February 6, 2012

The award-winning comics creator visited campus this month.

Current Dedmon Writer-in-Residence Joe Sacco isn’t afraid to literally put himself into his work. Spend enough time with any of Sacco’s collections of comics journalism and you are bound to note the iconic, bespectacled figure of the artist himself lurking about the panels, providing a sort of comic counterpoint to the narratives of human suffering and conflict he reports.

For Dan Raeburn of the Committee on Creative Writing, this is what makes the author’s work stand out. “That's one of the many things I like about Sacco's work: Sacco himself. By that I mean his character, as opposed to his narrator. The drawn character is often a figure of fun, whereas the narrator is dead serious.”

Sacco-the-narrator is dead serious, this is to be expected from a journalist who documents stories from some of the most intractable conflicts of the last two decades: the first intifada in occupied Palestine in the early-nineties in Palestine and the bloody sectarian wars in post-Soviet Yugoslavia in Safe Area Goražde. Raeburn argues that the subjective perspective implied by the imposition of Sacco-the-character gives Sacco’s narratives a level of honesty that is absent from traditional war reporting.

“I admire the way that putting himself in the story dispenses with the idea, so prevalent in journalism, that the writer should be invisible,” says Raeburn.

Sacco’s latest book, Footnotes in Gaza, is something of a departure from his earlier work in that he uses the comics medium to document the massacre of 275 Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956. But, as Sacco recalls, some Gaza residents could see little point in gathering evidence of a fifty-year old atrocity in a region that has known virtually ceaseless conflict in as many years.

“It [is] understandable, on a certain level, why younger Palestinians sometimes became impatient with my sifting through historical events when their lives are being upended by the very same conflict. As one older Palestinian told me, events are continuous,” says Sacco.

Sacco views the documentation of history as part of the larger mission that informs his journalism. “History is important because it is a series of episodes and how they relate to each other that have built the circumstances that people live in today,” he explains.. “If we are going to understand what is going on today⎯the subject of journalism⎯we have to understand what happened in the past.

Raeburn argues that comics have a paradoxical ability to bring the reader closer to the events being reported than traditional journalistic media. “Because comics are less objective than the camera, they actually give you a more accurate idea of what it's like to actually be in the war. You don't feel like you're watching it, you feel like you're experiencing it.” Scholars like fellow University of Chicago faculty Hillary Chute, Neubauer Assistant Professor of English Language & Literature, have similarly argued that comics narrative have documentary capabilities that transcend traditional reportage.

Sacco considers the phenomenon of human migration in response to economic and environmental crises as the story of the 21st century. “If you think of humans as animals, they are prevented by [political borders] from going where life is seemingly better, less violent, or even simply possible. I suppose that's a story of stories.”

By David E. Ford Jr., AM’12