The adage is that you should never meet your heroes. It’s wrong. Joe Sacco is as nice, patient and interested in people as he seems in his work. The signing queue after his event at the Scottish Power Studio on Tuesday evening wasn’t very long, perhaps 40-50 people, but it took over two hours to get through them all as he took the time to draw personalised sketches alongside his signature and chat for a few minutes to each of us.
I also got the impression that the patience required for the “slow journalism” he practises probably stood him in good stead for some of the questions twisted out by the event chair, Adrian Searle, which were a little difficult to decode. It also didn’t help that Searle’s microphone was a long way from his mouth, making him very hard to hear. Luckily, Sacco had good answers anyway.
Sacco is a journalist who has travelled to and lived in many of the areas of the world in conflict, such as Bosnia, Palestine and Chechenya to document the lives of the people there, translating his reportage into comics, usually, though not always, collected into books (I am not keen on “graphic novel”, a useful term press-ganged into service as a euphemism for those who think comics are only for children). These include Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, The Fixer, War’s End and his most recent collection of shorter pieces originally created for newspapers and magazines, Journalism.
One of the features of his work is that he usually features himself in his work as a character, which foregrounds the fact that his accounts are subjective, something that is often frowned up in other media.
Responding here to a question that seemed to be asking about this, he said: “There’s a lot of subjectivity that’s put across as objectivity. It’s difficult for a reporter to go anywhere not to carry baggage… if a journalist comes to Afghanistan, an American journalist with American soldiers, they sympathise with the soldiers” as they went through the same education system, follow the same sports and so on, and if they were truly objective, they would admit those biases and note that they are with “the army of a nation state that has specific interests projecting its power”. They may claim to be objective, he said, but they come with their own background.
On how he came to draw himself into the work, was it a conscious decision to highlight the subjectivity?
“Everything was accidental. I was doing what a lot of other American cartoonists were doing, personal stories.” (much of this work is collected in Notes from a Defeatist). “When I went to the Middle East … I thought I was continuing this same process.
“I started thinking of putting the story together journalistically, but I was in the story. The subjectivity was accidental. I wanted to write about my experiences … and I realised there is no way of drawing myself out of these stories. When I became more sophisticated… concentrating on the characters I was meeting… I realised I didn’t need to be there so much.
“When I look back at Palestine I realise it’s not well structured.” Partly, he said, this was because the thread through the story was himself, and partly because, like most comics, it was published serially. “The only thing holding it together was my presence.”
“When I was In Bosnia the town was the character. The people were very strong characters and I had to step back to let them shine.” But still much of what he found interesting was still in his relationship with them.
The way that Sacco works, as he has outlined elsewhere is that he uses the normal journalistic tools of taking notes, recordings and photos and then combining them into the comics work. Searle asked about his methods, whether he sketches in the field or waits until later.
“I wanted to learn how to sketch … but it was much more important to to talk to people, to sit down and have have conversations,” adding that out a sketch pad would be a distraction. Instead he’d take photos. “My pictures are very, very boring but are very good reference materials. The only time I sketch now is when I can’t use the camera.”
An example of this what when working on a piece about Gaza, and going through Israeli checkpoints where he could be stuck for hours. “It wasn’t really wise to raise a camera. If you’re in a taxi with a bunch of people you don’t want to endanger them, so I would sketch this checkpoint. I was stuck there enough times for long enough that I got it pretty well.”
Searle asked (I think) if using a low-key approach helps change the relationship with his subjects?
“Often I’m in a place for months and my hope is that when people see me in the street they don’t think about me any more. The problem is that sometimes people play to the journalists and video cameras. I don’t want to be a big presence. I have a slow journalistic way of doing things… I give myself time so that I’m not annoying them, not forcing myself on them.”
The reports are very personal, unlike other war reporters. Do you think there should be more outrage?
“I don’t think there should be more outrage for the sake of outrage.” But talking to other journalists describing what happened in their day, their stories “say a lot more about a situation” than what they are reporting. “Those stories are personal, but editors want the harder news … they might personally be outraged but are careful about showing that … it depends on the politics of the newspaper and the journalist.”
When did you cross the line away from objectivity?
“I crossed the line early. I was taught the objective way was the right way. I took that on faith. It was when Israel invaded Lebanon, and in Beirut Israel’s allies went into Palestinian refugee camps; Christian militias massacred hundreds of Palestinians.
“Something went off in my head. I thought Palestinians were terrorists. I didn’t know what was going on. I had only ever heard the word “Palestinian” was when there was with rockets going off or there was some outrage by Palestinians. It was factually true and objective; innocent Israelis were killed. But I didn’t know there were Palestnian refugees at all.
“Objective journalism doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about the truth … I knew about the American victims of terrorism, these people were showed as human, but we never got what was happening to the Palestinians.”
Discussing the way it’s important to ensure that people are not just presented as victims, and that the conflicts are often more complex than they seem from the outside he said: “I approached going to Bosnia in a very naive way. It’s only when you get there you understand what’s really going on. What’s interesting is when you talk to the people you find out they are not only afraid of the other side but also their own side.”
They then ran through a series of pages from Journalism on screen, but as they are very detailed, it was hard to make out what was going on in most of them for anyone who had not read it. Searle occasionally interrupted Sacco’s descriptions of the scenes with some very odd questions, about the influence of Caravaggio and whether he was drawn to drawing as he moved around a lot as a child. Sacco soldiered on describing the scenes and why they were important, particularly one about Chechen women, where he observed that because many societies are patriarchal, the dominant voices are men, and why it’s valuable to get women’s perspective: “Women don’t start the story with some historical overview. It’s more about ‘ this is what my kids are going to eat tonight’. It’s on a level I appreciate. They don’t talk about their experiences the way men do.”
Most interesting for me, though was a description of his most recent project, The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, which is a fold-out panorama of 24 plates depicting the build-up to the Somme: “I thought, ‘you know what, I’d like to do something without any words. I just want to draw.'”
He’d done a lot of reading on the First World War and wanted to put it to use. “I gave it a narrative. It’s not a static view of the Western Front. It shows troops moving up to the front line for the first day of the Somme then troops moving out.
“I was influenced by Jacques Tardi, I knew I could never approach World War I the way he did. I have some volumes of Charley’s War that I decided not to look at. Joe Colquhoun‘s work is so beautiful and so exact. I didn’t want to look at it. He really knows what he’s doing.
“I wanted to show a mass human event going into this battle. Everyone knows the result but I didn’t want to overdo the carnage. If that endeavour was put into constructive we might have a better result.”
Questions from the floor were very insightful, including one I’d struggled over some years previously: what are the advantages of comics over other sorts of journalism? What can they do that other media can’t?
Sacco’s answer was that there were two main advantages. First, that you can “seamlessly shift into the past … something you can’t do so well with documentary”. His example was that if a documentary about the First Crusade tries to dramatise it you get “three guys and a horse crossing the desert”, but if he was going to draw it he could put in as much detail as he needed, with hundreds or thousands of people. Second, comics can use the repeated image, which “allows material to seep into the mind of the reader”. No matter what’s going on in the foreground, the background can give “a sense of place” that you often can’t get from text alone, building an atmosphere.
Another question was that as Sacco is quite a handsome man, “in your stories you look a bit like a dork. What’s going on with that?”
“It’s how I felt. They are accurate as far as my self-perception of not knowing what I was doing … I was showing myself bumbling around. I think I was like that. Later I upgraded myself.”
An anthropologist thought that as the methods of going and meeting and living with people were very similar to her discipline, would his art translate to a more social, anthropological analysis? To which he answered that the scene between the two parts of Palestine about a feast – in which a bull is killed and a whole family gets involved – was “most fun I had doing that book.” The way the community got involved, the division of the meat and how some was given to the poor all fascinated him.
The discussion was wrapped up with some hints about his next project, going back through history to the first civilisation, Mesopotamia, to explore “how does the state get a person to kill another person?” and see “how we get from there to where we are now”.
Then it was off to the long wait outside the signing tent. It’s testament to the pull Sacco has that so many people waited so long without complaint. For my part I wanted to thank him for a special reason: he got me my journalism degree. My dissertation was on comics journalism and I spent months looking closely at his work and it was an honour to finally meet him. As heroes go, he didn’t disappoint. And I got this sketch to treasure, too.
The contrast of this serious event, on a subject I know intimately, with the passionate daftness of Cerys Matthews earlier in the day, which I’d had no expectations for, both of them excellent, gave me a great day and illustrated just what a range of subjects the Edinburgh International Book Festival covers.