The Groundbreaking Honesty of Joe Sacco’s Comics Journalism

The Groundbreaking Honesty of Joe Sacco’s Comics Journalism

The Outsider

Joe Sacco’s comics journalism.


There’s a memorable scene near the end of Joe Sacco’s latest book, Paying the Land, that encapsulates his ethos as a comics journalist. For the project, he made two trips to Canada’s remote Northwest Territories to interview members of the Dene Nation about their relationship to the land and resource extraction. At the time of his visits, the gas and oil industries had been established in the region for years, but a global petroleum glut had paused operations. Sacco and his guide, Shauna, visited several towns and heard a range of Indigenous perspectives on drilling and fracking, which provide jobs and economic opportunity but also endanger the habitats and cohesion of communities. What he found was that the complications surrounding resource extraction were inextricable from larger issues the Dene have been facing for generations. Sacco couldn’t parse the conflicts over oil and gas without understanding the Canadian government’s ruthless program of colonization, enacted via unjust treaties and the residential school system. He also couldn’t understand it without following the Dene’s resistance to the government and their fight to regain control of their land and maintain their independence and identity.

In what has come to be his usual style, Sacco intersperses the voices of his subjects in Paying the Land with the history of the region and some of his own thoughts on what’s at stake. Compared with his previous work, however, he remains relatively in the background. He listens, narrates, and recurs as a familiar presence wearing a cable-knit sweater and his trademark round glasses, which stand in for his eyes (Sacco has drawn himself with blank frames since his first book). But he doesn’t speak or comment often, which makes the scene near the end especially notable.

In Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, Sacco and Shauna travel to the defunct Giant Mine, a site of gold extraction for more than 50 years. When ore processing stopped there in 1999, it left behind 237,000 tons of a lethal byproduct—arsenic trioxide dust. “Where to put it?” Sacco wonders, before answering, “Well, down the mine of course!” He explains that a remediation project rigged frozen storage chambers deep underground; cascading, angled panels show the pair descending and touring one of them. On the next page, Sacco walks alongside the massive machinery and muses about his journey to meet the Dene. “I will leave here with many unanswered questions about my indigenous hosts,” he writes, “but right now…my biggest query is about my race, about us.” He asks in a series of text boxes laid across drawings of the dark mine, “What is the worldview of a people who mumble no thanks or prayers, who take what they want from the land, and pay it back with arsenic?”

It’s a remarkable moment, a swift and scathing indictment of the people Sacco represents—white, settler, Western. This type of self-critique is rare in mainstream Anglo-American journalism, which adheres to the myth of the reporter’s neutrality or else revels in indulgent subjectivity. But rigorous inward-facing critique is common in Sacco’s work. For him, journalism is about asking questions, relaying information, and uncovering truths, not only about one’s subjects but also about oneself. Throughout his books he exposes the mechanics of his process in such a way that the reader can never forget that their narrator is a biased, privileged outsider. He sees it as a matter of ethics. “The important thing for me isn’t so much objectivity, it’s—I want the journalists to admit their contexts, their prejudices somehow,” he has said. “Objectivity to me is a different word than honesty.”

That honesty is a crucial part of Sacco’s decades-long project. Whether covering the lives of Palestinians in the occupied territories, Bosniaks and Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, or the Dene, he seeks out difficult and painful stories and tells tales of war and oppression that many people may not want to hear. Sacco’s oeuvre is built on using words, images, and a potent combination of the two to make visceral the realities of historical trauma. As Hillary Chute wrote in her 2016 book, Disaster Drawn, his work “is about an ethics of attention, not about producing the news.” And as a white Western man, he’s keenly aware of the power his attention holds.

Comics have flourished as a genre for memoir and nonfiction stories since the 1970s, but the use of the form for journalism has been much slower to catch on. It has gained traction over the past decade or so with the release of books like Josh Neufeld’s A.D., about Hurricane Katrina, in 2009, and Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts, about the effects of the Iraq War in the Middle East, in 2016, as well as with digital publications like Symbolia (now defunct) and The Nib. In recent years, The New York Times has also begun to run drawn reported pieces in its opinion section, bestowing mainstream visibility on the field. But when Sacco started out, this kind of work barely existed. According to Chute, in fact, he coined the term “comics journalism” himself.

Born in Malta in 1960 and raised in Australia before his family moved to the United States in 1972, Sacco began drawing comics as a child. His interest in journalism took hold during high school in Portland, Ore., where he worked on the student newspaper, and he went on to study the subject at the University of Oregon.

After college, Sacco returned to visual storytelling while leading a peripatetic life. He moved to Malta in 1983 and published a series of romance comics, then back to Portland, where he cofounded a monthly comics newspaper called the Portland Permanent Press, which folded, after a year, in 1988. Next he moved to Los Angeles, where he worked for the comics publisher Fantagraphics and founded a satirical magazine called Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. In 1988, he left the United States for a four-year stint that included touring Europe with a rock band and living in Berlin.

Sacco’s work during these years was often satirical and autobiographical, drawn in what’s known as “bigfoot” style, which features expressive characters with exaggerated bodies inspired by Robert Crumb and other underground comix pioneers. Still, politics and military conflicts weren’t far from his mind. In one piece from the period, he captures his mother’s memories of the violence of World War II in Malta; another focuses on his obsessive following of the Persian Gulf war of 1991 while going through a breakup. These early comics, which are collected in the 2003 book Notes From a Defeatist, indicate the direction that Sacco’s work was moving in, but it was one trip in particular that set the course of his career.

Between 1991 and 1992, Sacco spent two months in Palestine and Israel. It was the waning days of the first intifada, when Palestinians rose up against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and were met by a military response. Over a thousand people died, the majority of them Palestinians, while images of Palestinian boys and men throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli soldiers abounded. Sacco was, he later explained, “furious at” the American news media, which he thought mischaracterized and misrepresented the reality of the situation and the power imbalances between the two countries. “There are two ways in which Palestinians are portrayed—as terrorist and as victim,” he told an interviewer for Al Jazeera. “There may be truth in certain situations for both descriptions, but Palestinians are also people going to school, who have families, have lives, invite you into their home, and think about their food.” He wanted to see what was happening for himself and hear from Palestinians in the occupied territories directly.

On his trip, Sacco spent time in Palestinians’ homes, where he shared meals and interviewed them about their lives. He turned his notes into a series of comic books published between 1993 and 1995. They weren’t commercially successful, but they were a rarity in the American media: Unflinchingly honest about the Palestinian plight, they depicted an open, hospitable people describing the horrific yet quotidian nature of their suffering. The following year, Fantagraphics released Palestine in two volumes, and Sacco won an American Book Award. (It has since been collected in one book.) “There is nothing else quite like this in alternative comics,” wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly—which, as if to drive the point home, miscategorized the work as fiction.

Given the milieu in which Sacco had been working, Palestine is firmly grounded in the traditions of underground comix and New Journalism. Its style is cartoonish—in fact, he heard complaints that his depictions of people in the first issue were stereotypical and offensive, and he tried to adjust accordingly—and the tone is often sarcastic and outlandish. Sacco plays a starring role as the self-conscious protagonist in search of some kind of truth. It’s not his most sophisticated work, but it is a crucial document for tracking the inception of long-form comics journalism.

The basics of Sacco’s methodology are already evident in Palestine. From the start, he doesn’t shy away from depicting violence, but he also uses art to bring the setting to life: the muddy refugee camps, bare-bones dwellings, and bustling cities. “To me landscape is a character somehow,” Sacco has said of his work, and indeed, it’s part of how the reader comes to understand Gaza and the West Bank in this book. It helps Sacco do something that’s harder to pull off in prose and reportage alone: He creates a sense of the everyday life that forms the backdrop for, and is disrupted by, acts of brutality.

In terms of its storytelling, Palestine foregrounds ordinary people’s voices and places them in context—often in contrast—with official narratives. In the first chapter, Sacco devotes a spread to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which Britain announced its support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. “We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country,” Sacco quotes the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, saying as he sits in an armchair in a book-lined study and delicately holds aloft a cup of tea. Two pages later, a Palestinian man sits on the floor in a dwelling in the Jabalia refugee camp and explains that he lost his home in 1948 during the Nakba. When he took his family back to the site many years later, his entire village was gone. “There is no sign that we ever lived there,” he says. His words float atop a drawing of the family looking out on a stretch of bare land with a lone truck driving through it.

Juxtaposition—the whiplash produced by placing contrasting perspectives and timelines alongside each other—is central to Sacco’s project. It serves as a reminder that dates, documents, and declarations don’t account for the reality of lived experiences. It also helps him put into practice a credo laid out in the preface to Journalism, a 2012 collection of his short-form work: “The powerful should be quoted, yes, but to measure their pronouncements against the truth, not to obscure it.” If, as the expression goes, history is written by the victors, then Sacco has given himself the job of revising it on behalf of the victims.

Nowhere in his body of work is this truer than Footnotes in Gaza, a hefty and meticulous book that uncovers the circumstances of two Israeli massacres of Palestinians during the 1956 Suez crisis. As part of the operation, Israeli forces invaded the Gaza Strip on their way to Sinai, in an effort to root out Palestinian armed militants who were supported by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s government. In the process, they rounded up and killed hundreds of civilians. Israeli leaders downplayed and tried to justify the massacre, claiming that the Palestinians had been noncompliant and “unruly,” that some had been armed and rioted, and that there had been Egyptian instigators among them.

Sacco finds otherwise. He first learned about the episodes not quite from a footnote, but in passing in a Noam Chomsky book, which cites a United Nations report stating that 275 Palestinians had been killed in the town of Khan Younis and its adjacent refugee camp and 111 others in the Rafah camp. While reporting from Gaza, Sacco became curious about the two massacres, eventually returning to focus on them and to speak to survivors. He went to the UN archives and read the original report, as well as others he could find, and enlisted the help of Israeli researchers. But little had been written about either incident.

Footnotes in Gaza is a remarkable work of comics journalism and history that arranges dozens of voices and past and present events into a horrifying yet deeply empathetic assemblage. As in Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, his 2000 book about the siege of the titular town during the Bosnian War, Sacco’s primary method for narrating the massacres is to pair the texts of people’s recollections with drawn reenactments. He often re-creates the interview process by showing his subjects looking straight ahead as they speak, so the reader assumes Sacco’s listening position. And whereas the characters and scenes in Palestine are highly stylized, sometimes to the point of looking grotesque, by 2009, when Footnotes was published, he had shifted more toward realism. Most of the speakers in the book are old men, and he draws their creased and weary faces in careful detail.

Sacco knows that eyewitness accounts can be unreliable, and he acknowledges it by sometimes placing disparate versions of events side by side and highlighting the discrepancies. This is particularly true of his treatment of the Rafah episode, in which, after being violently rounded up, Palestinian men were put through a long screening process. Sacco is forthright about the fallibility of memory and the psychic toll of trauma here. “While anyone would remember a two-second flurry of clubs rising and falling onto skulls and flesh…and the continuous gunfire as the schoolyard filled up,” he writes, “what about the next eight- or ten-hour stretch when the gear shifted down to the slow, bitter, but relatively systematic sifting of men?”

Even with the inconsistencies and conflicts, the collection of remembrances in Footnotes doesn’t throw the whole story into doubt; instead, it builds up a bulwark that reinforces the common truth: The mass killings did happen, despite the Israeli government’s attempts to minimize them. The art bolsters that conclusion, as with the growing number of images of the dead. Their multiplicity, the space they take up on the page, seems to challenge their erasure from official records. In the account of the Rafah incident, especially, images of fearful men holding their hands above their heads and being beaten and shot recur like an oppressive and inescapable refrain.

That cumulative effect is arguably one of the most important qualities of Sacco’s work. Traditional long-form journalism is character-driven: Writers tell the story of a place and time through one or two representative protagonists. Sacco’s approach is more populist, like oral history. Using the form of comics, he’s able to build a picture of an event or issue through a diversity of voices, images, and experiences, always working from the bottom up. In doing so, he pushes against a colonial mindset that sees world events through the lens of heroes and leaders.

A key element of Sacco’s work is the fluidity with which he moves between registers of time: He always keeps one foot anchored in the present while delving into the past. This is central to Paying the Land. What Sacco finds when he visits the Northwest Territories is not a general Dene consensus about how to handle oil and gas, or even two opposing camps, but a fractured environment in which everyone seems to have their own opinion. Some say resource extraction comes at too high a cost; others argue that the tribes should control it so that they can regulate it and make money.

This disagreement reflects how different communities have taken their own approaches to settling land claims with the Canadian government. People even have varying thoughts on living in the bush, which was traditionally a defining aspect of Dene existence: Some remember it proudly as a time of self-reliance, while others remember nearly starving in subzero temperatures. Sacco has never shirked complexity, but it’s an impressive feat that he manages to hold space for all these issues and voices to comfortably coexist.

There is, however, one unifying factor, a trauma at the heart of the Dene’s estrangement from the land they’ve long revered and respected: the residential school system, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission labeled “cultural genocide” in a 2015 report. For nearly 150 years, the government took First Nations children away from their parents and communities and placed them in religious schools, where they were forced to speak English, subjected to strict rules, and often abused.

Sacco tells the tale of the residential school system largely through the first-person stories of those who attended it. Renderings of them as adults, speaking to Sacco, appear amid drawings of their younger selves experiencing what they’re describing. The work becomes an actualization of their memories, in the process visualizing the haunting grip of historical trauma. In one passage, interviewee Paul Andrew recounts the physical brutality: “In residential school you got hit and you never know why you got hit,” he says, as images of his 8- or 9-year-old self being slapped ricochet across the middle of the page. Below, Sacco places portraits of the boy, as he’s being yelled at by a nun and a priest, side by side with the adult Andrew, their faces set in a similarly pained expression. Boxes of words hover in the space between them, as Andrew recalls how the abuse was also emotional and spiritual: “You’re not good enough. That’s why we got to remake you. Because you’re not good enough.”

Unlike the structure of Sacco’s previous books, in which the core conflict is woven throughout the story, the narrative of the residential schools is concentrated in one section in Paying the Land, and it doesn’t appear until halfway through the text. That decision reflects a crucial difference in this new work: Although, like other Sacco titles, it involves him visiting and reporting on an oppressed community as an outsider, the subject isn’t war or an uprising. There are fewer specific events to chronicle and more sentiments and arguments to convey, which at times makes for a less cohesive story. But the shift allows him to move away from mostly depicting misery to rendering a more complex, affirmative world. This comes through in the richly detailed art and the formal experiments that open up new depths in his work.

The clearest example of this is the book’s opening, a 19-page recollection of growing up on the land, narrated by Andrew. “You learn about relationships and connections with the land and the animals,” he says. “You learn how important they are to you, how important the world is, essentially.” As Andrew describes his people’s traditions—building a boat every year, for instance, and traveling long distances by dog sleigh—Sacco fills the pages with a proliferation of images. Scenes of bush life flow into one another without panels or borders, creating the feeling of a dreamscape informed by the aesthetic of a scrapbook. The effect is immersive, and the only interruption is Andrew’s face, which appears in a black rectangle, like a narrator from another time.

At one point, Andrew explains the Dene’s holistic approach to life. When you arrive at a camp, you generally aren’t given specific instructions. Instead, “you look at what needs to be done and you do it,” he says. “So you find yourself in the circle. You work yourself in[to] the circle of that community.” Amid these words, the young Andrew stands alone in the center of the page with buckets of water in both hands. He’s surrounded by a ring of white space, beyond which others in the camp form a larger circle as they attend to their tasks.

This image—of the individual within the group—recurs at the end of the book, when a young man named Eugene Boulanger tells a story of going out to hunt caribou. The trip was part of a reality TV show about younger Dene connecting with their heritage, but for Boulanger it became a spiritual experience. He explains that while he was alone in the mountains, “I had the omniscient moment where I saw myself in the continuum of my ancestry, the ancestors a long time ago doing exactly what I was doing exactly where I was doing it.” Sacco draws him near the center of the page, standing over the body of the caribou with a knife in his hand. Around him there is that same ring of white space, and then several images of his Dene forebears carrying out the same task. “I felt that this 22-year circle had been closed,” Boulanger says.

Using these two moments as bookends, Sacco turns the theme of the circle into a visual motif as well as a formal structuring device. It works beautifully, not just because of the power of his artistry, but also because it affirms what he’s been saying all along in his work: that people and events are interconnected, and time doesn’t only move in one direction. Sacco went to the Northwest Territories in search of stories about what’s buried underground. He returned with something deeper.

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