Saturday, February 9, 2008

Joe Sacco

by Steven Williams

color photograph of Joe SaccoJoe Sacco was born in 1960 in Malta, the son of an engineer father and teacher mother. His family moved to Australia and lived there from 1961 to 1972. The family came to the US when Sacco was twelve years old first to Los Angeles and eventually settling in Portland, Oregon. Sacco went on to complete his education in the US, eventually graduating in 1981 from the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon with a degree in journalism. He had grand visions of becoming a foreign correspondent at the time. Though he had obtained a degree in journalism in order to hard news reporting, he had persistent but not atypical difficulties breaking into the business. a map of Malta's location in the Mediterranean OceanDuring this period of uncertainty, he returned to Malta and worked writing travel guides for a local publisher. As a way to make some additional money, he convinced the publisher to put out a series of romance comics written by him in Maltese, a contemporary Maghrebi Arabic language heavily influenced by Italian and Sicilian. They series comics series was titled Imhabba Vera (True Love).

Gilbert Shelton circa 2004 color photographHis Maltese romance comics were not his first foray into the comic style. During his college years, he independently researched and developed a comic book about the Vietnam War that he eventually completed and submitted to Raw Magazine. Sacco beginning at an early age had become fascinated with war and conflict so this also had not been a departure fro him. Bill Griffith circa 2007 black and white photographThough his book on Vietnam was not published, his work in producing comics continued to develop and he considers his greatest influences in this type of writing to be the political and satirical work of underground comic artists Gilbert Shelton (Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Fat Freddy's Cat, Wonder Wart-Hog) and Bill Griffith (Zippy the Pinhead).

As an additional aside, it is important to note Shelton's connections with the underground comic scene, particularly his work as art director for the Vulcan Gas Company in Austin where he worked with Dillo Toons comix by Gilbert Shelton, Jim Franklin, et al front coverJim Franklin, and his eventually co-founding Rip Off Press, the extremely influential and ongoing publisher of underground comics. Bill Griffith extends these interconnections through his involvement with some of the most influential underground comics publishers including Last Gasp, Rip Off Press, Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics Books.

After a year in Malta, Sacco returned to Portland, Oregon where he continued his publishing efforts in comics, co-publishing with Tom Richards fifteen issues of an alternative free, humor magazine they named the Portland Permanent Press. Centrifugal Bumble Puppy issue 1 cover artIn it, Sacco showcased his own work as well as including work by other cartoonists. After this effort, Sacco became a staff news writer at Fantagraphics Books and in that position he edited the satirical underground comic magazines Honk! and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy. It was at Fantagraphics that Sacco also published his next comics work, a series of six comics put out under the title Yahoo! They featured Sacco's work and represent his relatively mature style of cartoon journalism focusing on commentary about modern warfare. He also worked for a brief period in the 1980s as a reporter for the more Comics Journal covering freedom of speech issues.

Palestine number 2, In the Gaza Strip by Joe Sacco front coverHe had been living in Berlin in the early 1990s when he had been struck by the shallowness of the US media reporting on Palestine. In 1993 Sacco began work on a series of journalistic comics titled Palestine. The series ran to nine issues from 1993 to 1995 and was published by Fantagraphics Books. These books told of his experiences during a two month stay in the Occupied Territories in the winter of 1991-1992. Sacco's style and interests seem to have come to a full maturity in these books. Palestine, The Special Edition by Joe Sacco front coverTypical of his mature work, in Palestine Sacco primarily focuses on the human effects of a conflict, in this particular case the Israeli occupation and subsequent Intifada. Palestine brought him to prominence as a journalist in part because the comics told stories from a Palestinian perspective, a perspective largely unnoticed and unreported by mainstream media. The series became a publishing success and eventually won Sacco a National Book Award in 1996. The series was eventually brought together and published in a single volume with an added foreword by Edward Said in 2001.

'Soba, Stories from Bosnia' by Joe Sacco front coverAt about the time that Palestine began to be noticed by the broader reading public as well as the publishing community, Sacco became interested in reporting on the effects of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990's and how ordinary people endured and lived through the violence. He was particularly drawn to the problems associated with the 'ethnic cleansings' that had been taking place in Bosnia. The lack of action by the international community inspired Sacco to commit to the story and travel four times to Bosnia during 1995 and 1996 in order to report on the problem. It was these trips and his subsequent experiences in the former Yugoslavia that provided the material for his next series of works, Christmas With Karadzic (1997), Soba (1998), Safe Area Gorazde (2000), and The Fixer (2003). Joe Sacco color drawing self portraitSoba was originally a forty-page book and it represents the opening piece of Sacco's series of works that are often collectively referred to as his Stories from Bosnia series. Christmas with Karadzic was a short story originally published in Zero Zero #15 (Fantagraphics Books, 1997) and the quality of the work brought him to the attention of The New York Times which did a feature on Sacco's coverage of the conflict. Both Soba and Christmas with Karadzic were brought together in his book War's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 (2005).

Safe Area Gorazde, The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 by Joe Sacco front coverSafe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995' (2000)
This book is about the Muslim enclave of Gorazde and its siege by Bosnian Serbs during the war. Though many atrocities are portrayed in this book, Sacco avoided sensationalizing the situation and instead provides a restrained and matter-of-fact description of ordinary people caught in desperate circumstances. This book was an important turning point for Sacco. It received prominent, favorable reviews and commentary by The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, Time, Utne Reader, Spin, The London Times, The Washington Post, Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco French edition front coverBrill's Content, several NPR programs, The Boston Globe, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Economist, The Atlantic Monthly, and other major media outlets. This book is considered the primary reason Sacco received his Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001. Safe Area Gorazde was awarded the Will Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001 as well as being named a New York Times Notable Book for 2001, a Time magazine Best Comic of 2000, and receiving a nomination for the 2001 Harvey Award for Best Writer and Best Graphic Album of Original Work.

'The Fixer, A Story from Sarajevo by Joe Sacco front coverThe Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (December, 2003)
A behind the scenes look at the practical business of war correspondence. Fixer is the label given to Bosnians who, towards the end of the conflicts, earn a morally questionable and tenuous living by dealing in information and contacts for foreign journalists. This sort of work developed towards the end of the 1990s Balkan wars and was a short-term way of profiting from the misery of the region before the post-war reconstruction began. Sacco reveals the complex relationships that developed between fixers and journalists as they pursued stories that might be picked up The Fixer, A Story from Sarajevo by Joe Sacco UK edition front coverby Western media. His fixer actually leads him into the dark world of the criminally opportunistic warlords and gangsters who had been running the countryside during the fighting. By the time Sacco began developing this story though, Western media was looking for stories with a different spin on the area than the monotonously gloomy ones that had been coming out of the area up to that time. Sacco uses his experiences in this work to paint a grim reality of the gray moral positions of many of the participants in the fighting, whichever side they have ostensibly fought on.

'War’s End, Profiles form Bosnia 1995-1996 by Joe Sacco front coverWar's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 (2005)
War's End is the republication of two Sacco profiles of individuals representing the two major divisions within the Bosnian conflict. Soba, originally published in 1998, is about a Sarajevo artist-warrior who had become something of a folk hero during the siege of the city. He had gained enough of a reputation for the Western media to pick up his story, portraying him as a hard partying guitar player. Sacco tells a more balanced story of the man, capturing his internal struggles behind the romanticized media facade of a charismatic Bosnian artist who apparently hits the bars in order to muffle memories Soba by Joe Sacco alternate coverof his military planting and defusing land mines. Christmas with Karadzic, first published in 1997, is based on journalistic pursuit of a much sought-after Bosnian Serb leader and war criminal. Sacco and his fellow journalist go to great lengths in order to try to get an interview with the notorious Bosnian Radovan Karadzic when the leader goes to attend Christmas church services. In the end, Karadzic appears neither intimidating nor extraordinary though he had been indicted by International War Crimes Tribunal and had also come to represent some of the most despicable aspects of the conflict.

'Notes from a Defeatist' by Joe Sacco front coverNotes from a Defeatist (February, 2003) and But I Like It (2006) should should certainly not be approached in the same way as Sacco's comics journalism. Notes from a Defeatist is a collection of the author's shorter pieces produced before his major works Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. They range from one-page humor strips to a thirty-page novelette but the centerpiece of the book is a collection of three war stories. One is about the history of aerial bombing that specifically targets civilian populations, the second is about his mother's difficult childhood experiences in Malta during the Second World War, the third is something of a meditation on his own ambivalent feelings as both a spectator and commentator to the Gulf War. 'But I Like It' by Joe Sacco front coverBut I Like It is in many ways very different from Sacco's much deeper journalistic comics. This book actually contains a collection of Sacco’s rock and roll and blues oriented strips. The centerpiece of the book is In the Company of Long Hair, an expanded edition of an early 1990s graphic novelette Sacco created based on his experiences traveling as roadie for the European concert tour of a US punk rock 'n roll band. This book also notably contains several works Sacco did for German magazines and papers while he was living in Berlin for about two years in the early 1990s, and they are presented her for the first time in English.

Phoebe Bleckner black and white photographJoe Sacco currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and a thirty-two-page piece of comic journalism about Chechen refugees in Ingusthetia will be published in 2008 within the anthology titled I Live Here as a fund and awareness raising effort for Amnesty International. The book will be a journal chronicling trips to crisis zones in Mexico, Thailand, Burma, Chechnya, and Malawi. The anthology will actually be released in four separate volumes to be sold together as one set in a specially designed collapsible slipcase. The books will contain works of, among others, Phoebe Gloeckner and the French-Algerian artist Kamel Khélif. Kamel Khélif black and white photographSacco's most current ongoing book-length work is about the southern Gaza Strip tentatively titled Footnotes in Gaza and will include material about Rafah, one of the Palestinian refugee camps there. Metropolitan Books will publish it but the current projected release date is unknown although it is likely to be 2009. Sacco continues to comment and write about the real-world complexity and gray issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian difficulties as well as working as a journalist for the media outlets including the UK Guardian newspaper and the American Harper's Magazine on the Iraq War. His most recently published works of comics journalism have been Complacency Kills, released by the UK Guardian in Guardian Weekend in March, 2005, Trauma on Loan in the same publication in January, 2006, and Down! Up! You're in the Iraqi Army Now released in the April 2007 issue of Harper's Magazine.

'Maybe There's Peace panel from Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco

Newer Article: Epileptic review by Rob Cave


Older Article: Graphic Nonfiction, or the arrival of political history and personal memoir


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Joe Sacco, a notable writer of comics journalism by Steven Williams is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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