Interview with Joe Sacco by Marco Antonini

Question: The September 11 attacks caused a planetary reaction against terrorism. It's probably not so much the State (the USA) itself as the world-wide ideal of global coexistence which the western world relies on, that appears to be menaced forever...


In your work we seem to hear a warning of the need to give respect and consideration to the ethnic and social realities that risk being destroyed by the logic of war or by power games.


What do you think about the globalization of commerce & (at present of dramatic interest) the globalization of "world order control"; (we have an Italian expression for it... I mean the effort made by world leaders to achieve peace at any cost... even through aggressive military operations)?


Answer: Well, the world is "globalizing" no matter what or how people protest. I don't think it's something that can be stopped. My great problem with this historical imperative is that "globalization" is happening at the expense or at the continued expense of the vast majority of the world's population.


There are great inequities between North and South (to mention the most defined division), and unless those inequities are addressed, "globalization" is going to lead to the more efficient transfer of resources from the poor to the rich and the poor are going to get increasingly resentful. I don't trust our current leaders in the West to make the hard decisions necessary to address the concerns of those segments of the world's population that are disenfranchised. I see more conflict ahead, not less.


Q: In the preface of "A Nation Occupied" (in the mid-nineties) you looked forward to a solution or at least a partial solution to the eternal struggle between Israel and Palestine... How do you view the present situation?


A: The situation is very bad. The occupation has to end, pure and simple, and the rights of Palestinian refugees elsewhere in the Arab world have to be addressed. Israel is not ready to face up to either of these matters. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Palestinian Authority is suspect. The Palestinians need to exercise their legitimate right of resistance against the Israeli occupation in a creative way. Blowing up a bus of Israeli civilians is immoral and counterproductive. The Palestinians need a Martin Luther King or a Nelson Mandela.


Q: In your work you capture your reader's attention with your urgent, dynamic drawing (both in drawings and in the wonderful use of captions, through which you communicate feelings and increase tension in the story). Your "organic", intense, expressionistically deformed drawing allows human figures to create their own existential and psychological space. What relation is there between the artistic and emphatic-communicative aspects of your work?


A: Obviously, as much as possible, I try to make the drawings make as much point as the words. I don't have theories about this. I go on gut feeling when I'm at the drawing table.


Q: Let's talk a little about your work methods. Do you use only notebooks & photos to recall events and fix scenes? Do you ever change the facts to fit a personal idea? How important is YOUR personal opinion about a fact?


A: I act as a reporter when I'm in the field, taking notes, doing interviews, taking pictures for future reference. None of the quotes are made up. They are either from interviews or from reconstructions of conversations I've reported in my journals. Of course, how I present the material is very much related to how I view the material, my politics, etc.


I'm not an objective reporter; I'm a fair one. I am trying to make a point with my work. However, if something I hear or see goes against my point, I present that, too. In my book on the Palestinians, I include numerous conversations by Palestinians that do not reflect well on them, even though I believe the Palestinians have been historically wronged.


Q: You can be defined as a committed author, almost politically so. The ambiguity and openness to different interpretations in your reports is typical of close encounters in art-information or art-politics. How much do you value the contribution given by this sort of artistic "extra" to books (your books) which might otherwise be considered straight reportages, information-providing products based on some kind of "objectivity"?


A: (I'm not sure I understand this question, but I'll answer it as I understand it). Political and historical information often bores a readers to tears. It's my role, as an artist interested in politics and history, to present useful information in a way which pulls the reader in. That's the artistic side of what I do, as opposed to the journalistic side. There's no use hitting the reader over the head with a sledgehammer; the reader would close the book and walk away. I try to make my work entertaining and readable. I think that's the best way to work. I'm trying to reach a general audience, people who normally wouldn't pick up a book about Palestine or Bosnia. Comics are subversive because they are a popular artform, but a great deal of hard information can be presented through them. At least, that's my belief.


Q: In a recent interview you described Gorazde (your book "Safe Area Gorazde" will be published for the first time in Italy in the next few months...) as a small community, a human microcosm to explore and write about. As I read "Palestine", I noticed this same interest in everyday life, rather than in the simple reporting of "facts" and events. Please talk about this aspect of your work...


A: Well, I think most reports from places like Bosnia and Palestine have tended to concentrate on the big picture, which is necessary, of course, for an understanding of the general situation. But I am interested in presenting the stories of the people who are under the carpet of history, whose lives get overrun by the grand events that politicians and generals so easily talk about. I want to make these ordinary people real somehow, and to present them as individuals with their own stories and wants and needs, and how better to do that than to show the small things about their reality that make up their lives, the details of their lives. By showing their daily rituals and routines the reader gets a sense of how he or she is similar AND different from a refugee in Gaza or a soldier in Gorazde.


Q: As an author, do you feel you are evolving? What do you think about your past work and experiences? Has your recent notoriety (I know you're not a superstar... I'm referring to your prize winning and the consideration and good critical reaction your work has obtained in recent years...) changed your ways or habits or methods of working in any way?


A: I do feel like my skills have evolved in some ways. That's only natural. I am not entirely satisfied with anything I have done. That's not just a consequence of looking back and thinking I could have done things differently. That has to do with not feeling I am quite able to capture the effect I want WHILE I'm drawing. Generally, my methods haven't changed much. Perhaps they have been refined.


Q: Are there any reference points or models you follow in the field of comics and/or journalism? Is there any author in particular who has impressed you and "guided" your style? Where does your inspiration come from?


A: I'm influenced by the art of Brueghel the Elder (from Mad comics), and Robert Crumb. But it's journalists who've been my main influence, particularly George Orwell, who was willing to put himself in uncomfortable situations to understands a subject. Particularly, I appreciate his book The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about British miners during the depression in the 1930's.


Q: Give me a definition of, and/or a comment about, these words: war, information and media, art, politics, terrorism.




WAR: Ugly stuff, and not always avoidable.


INFORMATION and MEDIA: This runs the gamut from good and enlightening to bad and distorting. One can't generalize about media.


ART: Art that isn't somehow trying to tackle the human condition or our relationship to the tangible things around us is of no interest to me.


POLITICS: I can't help being fascinated by the process by which people make their decisions or have their decisions made for them. I'm more interested in leaders than politicians. Leaders can push a society forward or destroy it. They are usually politicians, of course, but most politicians are ambitious mediocrities who inspire nothing.


TERRORISM: Terrorism is a loaded word that is generally used for political purposes so I tried to avoid it. I prefer the word murder. What happened in New York, for example, was mass murder.

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