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Review of The Comics of Joe Sacco

By Charles Acheson

Worden, Daniel, ed. The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World. University Press of Mississippi, 2015.

Editor Daniel Worden begins The Comics of Joe Sacco: Journalism in a Visual World by stating, “Joe Sacco makes comics about conflicts” (3). This opening statement articulates exactly the need for this book-length study—and more—on Sacco’s journalism. Literally, Sacco’s comics reportage captures stories of conflict, genocide, and pain, whether in Palestine (1993, 1996, and collected edition in 2001), Safe Area Goražde (2000), Footnotes in Gaza (2009), or many of his other comics journalism pieces. Sacco’s work, however, explores a myriad of other tensions not explicit in the same manner as his reporting. Pervading Sacco’s work remains the question of objectivity and authentic representation—especially regarding the pain and suffering of others—in relation to traditional journalistic approaches. In the pursuit of the oft-ignored stories, Sacco traverses transnational and cultural boundaries, blurring the line of transgression. Obviously, for readers familiar with Sacco, this commentary is old hat. Yet, returning to Worden’s truism is essential to understanding the complexity of Sacco’s work. As understanding of his overarching goals becomes concrete, namely, “mak[ing] comics about conflicts,” analysis of how he makes those comics becomes more fruitful and necessary. Essentially, we know what his comics do, but we are still interrogating how his comics work. Through this collection of essays, Worden seeks to provide answers to the question of how Sacco’s comics work through both familiar and burgeoning modes of inquiry.

Worden and the fifteen scholars collected in The Comics of Joe Sacco make a valiant and overall positive first effort in addressing the comics journalism of Sacco, which becomes more enigmatic as his place in the comics pantheon becomes more certain. Worden divides the collection into four sections: “The Form of Comics Journalism,” “Space and Maps,” “The Politics and Aesthetics of Joe Sacco’s Comics,” and “Drawing History, Visualizing World Politics.” The divisions occur along somewhat vague lines given the constant overlap between the essays within each section. While many of the individual essays broach Sacco’s work from new critical and theoretical frameworks, the topical redundancy of critiquing Sacco’s objectivity hinders the overall trajectory of the collection. Moreover, the heavy, but not total, reliance on Sacco’s three most famous works—PalestineSafe Area Goražde, and Footnotes in Gaza—limits the collection’s scope. Yet, as he notes in the introduction, Worden does not intend this collection as the definitive Sacco reader. Instead, The Comics of Joe Sacco exists as a means of starting new and different conversations about the eponymous author, which the collection successfully achieves.

Following Worden’s introduction, the first section of the collection investigates various formal components of Sacco’s comics journalism, while simultaneously and gratuitously addressing the question of ersatz journalism that follows the artist’s work. Titled grandly as “The Form of Comics Journalism,” this first section ostensibly illustrates Sacco’s comics form, but also exhibits the greatest amount of repetition regarding the topic of objectivity. Isolated, the essays by Lan Dong, Isabel Macdonald, and Marc Singer possess a definite amount of merit, but within the close proximity of the collection, the question of authenticity becomes excessive. Even without the overabundance of criticism addressing objectivity concerning Sacco’s work outside of this collection—not to mention the continuous reemergence of the cult of authenticity later in the collections—the essays’ interrogation of journalistic authenticity becomes overdone quickly. That said, Jared Gardner’s “Time under Siege” stands out in this first grouping for his exploration of the contrasting “universal” time that non-conflict zones experience, and the destruction of linearity for individuals cleaved from the outside world by conflict. As Gardner argues, there must be a future and past for people in order for time to move. With the story of Haris Silajdžić from Safe Area Goražde ironically wanting to see Pulp Fiction, Gardner highlights the fact that for time to progress, individuals cannot be trapped in the perpetual present of occupation. Moreover, the temporal capabilities of the comics medium enable Sacco to designate and illustrate manifestations of parallel universes that originate in conflict zones. While Sacco is not the only comics creator to employ the parallel timelines—Gardner draws attention to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan—Gardner reframes Sacco’s usage within a larger question of representation and vicarious experience.

The second section of The Comics of Joe Sacco shifts focus to the politics of space and geography running through Sacco’s works, with particular attention given to Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (2012), which Sacco co-created with Chris Hedges. Edward C. Holland presents a particularly interesting analysis of Sacco’s usage of cartography as a means of information diffusion. Moving beyond a purely cartographic approach, though, Holland explores Sacco’s pictorial mapping of the spatial movements of his interviewees going through particularly harrowing moments. For example, Sacco maps Edin’s journey for supplies in Safe Area Goražde as a means of vicarious experience for the reader. Holland notes, “The comics medium allows for an ontogenetic—that is, processual and emergent—engagement with the conflict landscape” (97). A quick survey of Sacco’s reportage indicates the importance of space and scale in his work. Holland clearly and concisely explicates how the scale of Sacco’s drawings simultaneously facilitates an understanding of how the artist engages space in addition to the experiential component. This emphatic turn continues into the next two essays by Georgiana Banita and Richard Todd Stafford, respectively, which both assess the “Days of Devastation” chapter in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Curious from an editorial perspective, both essays cover the same chapter and much of the same groundwork in Sacco’s illustrations of the affects of mountaintop removal mining. However, Stafford’s interrogation of iconicity in this chapter highlights how Sacco informs his readers and generates a definite sense of Othering, which is an essential component to Hedges and Sacco’s thesis of depicting the willful ignorance of the “sacrifice zones” that dot the American landscape.

By the third section, the collection starts moving into unique and interesting critical and theoretical frameworks, even if the essays often return to the discourse of objectivity when other avenues of connection and understanding exist. Applying Bill Brown’s “thing theory” to the recurrent material goods and items that Sacco engages in Palestine, Ann D’Orazio investigates Sacco’s attention to certain things and their relation to objective reporting. D’Orazio’s reframing authenticity within Sacco’s interest of depicting seemingly uninteresting things—at least from a traditional journalistic perspective—demonstrates how Sacco provides agency to those items and depicts a fuller narrative. In Brown’s model, things vary from objects in that things embody both original objecthood (the prescribed usage of the material good) and larger, significant relations between the subject (user of the thing) and the object itself. D’Orazio centers her argument around things that Sacco dedicates significant attention to: tea, tomatoes, olive trees, the Hijab. She demonstrates the ritualistic value of these things (community traditions, values, etc.), illustrating how the seemingly unimportant thing carries more value that just its object use. D’Orazio’s line of thinking opens other possible avenues for critique in Sacco’s work. In particular, Sacco’s visual details in depicting presumed detritus—the bleed panel from Safe Area Goražde in which the teenager Suada stares at her neighbors’ exploded house comes to mind—offers a possible direction for thing theory and Sacco.

In addition to D’Orazio’s rather unique approach, this section also contains Alexander Dunst’s “Sacco with Badiou: On the Political Ontology of Comics,” which confronts the abundance of ethics criticism that envelops Sacco’s work and passively accepts his role as transnational witness. Dunst comments that the commonplace of ethical reading “fails to critique the elements of Sacco’s work that remain mired in an exoticism of difference and mask imperial power as humanitarian intervention” (168). As his title suggests, Dunst builds his argument about Sacco—and comics to a broader extent—around the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou and provides a thorough critique charting alterity and sameness as Sacco depicts the experiences of the conflict zone inhabitants for a Western audience. Dunst’s essay presents an original and necessary view of Sacco and ethical witnessing in that it interrogates the larger discourse that consistently seeks to place Sacco in an overly positive humanitarian role without analyzing the latent politics of Sacco’s work. Through this essay, Dunst takes the largest singular step in this collection of expanding the critical discourse surrounding Sacco.

The Comics of Joe Sacco concludes with a potpourri-type section. Brigid Maher offers an effective study of one often overlooked component of Sacco’s work: the foregrounding of his translators. As Maher notes, traditional journalism favors erasing these individuals from the narrative, but Sacco engages them as another layer of experiential transmission, bringing readers further into the conflict zones he highlights. In addition, the section includes Kevin C. Dunn’s pedagogical essay, “Teaching World Politics with Joe Sacco: Safe Area Goražde in the Classroom.” Dunn provides an effective outline and lesson plan for teaching Sacco in classrooms where comics is not the central focus, though his discussion remains perfectly apt for comics-based classrooms too. Within the collection, this essay sticks out as the only pedagogical treatment of Sacco, but through that uniqueness, Dunn speaks to the necessity for more pedagogical attention to Sacco. Case in point, Stephen Tabachnick’s Teaching the Graphic Novel (2009), a collection of essays centered entirely on teaching comics, ignores Sacco except for brief commentary within the context of travel writing. Thus, Dunn provides additional value to the collection for scholars and teachers of the comics medium.

While The Comics of Joe Sacco continues the process of establishing new modes of inquiry into Sacco’s work, the collection also emphatically demonstrates the need for that continued research. With a few diversions into Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt and Journalism (2012), Sacco’s “big three” serve as the central focus for the majority of the collected essays. Certainly, a collection does not need to speak to an author’s entire bibliography. Indeed, Deborah R. Geis’ Considering Maus, for example, focuses on just one of Art Spiegelman’s graphic texts (perhaps one day Spiegelman’s Garbage Pail Kids illustrations will receive their critical due). The collection’s omission of But I Like It (2006) is curious, especially given the thesis of the project to expand discourse on Sacco. The exclusion of The Great War (2013) proves problematic in two ways. First, Gardner accounts for Sacco’s usage of panorama in his essay, though he entirely neglects Sacco’s panoramic illustration of the Somme in passing. Second, the back cover’s copy text promises that “The Comics of Joe Sacco addresses… his most recent book The Great War (2013), a graphic history of World War I” (cover). Technically, the collection does address The Great War four times, each reference appearing in a sentence that essentially states that the book, in fact, exists. Generously speaking, this oversight probably originates in editorial changes, rather than in an academic bait-and-switch, but ultimately emphasizes the significance of the omission. The collection as a whole would benefit from the inclusion of a wider scope of Sacco’s body of work.

Both omissions speak to another overarching concern about this collection: the intended audience. While The Comics of Joe Sacco offers something for both professional scholars and casual readers interested in Sacco, the collection also contains components that will deter both parties. As noted, various essays approach Sacco’s works from new methods and frameworks; however, the insistence on assessing the cult of authenticity surrounding Sacco limits the work for both demographics. This issue becomes more pronounced the more familiar a reader is with previous criticism of Sacco’s oeuvre. For casual readers, or anyone without a university or library affiliation, the paramount problem with the book is the list cost of sixty dollars. The prohibitive entrance fee limits the availability of this text dramatically. As a result, the collection does not reach out to a specific audience and caps the effectiveness of the overall project.

Ultimately, the strengths of many of the individual essays and the overall work the collection accomplishes concerning the project’s thesis outshine the shortcomings. From the outset, The Comics of Joe Sacco expands the critical discourse surrounding one of comics’ most curious figures. Beyond the omissions begging for scholarly attention, many of these essays lay a foundation within specific modes of inquiry. Hopefully, this is the first of several more book-length studies concerning Joe Sacco and comics journalism as a whole. In particular, Josh Neufeld’s AD: New Orleans After the Deluge and Sue Coe’s multiple works regarding the meat industry deserve more consideration within the wide umbrella of comics journalism. In fact, Neufeld’s work following Hurricane Katrina draws many parallels with Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. With the proliferation of comics journalism, the academic attention for Coe and Neufeld seems inevitable. For now, Worden and the collected scholars extend the body of research on Joe Sacco and how his comics work. As Worden states in the introduction, this collection is not a terminus, but rather a start. In the end, it is a good start.

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