There are many aspects to Joe Sacco's work that invite detailed examination. First of all, his ability to be a real reporter, using pictures instead of the written word to describe chunks of life experienced alongside the subject he is investigating. Then his ability to decipher and reconstruct, in a highly explanatory way, what lies behind this ugly story in which a whole people has been taken hostage, while the international community acquiesces, its sole interest being to defend (or expand) its markets. And lastly, the quality of his drawing and page layout, which clearly have precursors in the underground: perhaps the first name to spring to mind is Robert Crumb.
The latter aspect is particularly important, not so much because I wish to construct a kind of phenomenology of styles for its own sake, but because of how this aspect is intertwined with the other two. In fact Joe Sacco's work, more than any seen so far, helps us to reflect on the relationship between media image, attributed meaning and real referent. This topic has been strangely underestimated in recent times, despite the flood of tragic images coming from the United States and Afghanistan.
The odd attentive commentator has made two things about the Twin Towers disaster explicit, that many (especially children) have probably understood intuitively: those images of airplanes ramming into skyscrapers (in particular, perhaps, the second viewed from different, more effective angles) seemed familiar; and when repeated endlessly, they lost all their essential drama1. There are probably two sides to this matter: firstly, even only empirically we can say that the feeling of having seen it before was due to the number of similar scenes (with helicopters instead of planes perhaps) that have been served up to us in movies and action videogames. And let it be clear that for my part at least, this has nothing to do with moralizing campaigns against movies, videogames and cartoon films, maybe of Japanese origin. Clearly when creating images, fictional works need to make use of iconographies that are rich in meaning, or rather whose structural simplicity translates into perceptual effectiveness and the property of persisting unchanged over time. It is true that the mass media convey and create iconographies, yet it is also true that the iconographies which today we may see on advertising billboards, very often have their origin in the history of art2 . Perhaps we should not forget that what we call the history of art is a fiction too: fifteenth-century painters after all where working to briefs not unlike those placed with today's advertising agencies3.
Now, the goodness of such iconographies undergoes assessment not only in the imaginary dimension of fiction, but also in that of news pictures describing “reality”. Reportage photos are selected from hundreds of shots on the basis of their beauty, that is to say, their effectiveness, impact, or structural composition: this makes it practically impossible to draw a firm dividing line between fictional and news images. Contextual clues (things that reminds us what we are talking about) are of no help: news reports in their turn generate iconographies, like those related to night bombing, recently unfortunately in the news again.
This happens even more when an image is repeated over and over, out of context, until it is emptied of meaning. A culture of the loop exists in music, but not, at least in such a sophisticated and shared manner, in the world of images: perhaps the only example of well-constructed loop is the program Blob on the Italian public TV station RAI 3, with its carefully edited collages of sequences4. But when the aim is not to edit, but simply to repeat, it is a different matter. Repetition may be useful for increasing the possibility of grasping (and remembering) what is perceived, but beyond a certain threshold it obtains the opposite effects, boredom and distraction, as indeed is always the case when we become saturated with psycho-perceptual input5.
So a flow of stable, practically stereotyped images is invading the planet, some representing presumed “reality” (increasingly subject to manipulation at time when the media are pawns in systems of power), others of fictional origin. There is a global trend (this really is global) towards absolute simplicity, based on the use of mechanisms deposited in the collective memory, and the use of patterns as basic and unchanging as possible. This trend is gathering pace, all the way from television screens to the virtual space of the web: what are those so celebrated theories of usability but reductionist ideologies constructed using elementary little rules to help customers (read businesses) who are scared of the newness of the web6. And what do those little faces we put on our emails mean- are they not an attempt to give expression to a system that is extremely useful, but for which the simplest, most inexpressive and most standardized font - Arial- has been chosen7 .
In such an environment, it is easy to understand the impact of Sacco's work with his reportages from Palestine and Bosnia Herzegovina. From the point of view of narrative construction, the comic book allows its subjects to be set within an overall organization, the rigorously graphic organization provided by page layout. Thus instead of a disconnected and repetitive sequence of images, we have orchestrated fragments (collected during the instants/days of his reportages) set down side by side to a thought-out plan. Obviously Sacco does not construct a unitary pattern at the level of page layout (or of the relationship between image and text): this is not a kind of tranche de vie in an autobiographical work where memory gives uniformity to the themes dealt with, as for example happens in another comic book of great impact, in some ways similar to Sacco, Vance and Burr's Kings in Disguise8 . Each instant in Joe's stories is governed by a precise emotional mood, a result of his reporter's approach: he does not hide, on the contrary he emphasizes his aims, but also his feelings of embarrassment (evident often also in the graphic register used), in handling his relationship with the protagonists of his reportages.
This is a reminder to us of how rare it has become in journalism today, to reconstruct meaning from fragments which, when put together, form an overall picture: this is exactly what the media system does not want, because it is too much in the habit of exaggeratedly spinning information in favor of the various potentates with which it is linked. The impasse of the press (pointed out by Eco) regarding the attack on the WTC (exacerbated, perhaps, by the bombing in Afghanistan) is not the symptom of a psychological crisis in journalism, but the effect of the fact that adequate description of the enormity of the two events is impossible, used to (or obliged to use) as we are, information consisting of government announcements, press releases and news agency reports.
So far we have been examining the narrative level. Now we will split into two aspects what for the writer of comics is a single process: the relationship between drawing and page layout. Again Sacco's work is revealing. We have mentioned Crumb: important thought it is to understand where Sacco's approach comes from however, it is more important to understand to what extent it is functional vis-a-vis today's media system. What we find is a sort of countermelody which adds to the already mentioned work of editing, a graphic texture and formal characteristics that are independent of the dominant flow of iconographies mentioned above. This is parallel history, we knew that, history, we knew that, history created outside culture (understood as an expression of ideology) but also independent (no matter how many points of contact there may be9) from the subculture know as underground pop, to use a term that may still be considered valid (let us digress no further) if it is extended to include everything that is not mainstream10 . Parallel history consisting of Vaudeville, travelling circuses, freak shows, horror comics, psychedelic posters, punk fanzines; history that may not possess absolute stylistic integrity, but possesses several shared traits that also appear in Joe Sacco. First of all, the effect of grotesque, which naturally does not chime with the mainstream's saccharine view, and is obviously linked not only to the idea of caricature, but also to that of estrangement11. Then maniacal penmanship, leading to a controlled proliferation of lines, strokes, colors: all his psychedelic and visionary figuration (if we want to call it thus) penetrates maniacally into the form almost destroying it, in a kind of duel between a miniaturist's skill at drawing smaller and smaller, and his overall ability to orchestrate, that ensures the whole remains recognizable. The reader is set a similar challenge: that of investigating the details without losing track of the overall picture. This attitude clashes with the routine need to say (or depict) things for immediate comprehension, to a reader imagined as being (or who it is hoped is) only just conscious. And of course, it is the behaviorist idea (which inspired several advertising Bibles in the fifties) that the modern media and modern democracies like most: stimulus-response, if I say something, my target will respond predictably.
Sacco is the other side of the coin. The interesting thing is how Sacco uses style, or school, as the keystone of his graphic reportage formula. Doubtless a fortunate choice, but one which because of its specificity (cartoon journalism, to be precise) helps us understand the particular relationship with reality that typifies this approach. Isn't Crumb after all a realist, no matter how amused, irreverent or surreal he may be. Isn't it curious that an author like Andrea Pazienza with a wide variety of techniques at his disposal should make use of this style precisely for his most heartfelt tranches de vie (or what at least appear to be such)? Aren't the visions of successful artist of this school, like Robert Williams, often the direct result of never forgotten street activities, like car decoration.
Sacco tells us there is and always has been a different manner of communicating, a manner governed by different needs and purposes. A manner that can – and does – manage to talk about reality, to provide an interpretation that is by its nature as complex and diversified as the line that tells it. A reality however that does not admit of superficial readings and easy stereotypes.
1 D. Pittéri, at congress entitled Eroi Mondiali, Milano, La Fabbrica del Vapore, 10 October 2001
2 Cfr. C. Branzaglia, Comunicare con le immagini, Roma, Stampa Alternativa
3 Cfr. A. Hauser, Sozialgeschichte der Kunst und Literatur, It. ed., Torino, Einaudi, 1982 (XII ed.)
4 The loop is a key element in eletronic music: cfr. the interpretation of R. Agostini, “Techno ed esperienza ambientale”, in G. Salvatore (editor), Techno - trance, Roma, Castelvecchi, 1998
5 This phenomenon has already been described, with specific reference to images, by G. Kepes
6 Starting with the 'Bible' by J. Nielsen, Web usability, It. ed., Milano, Apogeo, 2000
7 Cfr. G. Lussu, La lettera uccide, Roma, Stampa Alternativa, 1999
8 J. Vance - D. Burr, Kings in disguise, It. ed., Bologna, Granata Press, 1991: the story of a very young hobo in the USA during the recession of the Thirties, drawn with a graphic style which recalls expressionist lithography.
9 Meaning that subcultures are sociological phenomena, while the underground is a production and distribution phenomenon: cfr D. Hebdige, Subculture, Genova, It. ed., Costa&Nolan, 1983
10 P. Belsito, Notes from the Pop Underground, Berkeley, The Last Gasp of San Francisco, 1985
11 Cfr. E. Fuchs, “La caricatura presso i popoli europei”, in G. Anceschi, L'oggetto della raffigurazione, Milano, Etasilibri, 1992
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