This article will discuss the ability of comics to function as modes of documentation based on the analysis of two pages from Joe Sacco’s comics reportage Safe Area Goražde, first published in 2000. A currently widespread impression is that the comics medium is excellently able to communicate actual events within a documentary mode—just as this capacity is long attributed to written text, photography, and film. The aesthetic approach of the comics medium is able to cover the present, past, and the imaginary likewise. Due to the fact that comics draw on imagination as the primary resource which they emerge from, they do not produce a signifying distinction between these three levels. This basic dependence of comics on modes of the imaginary is understood by Jeff Adams as the “dilemma between fiction and documentary”: “The boundary between fiction and documentary is ill defined, and documentary is arguably dependent on fictional narrative structures” (55). The documentary narrative would rather permanently rely on fictionalization when, e.g., characters and plot structures are referring to modes of imagination. The idea of authenticity in comics, he claims, is encapsulated in a “narrative imperative” (Adams 60). Regarding their characteristic mode of depiction alone, which can be described as the technique of graphic reproduction, or even retracing, comics do not make a distinction between fictional and non-fictional content. At first glance, both may look quite the same to the spectator. Only a few techniques are available for graphic depiction to make a distinction between both modes (this does also apply to photography). Just because it is drawn—and not an actual representation that is seemingly authentic, and equipped with indexicality—graphic depiction (also) creates the impression that it obviously is an interpretation of its subject matter. As a result, documentation is impossible in comics, as this text argues. However, this is by no means a flaw. On the contrary, it is opening up quite unique and manifold possibilities, as has been shown with the different formats of reportage, documentary, and autobiography in comics.
In the following, I will discuss the characteristics of comics reportage (2.), followed by a closer examination of Joe Sacco’s approach towards non-fiction in comics (3.). Eventually, I will argue that comics’ relation to truthfulness is at first ambivalent, but that, such sincerity in comics is only possible due to their generic dependency on fictionality (4.). Here, the specific form of abstraction in comics is a decisive capability.
2. Comics and Reportage
Hillary Chute points out that comics as a form take up “the problem of reference as central” (19). By considering that the linkage between drawing and reality is often perceived as much more difficult and unconvincing than, e.g., it is in photography, it becomes clear which meaning specific ascriptions of indexicality for each medium hold. Regarding photography, it is believed that indexicality emerges from its “mechanical objectivity” (20). Chute describes the difference between comics and photography within the general perception as follows: “Comics texts […] are evidently staged, built, made images as opposed to ‘taken’ ones” (21). However, exactly this, she says, is the very advantage of the medium, because comics “evidently is not a duplicative form” (21). Even if the drawings of comics were catching up with reality, they were to establish their own “separate functioning model” beyond reality, even if they were directly related to reality (21). Passages which can hardly be traced by documentation—like historical sequences, individual encounters, etc.—are seamlessly and without any formal problem translated by comics into modes of fiction, usually following terms of production driven by the formal restraints of genre formula.
However, part of the claim of comic reportage as a genre is to meet the usual criteria of the documentary, to leave behind the modes of fiction, and to succeed with a depiction of real historical events that is as authentic as possible. Regarding expectations about comics’ capacity to depict reality, Ole Frahm mentions a “yearning for the authentic” (63; translated by JA) that seems to be driven by the will to get rid of the connotation with the comical in comics. He sees an active “fetishism in authenticity” (65), where, as he believes, it was required to draw a distinction line between categories like “life and medium, event and documentation, truth and fiction” (65). Thus, the decisive question, following Frahm, is what can be authentic and what can not, and, most of all, what the relation between authenticity and what he calls ‘sincerity’ could be–both terms are, as Frahm emphasizes, are far from identical. In fact, that which is obviously imaginative would keep the pretense of “truthfulness against the powerful” (72). Works that adhere to this notion have been established under the category of non-fictional comics—a label which is also applied to Sacco’s work—e.g., by Weber and Rall. However, the decisive question remains whether comics as a medium are capable of unfolding a non-fictional perspective towards the depiction of events that have happened in reality. Moreover, what would then follow from this with regard to the formal conditions? Do comics as a medium immanently refer to the option of accessing reality and its depiction in non-fictional ways or even, which is not the same, to documenting it? My hypothesis in this article is that as a medium comics, by definition, does not allow the representation of non-fictional content. This being said, my interest primarily centers around the intrinsic capabilities of comics. The intention of this article is not only to offer a particular discussion of the comics of Joe Sacco, but to aim at questions of documenting and authenticating in comics. To this end, the present article traces the tension between the comics reportage’s aspiration to documenting reality, inscribed to it as a claim for truthfulness, and the coercive fictitious content of comics reportage.
By the examples of film and photography it has been argued for a long time that a true and realistic practice of documentation can only be realized against great difficulties, because any media depiction does not only capture its object, but also alters and dismantles it while transforming, composing, producing, aestheticizing it, according to the author’s point of view, etc. (Vowinckel; Geimer; Daston). Naturally, any documentation follows a distinct perspective: the documenter has to decide what topic to address, and what to include visually within the picture; decisions have to be made how something will be shown and, thus, how it will be embedded within the framing conditions of the depicting medium. It follows that documentation as an approach, from the very beginning, also encompasses interpreting that which is depicted. In accordance with its choice of methods, e.g., detail, color, montage, etc., any documentation refers to a particular aesthetic. In this matter, no difference in terms of aesthetic production can be seen regarding a truly fictitious narrative with no aspiration to depict or document reality. Although undoubtedly, the presented imagery is depicted by the medium, this depiction is not just identical with that which it represents. On the contrary, there is a rather significant difference: At least, print reportage and film documentation also have a narrative, prosaic layer; they create suspense and work with narration. Consequently, Chute speaks of “graphic narratives” which, “on the whole, have the potential to be powerful precisely because they intervene against a culture of invisibility by taking what I think of as the risk of representation” (5). As Chute outlines, this “risk of representation” hints at a particularity especially to be found in the documentary comic: to depict that which is not visible, or at least that which is indemonstrable, by ways of imagination. The risk of representation lies in this tension to create authenticity as imagination. In this regard, Weber and Rall point out that comics journalism has to master the art of narration in two respects—the textual and the visual layer (383). In fact, this is, of course, true for any comics, because it defines the formal as much as the generic basis of the medium. However, with regard to the comics reportage, they use these two respects to formulate demands for a particular competence which is that of “iconic evidence”: “They possess iconic evidence by showing and revealing, making things visible. In contrast to texts, which are classified as symbolic signs […], images are iconic signs” (383). No depiction will ever be able to abandon techniques of aestheticization and genre which gives proof to the claim that iconic evidence is fundamentally generated from is imaginative strength.
Hence, comics reportage and documentation follow specific conditions which set comics clearly apart from other media and which create a characteristic context for documentarism in comics. The crucial difference lies in the synthetics of the pictorial level within comics that always remains a graphically recreated image of that which it shows. Even if, today more than ever, film and photography are editing and producing their imagery, as well, these media still firmly retain their credibility, in the eye of the public, primarily due to their pledge to mostly use original material. Or they are believed to guarantee a representation, due to their “mechanical objectivity” (Chute 20), which comes as close as possible to such an ideal. These images are strongly perceived as authentic, because they follow the ideal-typical assumption that they record what has really happened. The documentary comics is barred from such a claim, and wherever it is produced with only minimal reflexivity, it also gives in to this situation. Comics, in general, can approach their subject only via the detour of graphic production, always being subsequent, following a sort of belated mediatization. Even if not focusing on comics, Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, have named such techniques “remediation”. Although they use this term on a process within which newly emerging media define and adopt their predecessor media in new ways, it can be applied to comics inasmuch as they are engaged in remediation as a reprocessing of the perception of those environments represented in the comics.
Pascal Lefèvre, too, mentions that for the documentary “often in history, theory and practice ‘fiction’ and ‘fact’ are not separable” (50). He speaks of “hybrid documentations” when comics create documentary content while using their specific formal conditions, because, as he believes, due to its “handmade drawings” the comics medium “seems by excellence fit for fantasy or deformation” (51). Referring to Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, Lefèvre argues that the comics medium especially exposes its artificiality and self-reflexivity (51), which would rather complicate classic approaches to the documentary in the comics medium. Quite similar to Chutes’ idea about a risk of representation, he proposes that comics would offer “the drawn, thus more explicitly mediated, representation” of the depicted interaction (57). An important characteristic of comics is that any comic reproduction necessarily differs from the template on which it is based on and quite often makes these differences rather explicit. The comics of Joe Sacco, as highly praised works in comics reportage, constitute no exception in this regard. Obviously, his drawings do not insist on photo-realistic mimesis to their subject which would confuse the accuracy of reproduction with a guarantee for truthfulness and authenticity. However, this does not mean that Sacco would not strive for accuracy in his depiction. It is well known and largely documented that he indeed does, and that he produces his drawings based on photographs, documentary images, or models. Nevertheless, this neither meets the aesthetic form of photo-realism in which the work of art in its perception is indistinguishable from photography, nor does it meet the technique of mimesis due to his typing, stylization, and aesthetic compression. Both, truthfulness and authenticity, have to be produced by different means in the comics, particularly in documentary comics. Only at first glance, paradoxically enough, do comics achieve this effect via practices of imaging that in the first place firmly facilitate a disconnection from reality instead of trying to adapt to it. Therefore, the practice of documentation in comics is clearly anti-mimetic, whereas in film and photography it is primarily building on mimetic competences—in a way one could say that the comics reportage is much more a form of aesthetic reenactment than it actually is a documentation of factual reality. It is Lefèvre who emphasizes that Sacco “himself acknowledges that his documentary work is an artistic rendition of something, that is a mixture of art and journalism” (57). This kind of removal of documentary representation from the documentary has always been inscribed to the comics medium.
A unique technical aspect of comics, or at least of its concepts of documentation, is the fact that the comics medium apparently is unable to capture the non-fictional level of documentation and is instead fundamentally based on fiction. With regard to comics as a documentary form, this implies that the medium has to apply its competence for documentation differently from other media. Even if comics, like TV, refer to a “general pictorial rhetoric” (Keppler 33), they are missing the competence for illusion as realized in TV which is hiding its “pictorial production” (39) when it manages to create images that seem to be real to its audience. With regard to documentation the formal language of comics refers to different approaches, making special use of elements and formats of fictitiousness via which, by implication, documentary content can be addressed. From the start, the documentary in comics is confronted with its generic incapability for authenticity; due to the basic characteristics of the comics medium, it contains a clear difference towards reality. It expresses this difference and makes use of it in its performance. According to Adams, this is the reason why the fundamental question to comics is how and by which means they can be realistic at all (25). Of all media, comics were the first to define the media requirement that fiction is to be transformed into authenticity by means of an interpretative adaptation of pictorial worlds. Comics fiction, as drawn reproductions of reality, has (already) been generically, epistemologically, and programmatically replacing reality, long before this habit did emerge in digital media. In this vein, Nina Mickwitz begins her reflection on documentary comics with the remark, (that) the genre was not meant to be fictitious, or at least it does not claim to be (1). On the contrary, by the examples of Sacco and Satrapi she states: “Both texts adopt a register, or mode of address, that invites readers to decode and make sense of them as representations of real historical persons, events, and experiences” (1). At the same time, this vast accentuation of fiction as a placeholder for a representation of reality includes a strong marker of difference, because the comics medium immanently exposes the difference between reality and its reproduction. If comics had the opportunity at all to create a representation that, although it cannot be taken for authentic, would manage to come rather close to real facts via practices of imagination, then this competence would be realized by the fact that there was no clear option for authentic representation. Insofar it is only consistent when Mickwitz denies the claim that the segment of non-fictional comics was borrowing from a literary paradigm: “Categorizing these texts according to literary paradigms […] undercuts connections and obscures relationships that have the potential to enrich our understanding of both comics and other cultural expressions” (3). Although Mickwitz insists far too much on the illusion that documentary comics were somehow able to depict their subject(s) in an authentic mode, she very clearly sees that potential in comics which transgress this context and manage to depict something by exactly not depicting (6).
3. Joe Sacco’s Approach to Non-Fiction
Maybe a bit too enthusiastically, Tanja Zimmermann points out that nobody could have introduced “comics to the conventions of the documentary” better than Joe Sacco (77). His “complex and slow form of reportage” (77) would provide an alternative to the fast day-to-day journalism that often was superficial and led by political interest. Edward C. Holland and Carl T. Dahlman, however, note in the introduction to an interview with Sacco: “He is simultaneously a journalist, comic artist, and documentarian, who relies on this hybrid identity to communicate the messy realities of the geopolitical event” (205). The advantage of comics reportage, Zimmermann says, would be that it was capable to showcase images that would “escape from being captured by camera” (78), images that have not been documented nor can be and which can only be created by graphic imagination. According to this standpoint, and along a variety of binaries, Daniel Worden approaches the quality of Sacco’s work: “Sacco’s work is both comics and journalism, art and information, autobiography and history” (4). Chute claims for documentary comics in general that it would only unfold its “evidence” to the reader and according to the “basic grammar” of comics (2).
How does Sacco act when he recounts his encounters in Goražde, but also when he depicts events like the fighting and atrocities during the war, events that he never experienced himself, only reported to him by other people as witnesses? How does he document events that he marks in his comics as being real? By which means does he produce a representation of events in comics meant to be non-fictional when the formal means of such a representation are for the most part identical with those of fictitious representation in comics—graphic representation and sequential composition, organized on the page as hyperframe. Quite unsurprisingly, Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde looks like any other, fictional genre comic.
Figure 1 depicts the first attack of the Serb military on Goražde; like many of Sacco’s works, these pages are rather conventionally organized with regard to their formal use. A page is divided into three horizontal strips with two or three panels each in which Sacco depicts what is happening. In his analysis of another panorama-like panel from Safe Area Goražde, Tristram Walker notes that each of the depicted people stood for the atrocities of war, but also for the chance to escape (84). While the narrating people are shown in images that visualize the horror of war, this horror is restrained by the message that survival is possible. Although, following Walker, Sacco’s images are often gruesome, “he shifts his work away from that of the shock artist feeding the fascination of a wound culture” (86). Sacco rather contextualizes the horror in its specific political and historical framing. The message of his work was not, as Walker explains, to dissociate from war via visual brutalities, but that it could be our own neighbors committing such deeds: “it could even be ourselves pictured there” (86). To depict these events most convincingly, Sacco chooses a huge variety of different perspectives, all well established as camera angles in film and which he now transfers to comics. This is, of course, a commonly used technique itself, however, most of all it is taken from genre narrative and thus originates from the toolbox of fictional narratives. Sometimes, like in the second strip on the left, the viewer is positioned in front of the character, then s/he is following him, and in the next moment, the spectator is standing right next to the character. By using this technique, Sacco draws a first conclusion from the fact that as a comics artist he can, unlike the camera, not instantly record what his pictures are subsequently representing. Comics remains a successive and slow medium. Here especially, McLuhan’s judgment is confirmed that comics are a “cold” medium that strongly integrates and captures its users as framers and participants (160-161). However, all in all, as a cold medium, the production of comics was much slower than it is in TV as a subsequent medium which likewise challenges its recipients.
Consequently, Sacco’s drawings do not lean towards the regime of filmic documentation, which usually only has a few camera angles at its disposal, like the aerial shot, high angle shot, or the enemy view. The documentary camera, even as a handheld camera, is put in a distinct place and is, therefore, rather static. This comes with the advantage of much greater authenticity, but it also comes with the disadvantage of clearly restricted visual information and thus massively contributes to an at least rather anti-documentary identification with the party on whose side the camera literally stands. The local positioning of the camera, especially in the documentation of crises and struggles, is quickly also becoming an ideal positioning. From the start, Sacco rejects any false mimesis to the perspective of classic filmic documentation. On the contrary, his pictures are brimming with an arsenal of imagination, directly resulting from fictitious, graphic narrative and only possible within the framing of reproducing and tracing graphic documentation. In fig. 1 Sacco introduces suspense to the sequence by the continuous change of perspective from panel to panel. This obviously staged tension alone is overstepping the pure principle of documentation. For reasons of documentation alone it would not be necessary, but it is evidently required to make the book’s narration work. This kind of import of tension works especially well when Sacco uses a high angle shot in his depiction of an orchard which the refugees have to trespass crawling. Moreover, in three panels he leaves out any background drawings. Even if, via the depiction of shadows, blood, and grass, the ground is indicated, the characters are set into a seemingly illusive, white space. This as well is, as Martin Schüwer points out, a technique that is otherwise usually adopted in action-oriented comics, because due to the absence of background the “priority of the body to space” is accentuated (144). The laminar background, like in panel 6 on page 82, or panels 6 and 7 on page 83, Schüwer emphasizes, leaves the space completely to the bodies and their action which would especially stress the dramatic effect of the depicted scene: “Space loses its objectivity and is captured by the reader as a function to the body’s appearance. We do not perceive this space—we empathize with it” (145). Thus, individual acts can be highlighted, and the reader’s attention is focused on one single panel. Filmic documentation would not be able to adopt such a technique or would not be able to depict the past in a way that noticeably differ from the depiction of the present, when due to the principle of graphic reproduction within comics not only fact and fiction, but also present and history, coincide in the graphic representation. No generic difference between them is apparent.
Accordingly, one might think that Sacco would make use of the mode of docu-fiction as it is well-known from film and TV. However, what he actually does is to decisively abandon this kind of non-fictional narrative in the scenes which are most touching to the reader—because they are intense, because they create tension and suspense, because they explicitly show atrocities. Instead, he would completely turn to the cultural productivity of imagination, based on fiction. Even if there are reliable indicators to all images then shown by Sacco—like testimony, footage, photos—he also ornaments that whole depiction with his graphic imagination, carefully composing each panel as much as the whole page, as if he wouldn’t want his images to lose exactly that impact. In these sequences, Sacco fully admits to a fictitious practice of representation, which is clearly transgressing an aesthetics of documentary fiction like what has been well established via History Channel. Subsequently and unequivocally, Sacco refers to modes for the production of suspense and action in the genres of action and war comics. Chute comments on this subject by adding that, although Sacco’s striving for investigative accuracy was rather exemplary, the comics medium itself is aware of the fact that it is an interpretative, never just a mimetic medium (198). In fact, the comics medium is no mimetic medium at all, which (only) intensifies its approach to non-fictional, even documentary forms of representation. Nevertheless, Chute claims that Sacco was making systematic use of comics to expand the variety of journalistic subjects—“capturing stories that might otherwise go unnoticed and describing individuals who might be overlooked” (200). As Worden writes, his “painstaking representations of contemporary conflicts and their long histories produce both knowledge and feeling” (7). Such tension between information and affect is repeatedly mentioned as characteristic for Sacco’s work. According to Edward C. Holland, Sacco’s virtuosity translates to an authorization of sentiments (85).
Regarding the double page in fig.1, what also immediately catches attention is the black gutter. This stylistic device is normally used by Sacco when he visualizes reports about past events. However, in comics journalism both layers of narration have, in fact, become history already, because Sacco is, of course, also drawing his report about the presumed present of his reportage a posteriori and with great delay. This underpins that the comics reportage does not only have to be understood as a report about those episodes being narrated as history, as large-scale cultural technique of memorization, but also with regard to that narrative which is produced as the present. The really important information communicated by the black gutter is less its identification as history as it is rather indicating the epistemological quality of the depicted, alluding to the fact that Sacco did not experience these events himself, that they were inaccessible to him. Thus, it becomes clear that concerning the depiction of such events, he fully relies on his informants, reconstructing the decors in question through research as accurate as possible. Concerning the intention of a broad reconstruction or revisualization of the memories of others, a further formal element is added with the text blocks in the individual panels that contain the respective narrator’s voice-over. The narrating individual out of a greater group of reporting people is identified by Sacco by putting its name in front of the narrating text when it starts speaking. In subsequent panels, this narration is marked by quotation marks as direct speech—which is otherwise unusual for text blocks in comics. Only when the next speaker starts, does a new name appear; this can take six panels, or it might change in the next panel already. With this technique, the generally soundless medium of comics imports individually identifiable voices into its panels and shows additionally that it puts faith in the narration of others in the same way journalists are normally doing when dealing with their sources.
The black gutter plus Sacco’s tool for identifying speakers thus appear as components of a technique of non-fictional representation in comics, at least of a graphic production of verifiability and authenticity. In his reflection on the meaning of the gutter in Safe Area Goražde, Charles Acheson points out that although its blackness clearly hinted at the difference of past and present, it also took on the meaning of black in Western culture as a signifier for death, sorrow, and destruction (294). Moreover, he states, Sacco had left the most gruesome atrocities to the gutter, that way forcing readers to combine the presented experience with their own imagination (294). Sacco himself has repeatedly pointed out that the advantage of the comics reportage as a practice of documentation carried out via comics, was especially anchored in the quality of subjectivity inherent to the medium. In the introduction to his book Journalism, collecting a variety of his short stories, Sacco distances himself quite explicitly from a journalistic claim to objectivity:
There will always exist, when presenting journalism in the comics form, a tension between those things that can be verified, like a quote caught on tape, and those things that defy verification, such as drawing purporting to represent a specific episode. Drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs, which are generally perceived to capture a real moment literally. But there is nothing literal about a drawing. (IX)
Clearly, Sacco sees the specific quality of non-fictional comics that cannot transcend fiction. His statement corresponds rather well with the argument that non-fictional comics receive their strength particularly from the fact that they further on are required to refer to aesthetic and narrative techniques of fiction.
4. The Struggle for “Truthfulness”
Nevertheless, it is Sacco’s aim to depict authentic events. For support and to underline this claim he differentiates between what he calls an “essential truth,” depicted by the artist, and the “literal truth” (Sacco X). This implies that especially an interpretive access via the drawing to the depicted would at least enable a more adequate approach to its truthfulness than it would be possible otherwise: “The cartoonist draws with the essential truth in mind, not the literal truth, and that allows for a wide variety of interpretations to accommodate a wide variety of drawing styles” (Sacco X). In a way adhering to this motif, Chute argues that Sacco, while putting himself in the role as a dialogue partner, would rather create scenes of witnessing, since his images were “visually incarnating the oral testimonies” (206). In any case, Sacco would turn his readers into witnesses of the experiences of others (29). On this basis, especially in Safe Area Goražde a sense for subjective truthfulness was created inasmuch as objective facts concerning the subject were communicated (Dong 39). Sacco himself also argues this way when he says that factuality as a description of facts and subjectivity as the graphic interpretation of such a scene would not oppose each other: “I think it is possible to strive for accuracy within a drawn work’s subjective framework” (XI); the effect resulting from this is considered by Sacco as liberating.
Benjamin Woo, as well, makes a distinction regarding Sacco’s work between “the reporting of information and the communication of experience” (167). Comics, including non-fictional ones, Woo emphasizes, do by no means have a rational relation to an objective reality at their disposal. However, they are cultivating access to the artist’s subjectivity: “a drawn image implies that someone drew it. And Sacco has drawn everything, so the entire diegesis is mediated through and indexed to his own subjectivity” (175). Such subjectivity, Woo says, has become the “catch-phrase” of comics journalism (175), as it was catering readers in a way that was on the one hand saturated with experience and on the hand laden with affectivity. Similarly, Mickwitz summarizes that documentary comics are especially characterized by the expression of subjectivity with regard to the layer of graphic visuality and its production (35). However, despite that twofold distancing from the depicted—firstly, generically, as a graphic medium; secondly, aesthetically, by an often deliberately unrealistic graphic style—Sacco wants his images to lay a claim to truthfulness. Whether, as Hans-Joachim Hahn writes, Sacco really understands his comics as contributions to a “dialogue about a controversial reality” (84) remains doubtful. However, it is certainly correct that a “reflection on reality created by the means of comics” (84) is an intervention into reality itself. Sacco makes his images fulfill that claim to truthfulness, even if it is in the mode as “essential truth,” especially because his readers are highly appreciative of its characteristic inherent ductus of authenticity which is an important part of the success of Sacco’s comics. Which specific form does Sacco choose for the communication of the depicted? Sacco draws in black and white, with quite clear lines, contour lines of the characters are often stronger than those of the background, sometimes facial expressions and bodies of the acting people are reminiscent of the tradition of US-American underground comix. Contrary to the black gutter in the historicizing sequences, most of the panels do not contain a single black space. Contrasts are produced by hatchings. All this is making the panels unusually, almost even inappropriately bright regarding the representation of the escape of civilians from the danger of death, which both pages in fig.1 are visually dealing with.
Regarding its form, the comics medium combines single images into sequences of actions. What impresses or even captivates the reader beyond the communication of authenticity, is the dramatic arrangement, the visual effect of the image within the simultaneous depiction of that which is represented. Particularly on the layer of graphic representation, and fundamentally important to (the meaning of) Sacco’s work, his non-fictional comics can hardly be distinguished from comics that just unfold a fictitious narrative, laying no claim to political or historical reality. If his readers did not know any better, the two pages from Safe Area Goražde in figure 1 could also be taken from a fictional war story, which possibly could, but would not necessarily have to, be placed against the historical background of the 1990s Balkan wars. While in film and photography authenticating visual languages of the documentary have been established, as illusive as they may be, this is not the case in comics. Wherever comics move in the direction of reportage and documentary, these formats become merged with comics’ usual access to the depiction of fictitious content. This is not because of a deliberate choice of non-fictional comics for this stylistic device, but because with regard to their medial form of graphic reproduction and pictorial representation comics do not have any other choice regarding their formal language.
The dilemma which comics find themselves in when it comes to the question of documentation is highlighted by the practice of multiple dissociations of the depicted in the image. This practice aims at the translation of an event into its graphic representation, which is imperative to comics. Naturally, it can be taken for granted that any media representation is dissociating from that which it depicts when it is capturing the depicted subject as an image. That way the depicted is being reduced to a particular perspective of the spectator and to only a cutout of the whole subject. In this sense, representation always also is a reduction, not just of the ornamental variety of the surface level of reality, but in particular of social reality, complex in itself, which the respective represented content is taken from. Representations of reality, Hahn emphasizes, were always “activating specific perspectives on ‘reality’” and thus cannot ever be “innocent” or “neutral” (83). In this perspective, the “figure of the author” as subjectively acting eyewitness would function as “verification or authorization of that what is represented” (83). Nevertheless, the fact remains that the principle of comics—to reproduce that which is depicted on its pages, to trace the depicted within the framing of graphic reproduction, when it is literally becoming the object of a practice of re-picturing—imposes rather strict limitations upon a strategy of verification or authorization.
For achieving the effect of an authenticity as strongly as possible, if not to say of verification, Sacco, as is well known, mostly refers to photographs as templates which he adapts to the comics medium according to its needs (remarkably, he hardly ever shows himself in an image holding a camera in his hand). As Walker notes, Sacco takes many pictures of people and environments which then wind up serving as references to his comics, whereas he rarely does sketches (80). Thus, it is specifically non-fictional comics that create an estrangement as dissociation of the depicted, reaching far beyond what film and photography are usually able to achieve, because each panel inherently communicates that it is not what it shows, and that its representation is the result of a mixture of imagination and graphic reproduction, rather than of a fictionalization of what is real. This is also emphasized by the principle of a standstill of the action in the image as it is peremptory to comics. The images in comics are standing still, they do not move. Movement is added to them due to the readers’ competence to read the pictorial constellation of a page as coherent succession, even if it does not follow the classic composition as a comic strip and decodes, cuts, or breaks on the right occasions. The latter are usually set by Sacco in a reader-friendly way at the end of one strip. That way every single panel is showcasing its mode for interpretation. The capacity for identification of images in comics is increased, when they are so obviously interpretations, making use of an arsenal of the fictitious, and not being genuine gestures of documentation. From the lack of possibilities for an index-based identification of the depicted, a completely different and rather new approach to the representation of non-fictional, however imagined content emerges. It seems to be this direction of impact within which Sacco points to an “informed imagination” (Sacco X), which by definition, as he states, cannot be a perfect endeavor, since the drawing overtly represents the imagination of the respective artist (X). It is for this reason that Sacco emphasizes that factuality and subjectivity are not necessarily contradictions when their interactions would rather enable new quality even in journalism which were apparently based on the comics medium.
The intensity of dramaturgical production in comics is massively due to techniques of imagination. For instance, the deadly threat to which the escaping people are exposed in fig.1 remains invisible. Here, Sacco is consistently applying a mode of documentation when he stays with his protagonists and does not visualize their attackers as if the former cannot see the aggressors. However, being an artist, he could easily do this and show the attacking Serbs and sometimes Sacco actually does so and employs the view on the other side, preferably by making use of a high angle perspective. This method underlines that in comics even the limited view as a classic mode of documentation, that of the absence of others, primarily emerges from a strategy of narration applied to produce tension, excitement, emotion, and compassion, but which could just as well be part of a fictitious framing. Regarding this constellation, the question emerges whether it is at least fiction that is functioning as indexicality of non-fictional comics. The great advantage of this medium’s dealing with reality and its documentation is that comics are going beyond the fetish of the real. When it is made clear which enormous contribution fiction and imagination make to the construction of social reality, then this reality cannot even be documented any longer by keeping the share of imagination rather low or by excluding it from the emergence of reality. On the contrary, only the affirmation of fiction would thus create new accesses to a representation of social reality. No formal, aesthetic, or stylistic difference is apparent in representations of direct, documentary experience.
Eventually, writing in comics takes on a rather paradoxical functionality. On the one hand, it comments on the images and seems to be fundamentally entangled with the image’s degree of fiction. On the other hand, the writing obviously needs to verify the depicted as authentic and as non-fictitious. The images of Sacco’s comics are abandoning the mode of fiction with such obvious efficiency on the image’s surface, because they are authenticated either by the author or by identifiable characters. That means that only via the layer of text and writing the documentary content is channeled into comics, thus remarkably resembling the format of the classic reportage, based on written text. The text inserted by Sacco in text blocks is then in the position of the documentary text when he puts it into quotation marks, thus indicating the witnesses’ speech as testimony. This writing then still functions as real writing and as oral speech that is transgressing the iconic quality of pure representation, when it nevertheless is also clearly distinguished from the speech put in speech bubbles, captivated within the image as a frame for imagination. The text block belongs into the panel and belongs to it, when, at the same time, this text goes beyond the panel, however without unfolding a structural difference towards the panel as it does in captioned sequences of images, like e.g., Hal Foster’s Prince Vaillant.
All in all, comics is not a medium for documentation—which becomes clear in the work of Joe Sacco and stands in contrast to a widespread misjudgment. It is a medium to comment on a reality that is represented by a different form, but whose perception always remains massively saturated by fiction. For an understanding of what the gesture of documentation might mean with regard to comics, it is of importance to further consider this aspect. Regarding the current trend for documentation in comics, on the one hand, Sacco’s work can certainly be considered exemplary, when on the other hand they demonstrate that in fact comics do not ever transcend fiction. Considering its particular techniques for representation, the comics medium can approach the “reality” of society or culture only in rather limited ways. This conclusion does definitely not aim at a negative judgment that would deny comics’ ability to deal with non-fictional subjects. With regard to the large number of documentary productions, it is rather the reverse question which productive symbolical and communicative potential is inherent to the generally ascribed practice for documentation and reportage in comics—and paradoxically also for a representation of social reality.
Due to their basis in fictitious narrative and form, comics might be able to create images of what has happened that communicate as much an appropriate idea of how events might have looked like, as they also, as graphic images, are inevitably artificial and cannot be identical with what really happened in those events. To deal with this problem and ambivalence, Sacco has suggested the term ‘subjectivity,’ even though he also uses it in the context of fiction. The notion of subjectivity has then become a rather successful concept within the reception of Sacco’s work and of documentary comics in general. It is, in particular, the subjective approach to that which is narrated that is supposed to add authenticity to the depicted. Of course, this also demands a high level of precision, to represent details as correctly as possible—like vehicle models, landscapes, clothing, etc. The subjective approach, personified by the presence of the comics journalist in his own images and by his individual artistic signature, would then be the rather adequate channeling in order to get to an authentic depiction of such scenes that have remained undocumented or that have meanwhile become history and, therefore, very often have not received a position within the general public arsenal of images. As such, Weber and Rall emphasize the subjectivity of comics, especially in contrast to photography (384). However, subjectivity does not seem to be the accurate terminology in this context, when the question is not only whether the particular style of representation is communicated by the comics’ journalist individual point of view—with all associated sentiment. This would be the case as well with any photo reportage that is also produced from an individual perspective, underlying considerations of composition. In the case of comics, a further element is added that we can call abstraction. What is thereby meant is not the process of abstraction like it is well established in the fine arts. Although there also is the so-called “abstract comics”, this genre is of no relevance to the context discussed in this article. Usually, comics do not affect the figurative visual language of the narration, just because the establishment of a narration (inter alia) based on images is central to them. At the same time, by the means of graphic representation, it necessarily programmatically dissociates from those images. The principle of abstraction in comics, and consequently of non-fictional comics, follows the graphic concept of an at least latent typification of the depicted and of its translation into an interpretation by the means of aesthetics and style. Thus, it particularly relates to the fictional content in comics and to its very technique of graphic reproduction.
With film and photography being established for decades and also with the new ability to produce reportage quickly and professionally by using a digital camera, the strong tendency to the slow and graphic form of reportage or of documentation, today, communicates a clear conceptual decision that primarily refers to the subsequent and artificial nature of the drawn picture. Therefore, abstraction in the comics reportage means graphic dissociation. In the drawn image of that what is depicted as what has happened (and what Sacco himself captured during his research most of all by photographs, which he then transferred into drawings for his reportages), the process of representation, with regard to the fundamental technical conditions of the present, is dissociating from that which is represented. The graphic abstraction in comics literally has to be regarded as a kind of drawing that is as much a subsequent process, as it is a drawing of memories and of historically solidified events. Such abstractions are interpretations with regard to comics’ aesthetic forms of reproduction and its decisions for composition; it follows a reduction of detail and ornament in the image on that what is graphically perceived as essential. The graphic dissociation makes it so that in its representation the object is prevented from the generation even of the slightest possibility for true identification. If, therefore, the production of authenticity in documentary comics is discussed, the question emerges how it can be produced at all. Due to its subsequent graphic reproduction, neither is authenticity in comics guaranteed by archival correctness, nor is it by that kind of subjectivity referred to by Sacco himself and by many other voices from comics studies. Rather, the question is whether authenticity in comics, particularly within documentary comics, is an issue of fiction. The resource of imagination, which is most effective here, communicating the persuasiveness of images and sequences in comics would then most of all be realized as the driving force of an authentication of the depicted as based on the pictorial layer as much as on the accompanying text. Such ambivalence of authentication, or at least of a claim to authentication, and of a persistent dependence from fiction is formative for Sacco’s comics reportages.
The comics medium, it can be concluded, derives its narrative, and particularly its representational force from imagination as the resource. Comics, even nominally non-fictional ones, are especially convincing when they are aware of their relation to techniques of fiction and when they are dealing with such elements of fiction in a self-conscious manner. Also, the comics medium is most convincing when it does not hide its graphic artificiality and when it does not allow its presumed disadvantage of lacking indexicality, with regard the seemingly indexed media of film and photography, to be turned against it, but rather/instead acknowledges this fact as an advantage. In this regard, Chute states that a “comics text has a different relationship to indexicality than, for instance, a photograph does” (20). Non-fictional comics will be able to produce a surplus in their descriptions and depictions towards the classic reportage media film and photography, if it simply stops trying to copy them and their approaches. This is why the non-realistic, or at least not photo-realistic, non-fictional comics is much more convincing and appears as much more authentic than productions which are meticulously realistically drawn, as are, e.g., the Franco-Belgium history comics from the 1980s and 1990s (Ahrens). By acting affirmatively towards their graphic production, comics translate the depiction of events into a graphic approximation which, of course, cannot be identical with the event itself, because it necessarily remains a representation. However, by virtue of its genuine means the comics are able to represent something that, categorically, other media cannot.
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