Why we should read Joe Sacco by Marco Pellitteri


The author about whom I have kindly been asked to write, a story-teller and a reporter, is a singular figure in the world of comics (and so, I would say, in journalism) principally because he describes and interprets delicate political facts using unusual formats and languages.


In today's grotesque yet tragic international situation, it is hardly possible to keep political tensions out of a close analysis of this unusual Maltese-American narrator's work. I will therefore try to use a multi-faceted approach, in an attempt to identity various aspects of the artistic and professional identity of Joe Sacco.


Question Number 1. What effects does Joe Sacco have on readers of comics?


It should be self-evident that when I write "readers" I am drawing a distinction between those who read comic books such as Palestine and those who go no further than Guido Crepax' Valentina or Tiziano Sclavi's Dylan Dog (and nevertheless consider themselves to be great lovers of comics); furthermore, especially given the present war situation, I need nothing else to distinguish between readers in the United Sates and Italian readers. In my opinion there are two types of impact Joe Sacco's work might have on readers in general: on the one hand the impact caused by his graphic formula, elegant yet rugged at the same time; on the other that caused by the content, which like it or not presents us with an absolutely innovative type of narration, a cultural operation deserving of respect. I will come back to all this; at the outset it think it would be more interesting to point out, repetita iuvant, that the ideological welcome given to comics such as Palestine or the more recent Safe Area Gorazade varies according to the nationality of the reader, and above all if the reader is from the US.


I cannot, and have no wish to, conceal my deeply-felt aversion for the USA's foreign policies and conquest-oriented, irresponsibly destructive ideology, though naturally I appreciate many manifestations of civilization and culture from the land of the stars and stripes. However I have found that also in the US, the higher people's level of cultural awareness is, the more similar their ideas often are to those of their counterparts in the Old World; generally speaking, better – and more – knowledge narrows the gap between Americans' and Europeans' political opinions: they are dependably more left-wing and at the same time more moderate in proportion to be breadth and depth of their cultural background (surprise, surprise).


So American readers who deliberately choose to read mature works such those by Sacco, or perhaps Spiegelman or Zograf, in my opinion already deserve praise, for showing that are not (too) enslaved and manipulated by their media, and are willing to extent their knowledge in order to bring to maturation their own ideas on topics of undoubted political importance. Italian readers practically do not come into the matter, since in Italy, Sacco is known only to a small hard core of fans and people working in the sector. One of the reasons why he is so little known is that few Italians read, and those few (whether they read comics or anything else) are on average even more defenseless against the media's work of moral subjugation that American readers. That is why cartoon journalism like Sacco's ought to be disseminated directly in the daily and weekly mass circulation press: in Italy the hardcover or comic book format has no chance, it is "isolationist", it locks itself inside a ghetto and above all I believe it is a completely unsuitable choice from a publishing perspective. Naturally, that does not mean that we should not gratefully thank the Italian publishers of Palestine, Daniele Brolli's Phoenix, for if it had not been for them we would probably never have read Sacco at all in our language - certainly never in publications such as "la Repubblica", "L'Espresso", or "Panorama", which number among the most unctuous servants of political power in Italy in absolute terms.


Be that as it may, it seems to me that Joe Sacco's main effect on readers of comics (those few reached by his works or who are sufficiently inquisitive to discover him on their own) is his ability to simulate profound reflection on topics usually either kept off the media agenda, or whose historical development is blatantly falsified year after year by the generalist media, which at present – on television news and in the daily press – are fabricating for the masses an Islamic enemy that does not really exist, with the aim of morally justifying the warmongering and oil-dominated decision of a Western world that is really beyond all comment.


A note in the margin, something that I think is certainly important: Joe Sacco has had a positive effect on Joe Sacco. You only have to read Palestine (his only work published in Italian) to become aware of a gradual metamorphosis in the author's opinions on the Palestinian question. His opinions change - we imagine together with those of his reader - as his travels and his journal-like, partial yet adequately journalistic reports progress. Palestine is extremely important because Sacco, shaped mainly in America, gradually modifies his opinions. Through his own experience, he becomes aware of facts that are self-evident to anyone who has ever examined journalistic documents about the "Palestinian question": a subject which in the USA is not only badly but also in a blatantly biased way in Israel's favor - and there should be no need to underline the fact that a large part of political and economic power in the United States has a Jewish matrix.


In this connection we might also highlight a congenital defect of American culture, which seems to me unfortunately to affect Sacco too, though it does not subtract power from his work. Sacco sometimes appears to be convinced that he has made sensational discoveries about the Intifada and Palestine, or (in Safe Area Gorazade) the Balkan war. If my suspicions are correct, this might help us understand in general how enormously presumptuous Americans are, due to a great extent to their isolationism. To give an example from the field of comics, Scott McCloud, in his celebrated book Understanding Comics is also intimately convinced, almost throughout the text, that he is engineering a turning point in the dissemination of and research on comics, when many of his "discoveries" are over thirty years old, having already been made by authors such as Gubern, Eco, or Fresnault-Deruelle in Europe. Besides, all you have to do is check the bibliography of Understanding Comics to ascertain McCloud's colossal ignorance. Not one European title! Coming back to Sacco, and apologizing for digressing: I would like to stress that if a graphic work manages to open people's eyes, to invite people to extend their knowledge, its effect is surely not only positive, but above all it is using to the utmost the highly praised, but in reality hardly ever fully exploited potential of the medium. Cultural isolationism or not.


Question Number 2. What is Joe Sacco's main profession?


Are we just splitting hairs or is there a real dilemma? Well, behind the question of Sacco's profession there is another question, in my opinion far more important: is cartoon journalism possible, right, useful, effective? We will come back to this. First let us talk about Sacco.


Obviously the two axes which define our Maltese author are reportage and comics. This distinction might seem improper: strictly speaking in fact, and according to the classic but not unchangeable definition, reportage belongs of a profession – journalism – whose stated objective is to inform and describe: consequently, in the past, journalism's non-textual supports have been photography and audiovisuals. Comics on the other hand are traditionally devoted to adventurous or fictional narration. Te only universally recognized specimen that is documentary in nature – coincidentally (or not?) also a great example of graphic and narrative art – is Spiegelman's Maus, until recently considered by a large section of mainstream culture a kind of rare bird of contemporary literature, almost as though its creation in comic form were incidental, a sort of extravagance committed by its eccentric author. Maus in any case cannot be put on the same plane as Sacco's work, mainly because its narrative formula is historical biography (and not first person, journalistic reporting), and because while Maus presents facts from the past, Sacco deals with enormously topical events that are still in progress. Not to mention the differences in style, intention and final quality.


Let's dive back into the differences between journalism and comics and between different communicative formats. Leaving to one side for the sake of convenience the fact that both photography and audiovisuals can easily be faked, thus losing that halo of "realism" which ingenuous audiences still attribute to them, there is a contraposition between photographic media, commonly thought to "report" facts, and graphic media (like the classic newspaper illustration with its old-fashioned flavor), which by their very nature "interpret" facts. What is Joe Sacco, who in his comics recounts in the first person his investigative and often ethnographic travels within cultural realities of great topical interest: an author of comics or a journalist? And anyway, is there really any point to this either/or dilemma? Maybe there is, maybe there isn't. There is if we believe that in reality, journalism of this kind is now, more than ever, destined to encounter the skepticism of the general public: in my opinion it is unlikely, at least for the time being, that mass audiences will be able make the intellectual transition that would enable them to realize that per se, cartoon journalism is no less reliable than written or audiovisual journalism, which are equally capable of being truthful and documentary-like or unreliable and fiction-like. There is no point, on the other hand, if we believe that comics are basically a language, a form – certainly not a genre or a style – and therefore capable of being the medium for any type of content and any communicative format, whether this is inventive narration or eye-witness accounts of facts that actually happened.


To return to my question then, in my opinion Joe Sacco is a journalist – his degree formally confirms this – and only "incidentally" an author of comics. In his case the accent should be placed not simply on the form he uses to communicate, but rather, more comprehensively, on the aims and the content of his communication. Joe Sacco differs from "classic" comics authors precisely because, in a manner rarely seen before, he uses a graphic formula to talk to us about naked reality, not as the all-knowing narrator – which would place him grotesquely within the structure of the novel – but rather as a witness. Sacco does not tell stories. Rather he relates and reflects, though his point of view is totally subjective, and precisely for this reason, authentically journalistic. This, in the final analysis, makes a reporter of him.


Question Number 3. Is his mixture of journalism and comics legitimate?


This question leads straight to two others: whether Joe Sacco is both a good narrator and a good journalist. I will deal with them in one paragraph for reasons of space.


Generally speaking, that is leaving aside Joe Sacco, I don't think we should oppose the use of the language of comics in journalism, as nobody ever opposed those illustrators who, since cameras cannot be taken into courtrooms, practice journalism by drawing the salient stages of trials, reporting as eye-witness their impression of the facts. There is of course a difference, and here again it on two levels: on the one hand style, on the other intention. There is little to say about style: Sacco's figurative style is certainly not referential like that of a "Washington Post" artist, or light and conciliatory like that of artists like Walter Molina or Fernando Carcupino. It is instead the fruit of assiduous artistic research (to a great extent independent of the strictly journalistic part of his work) and a definite cultural attitude towards news events. The intention is therefore completely different than that of the tired reporting of a fact or a society anecdote: Sacco not only wants to tell the reader something more, he also tells him unequivocally that he is telling him that something more. One message, in particular, emerges in block capitals from the precise, fleshy lines of his drawing, from the Eisner-like use of floating captions, of cartoons almost à la Crumb: "Reflect! Find out! Speak to others about it!". We should not so much be wondering whether in general it is legitimate to mix journalism and comics (my answer is naturally affirmative) as whether it is legitimate to mix aseptic referential journalism and journalism of opinion. The old journalist's adage "The news is sacred, comment is free", in my opinion wise and today still valid, is very clear: it implies another fundamental rule of the profession today almost practically forgotten, especially in Italian political journalism: facts should be kept separate from opinions. Now, Sacco's journalism is a peculiar formula of journalism of opinion. Of good journalism of opinion, be it clear, however, in Palestine or Safe Area Gorazade the principle of keeping facts and opinions separate is sidestepped in favour of a register which is in actual fact diaristic, "subjectively objective" in the style of Montanelli (suffice it to remember the doyen of Italian journalism's impassioned reporting of the Vajont tragedy), and free of subliminal messages to the reader in aid of one ideology or another. Yet despite Sacco's praiseworthy documentary-like efforts, the reader does not always get the chance to distil the essence of the overall situation from their reading of his work/reportage, nor above all, to pin down where reference to fact ends and the author's interpretation of the fact begins – if it ever does.


The reader's confusion may be caused by the elements mentioned above: style and intention. His graphic style after all carries strong connotations of opinion, it is per se a message. So is it true that "the medium is the message"? So it would appear, because if it is legitimate to imagine an alternative version of Palestine, for example as produced by an author of Image superheroes, it is even more legitimate to infer that the underlying intention and attitude would be quite different. I would not know quite how, but different nevertheless. As for intention, let us repeat what we have already said: luckily Sacco is a responsible person, and he limits himself to presenting facts with the intention of stimulating reflection. The revolutionary force of his work springs more than anything from the fact that by presenting us with situations and elements that official sources of information cover up completely, he shows us that things never are what they seem. And that can't be bad.


So Joe Sacco seems to me to be a very capable narrator, both of facts that he has witnessed, and of the respectful interpretations – both explicit and implicit, as clearly transpires from his work – that he has formulated of these facts. And today we all know how much we need intelligent, educated authors capable of spreading their opinions and comments with skill, or just simply of inviting us to reflect about facts that the globalized information industry ignores or falsifies. Whether Joe Sacco is a good journalist or not is something I will however leave to my readers to decide, on the basis of their own convictions about "journalism" and their idea of what it is. Surely the innovative importance of the work of this author/newsman is remarkable: it opens up a new path, which we might perhaps define revolutionary for journalism tout court.

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