers. But up to that point, when I did that story, that was the single biggest massacre, and it was the sort of massacre where, you know, in the case of Khan Younis, it appears to me, from my research and all the people I spoke to, the people were lined up and shot. That seems to fall out of the–you can’t call that combat.
AK: So is there something about Gaza, Palestine, or in general, intense political struggles that inspires you to do the type of comic journalism that you do?
JS: Well to me it’s a matter of justice. It’s a matter of seeing–you know, I’ve read a fair amount of history, I understand what happened to the Jewish people in Europe that had been going on for centuries, actually, when you look at it. I have a fair understanding of what happened to the Jews, and I can sort of appreciate their feelings about their place in the world. To me, it’s about looking at something else, too: What happened to Palestinians? What’s been going on to them? And to me it’s a matter of justice. It’s a matter of understanding, also, what they’ve gone through, and I think it’s important for people to appreciate what they’ve gone through, and to look at this as a matter of justice. I’m not attracted to conflict per se. It’s what happens to people in these sorts of situations, you know when there’s a political impasse, and it’s trying to understand what that impasse is about.
AK: And is there something different about doing it in comics than, say, another media form?
JS: Well, I think there is something different, but I mean, before I tell you what I think is different, I think every medium has its strength. Documentary film, photo journalism, regular prose reporting, poetry, fiction–they all have their strength in addressing issues. To me, comics is just another way of doing it, and I happen to be a cartoonist, so that’s how I’ve chosen to do it. It’s not as if I thought, “oh, should I choose cartooning as a way of telling this story because it’s more effective.” By the time I went there to actually do some reporting, I already was a cartoonist, so there was no other way I was really thinking about.
But I think the strength that comics have is, you know, you open the book and you can find yourself in a place. It’s very good at showing the atmosphere, and showing the look of a place, and to me that’s important. I mean, we’re very visual animals, our eyes are open all the time and we’re always looking at things, and we’re looking at things to get a sense of what they’re about, or who we are, and to me the idea is, when someone opens up a book like Footnotes in Gaza, they can feel they are in the streets of Gaza. That’s why I go to great lengths to show what it looks like, correct cars, correct sort-of architecture, the correct dress. I want people to feel as they’re moving through the book they’re moving through the streets of places like Khan Younis, Gaza City and Rafah with me. Comics provide that immediate, immediate ability to take the reader in and put them in that place.
And the other thing I think comics can do well, among other things, is it can take a reader back into the past. This is something I was able to do in Footnotes in Gaza–if you can ask the right visual questions, if you can do the right visual research, you can sort of extrapolate the people’s present story–they’re telling you a story now–you can extrapolate and put them into the past and take the reader back into the past. It’s very difficult to do in documentary film, I think. And also, providing the reader with a real visual, that real visual sense of being in the past.
AK: Turning to another question about Gaza, unfortunately it always seems to be on the brink of another Israeli attack, or another flare-up of violence, and as someone who has spent months at a time researching there, what are your thoughts on the current situation?
JS: Well, you know, I feel sorry for the people of Gaza for a couple of reasons. One is, except for those supporters of Hamas who are really just behind Hamas for whatever reason, benefits or whatever, I think it would be relatively miserable to live under Hamas. That’s one thing. Before, people used to think of Hamas as a relatively uncorrupted entity that was distributing a lot of social services to the people. It did a lot of good in that sense. But, you know, Hamas–I’m talking about from the Palestinian perspective, obviously from an Israeli perspective Hamas means something deadlier and more violent–but from the Palestinian perspective, I would say living in Gaza under Hamas would not be particularly an easy way of living your life.
The other thing is, of course, that the Israelis are still blockading Gaza. They control things that are going in, they control to a large extent, the goings and comings of people, and they’re blockading Gaza. So people have a doubly miserable life. It’s miserable from the inside, I would say, and it’s miserable because of the external pressure. And then you hear someone like Newt Gingrich say something like “the Palestinians are an invented people,” and these people are terrorists, and you realize that there’s still people in public office, or who had public office in this case, running for president, who feel they can say this sort of thing because it’s okay to disparage the Palestinians in this really disgusting way.
AK: The last question I have is, what new projects are you working on?
JS: I’m working on a book with a journalist named Chris Hedges about things that are going on in the United States. Basically, we’ve gone to four places that somehow represent what happens to areas when capitalism is allowed to have its head and do what it wants. Places like Camden, New Jersey, Immokalee, Florida, Pine Ridge Indian reservation in South Dakota, and the coal mining area of West Virginia. So I’m doing something about the United States now, working on a project about America. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at overseas things, and to me it was a real education, it’s really eye-opening to see what’s going on in the country I live in, and to see that there some parts of the United States that just simply remind me of the Third World. And perhaps we’re heading that way.
AK: And is that also going to be in a Footnotes-style format, where it’s journalism combined with comics?
JS: Well, it’s more of a hybrid, where Chris is going to be writing, there’s going to be prose in it, and then there’s also comics to supplement the prose. The prose will lead into a comic section, which will lead into a prose section, so there are some comics that look at individual stories, and then there are some illustrations, I’ve done some illustrations to show the landscape and things like that.
AK: Great, that sounds really interesting. When do you think that will be out?
JS: I think it’s scheduled to be out in June, and also in June, it looks like a book of mine that collects all my shorter journalism pieces that I’ve done for magazines or anthologies and things like that, will come out. So two different books that I’m involved with will come out in the middle of next year.