Comics from the Front

How Joe Sacco learned to stop worrying and love war

Maybe you know the feeling. Maybe it struck you one morning as you stared in the mirror before trundling off to the job you hate, or maybe it hit you so hard one night it woke you from your sleep like a prowler in the bedroom. It's that feeling of: I am useless. I contribute nothing. My life has no meaning. And what do you do about it? Probably nothing, because you're frightened of quitting the paycheck, of uprooting the life that's taken root deep in the soil, of stepping into the void where comfort is as foreign an object as a moon rock. So you live the life of resigned discontentment and pray for the opportunity that knocks on the door of your neighbor.

Joe Sacco once felt as though his life had no meaning. His were jobs built on the gray foundations of tedium and lethargy. In the 1980s, he held the position of associate editor for a publication run by the National Notary Association, where he spent a year writing about notaries--a subject about which he knew, and cared, nothing. He had received a degree in journalism from the University of Oregon in 1991 and needed the gig, though not enough to soak his soul in formaldehyde. Among his other jobs: writing about advertisers for a Portland city magazine, chronicling First Amendment issues for The Comics Journal, running his own humor publication with a pal in Portland. Not bad gigs, in all. Just not good ones, either.

What he came to realize was that nothing "kicked him in the gut" till he decided to tell the story of Palestinians living, just barely, in the refugee camps along the Gaza Strip, described by the late Palestinian-American critic Edward Said as "the national Inferno." Sacco was traveling in Germany in 1990 when he became obsessed with trying to reconcile the demonization of the Palestinians with their status as a demoralized, defeated people living in horrific conditions under Israeli rule. He read books and newspaper accounts and couldn't get his mind and heart around the subject: Palestinians, he had long been told, were murderers and suicide terrorists, but how could this be true when they were merely trying to survive amid such terrible human-rights violations?

So Sacco packed his bags and for two months in 1991 and '92 lived among the Palestinians of the occupied territories and returned with notes and tapes and photographs. The result was nine issues of, of all things, a comic book titled Palestine, which Sacco did not know if anyone would even publish. It didn't matter. He had gone to Israel because he hadto; all else were pointless considerations. When he did find a publisher, Seattle-based Fantagraphics, Sacco found himself as a rare, almost inexplicable breed of storyteller: the comic-book journalist who interviews dozens of people for hundreds of hours, takes thousands of pictures and walks countless miles through pock-marked battlefields and villages laid waste by bombs and death squads.

"It's not that I have some grand strategy about how all of this works or how it all works to better any situation," Sacco says from his home in Portland. He was born in Malta in 1960 and raised in Australia, and his voice contains soft, feathery remnants of an Australian accent. Sacco has often lived out of packed bags in Holland, Germany, Austria, Italy. He has returned to Malta to visit the homeland and been to Berlin to roadie for a punk rock band. And for the past decade, he has lived among the ruins of Palestinian settlements and Bosnian villages, where people live long enough to tell Sacco their stories, which he can put into his little comic books and share with people who would otherwise forget about them altogether. In 1995, Sacco traveled to the villages of Eastern Bosnia while the war there still trembled like aftershocks. He found himself in Gorazde, one of the so-called safe areas where some of the worst ethnic cleansing had occurred; Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95was published by Fantagraphics in hardback in 2000.

"Now, it's more a question of personal compulsion to do something about it," Sacco is saying, taking a break from transcribing hundreds of hours of tapes for his next book, about Gaza. "If I didn't do it, I would have a hard time just looking at myself in the mirror. There are just times I wake up and I think, 'If I do not go to this place, then I'm not going to be satisfied with myself.' I know I would have been a coward, and I mean not just physically but morally. It sounds, maybe, a little pretentious, but that's kind of how I look at it."

You may know of Bosnia from CNN, may have heard of the Gaza Strip from a TV report. But what, Sacco wants to know, do you know of the people who live there? What do you know of how their homelands became hellholes? What do you want to know? He will tell you. He will show you. He will guide you through the minefields. Joe Sacco is the one in his comics with the Coke-bottle glasses and the buzz-cut hairdo and the Mick Jagger lips--the Ugly American who makes nothinglook pretty.

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