Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, Nov 21, 2009
In his books, Joe Sacco always draws himself the same way: neat and compact, a small bag slung across his body, a notebook invariably in his hand. At a single glance, the reader understands that he is both reporter and innocent abroad, an unlikely combination that propels him not only to ask difficult questions, but to go on asking them long after all the other hacks have given up and gone home. You sense in this black-and-white outline, too, a certain taut, physical alertness. Should there be trouble, he is, it seems, ready to run.
The expression on his face, however, is more difficult to read. Sacco keeps his eyes permanently hidden behind the shine of his owlish spectacles; anyone wishing to gauge his deeper emotions must rely instead on his bottom lip. Basically, this lip has two modes. When he is frustrated, bewildered or angry, it moves stubbornly forward and its corners droop. When he is happy, contentedly drinking beer, say, or mildly flirting, it peels back to reveal his teeth, which are big and rabbity and exceedingly un-American, as if crafted from a piece of old orange peel.
Is his eyelessness intended to send some kind of subtle message regarding the reliability of the reporter-narrator? Sacco, who in real life has elfin features and brown eyes, and is sitting next to me at a gleaming white table in the offices of his London publisher, winces. "It is deliberate now," he says. "But it certainly wasn't in the beginning. If you look at the first few pages of [my first book] Palestine, you'll see that I didn't used to be able to draw at all! Also, back then, I really was more like a tourist than a reporter and I suppose the way I drew myself reflected that. I was this naive person who didn't know where he was going or what he was doing. Since then, I've learned how to behave; nowadays, it would be a lie to make myself seem too bumbling.
"But some people have told me that hiding my eyes makes it easier for them to put themselves in my shoes, so I've kind of stuck with it. I'm a nondescript figure; on some level, I'm a cipher. The thing is: I don't want to emote too much when I draw myself. The stories are about other people, not me. I'd rather emphasise their feelings. If I do show mine - let's say I'm shaking [with fear] more than the people I'm with - it's only ever to throw their situation into starker relief."
Thanks to publishing hyperbole, writers often get called "unique". But Sacco's work truly is, combining as it does oral history, memoir and reportage with cartoons in a way that, when he started out, most people - himself included, at times - considered utterly preposterous.
Twenty years on, though, and the American cartoonist is widely regarded as the author of two masterpieces: Palestine, in which he reported on the lives of the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza in the early 1990s, with flashbacks to 1948, the beginning of the first Intifada, and the first Gulf War; and Safe Area Gorazde, which describes his experiences in Bosnia in 1994-95. Palestine won an American Book Award, and has sold 30,000 copies in the UK alone (this is a huge figure for a comic book, let alone a political comic book).
Footnotes in Gaza, his new book and his first long narrative for six years, returns Sacco to Palestine and, being rooted as much in the past as in the present, is perhaps his most ambitious work to date. But why go back? Aren't there plenty of crises to report elsewhere?
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