Stand Up Comics

Talking with Joe Sacco, the innovator of contemporary comics journalism

Cartoonist Joe Sacco has spent the last decade and a half traveling to places such as Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Iraq to report on the circumstances of the war-torn and dispossessed. Sacco, who currently lives in Portland, is the author of Palestine (a '90s serial printed in book form in 2001), Safe Area Gorazde: the War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 (2000), The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (2003), and, most recently, the collection War's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 (Drawn And Quarterly).

I've heard that you dislike the term "graphic novel."

I feel what I do is comic books. That's just the old term, and I have no problem with it. "Graphic novel" sort of posits fiction. I don't feel that what I do is fiction. My work, or some of Chester Brown's work, or Art Spiegelman's work—where does that fit in?

"Yes, I did comics in the Maltese language."
illustration: Drawn and Quarterly
"Yes, I did comics in the Maltese language."

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Related:

  • From the Lands of the Shattered
    Hillary Chute reviews Joe Sacco's War's End: Profiles From Bosnia, 19951996
  • So why republish the profiles from Bosnia that are in War's End right now?

    To cash in! I don't know if there was any real reason other than just to collect a couple of stories that were loose and out of print. "Soba" is from a comic book that I think is long out of print, and the other one, "Christmas with Karadzic," was in an anthology called Zero Zero.

    Did you watch the video footage of the Srebrenica killings that were available?

    I didn't. I just saw the photographs. I saw some photographs of still images from it, but I didn't see the killings themselves.

    What was it like when you went to the Hague to do a comics story on the Bosnian War Crimes trial for Details?

    It wasn't a complete tying-up, but I had been there at the end of the war, and thereafter, and just to see some people being brought to justice—or anyway, just to see the wheels of the machine of justice turning, as slowly as they turn, was nice.

    I can't really think of too many other comics journalists.

    I would say the field is relatively thin. I know there are French cartoonists who have experimented with the form and have done some reportage. And I know that Ted Rall went to Afghanistan.

    What cartoonists do you like who are working today?

    Well, it's probably the current pantheon—Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Seth, Marjane Satrapi, Charles Burns. There are others, of course. Unfortunately, I don't know a lot of the younger cartoonists and what they're doing.

    What about journalists?

    Going back in time, people like George Orwell impressed me, and Michael Herr.

    You're a citizen of Malta. I heard that you did Malta's first comic-book series, a romance.

    Yes, I did comics in the Maltese language. [It was called] Imhabba Vera, which means "true love."

    Because Malta has no history of comics, comics weren't considered something for kids. In one case, for example, the girl got pregnant and she went to Holland for an abortion. Malta is a Catholic country where not even divorce is allowed. It was unusual, but it's not like anyone raised a stink about it, because they had no way of judging whether this was appropriate material for comics or not.

    Your next book, on [the Palestinian refugee camp] Rafah, will be your first with a mainstream publisher.

    It's Metropolitan, which is a division of Henry Holt. The editor was a friend of mine, and we just got to talking. She just knows the region well. She's actually Israeli. And she can help guide it and call me on any bullshit, or challenge things.

    One more question about an upcoming project: The Gentleman's Guide to the Rolling Stones?

    Let's just say that's on a back burner, although I do have tickets to see the Rolling Stones in Portland and Seattle.

    What's your favorite Rolling Stones song?

    That changes from day to day. Today, it would be "Let It Loose."

     
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