Portland-based cartoonist Joe Sacco is in Toronto for the next little while as part of the University of Toronto Speakers in the Arts series. A longtime cartoonist, Sacco’s oeuvre is well-known by now, particularly for his long-form comics journalism books Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer. His latest (and largest) work is Footnotes in Gaza, a work that tells the story of hundreds of tragic-and mostly forgotten- deaths in Gaza in 1956. Through Sacco’s investigation, people who lived through the era tell their stories and history’s echoes resonate.
Sacco graciously made time to speak with Sequential in Toronto and will deliver a public lecture at U of T on Thursday (Innis Town Hall, 8-10 PM Details here).
So you’re here in Toronto at U of T speaking to some students and doing a lecture Thursday. I was wondering, what do you get from this process?
You mean besides a cash cheque?
What do I get out of the process?
Yeah, what do you learn from it?
It’s not so much what I learn—it’s interesting to get feedback from people—but I kind of like meeting the people who have read the book and they often have good questions. And, if anything it helps me hone my so-called theory of what I do. I mean there’s no theory when I set out to do it, but when people ask you lots of questions about it, you kind of have to come up with answers or see if there’s some kind of organic process that you can’t quite put your finger on. So it makes you think about your work when you hear the questions.
As far as giving a lecture, where I get up and give some straight talk with a PowerPoint, maybe assembling that together I have to think about my work. But I get more out of the questions from people, I enjoy that part a lot.
Do you see part of your role as a cartoonist as an educator too? Lots of the work you do are stories that you don’t see on the news every day, certainly not in the same depth.
I don’t really see myself as an educator, that’s sounds—
Well, I guess I have a mission that’s not… education is an offshoot of it. It’s to get to the truth as I see it, an honest truth of some situation. Often some situation that I’m interested in and feel compelled to find out about. So, that’s sort of what I see as my mission, and doing that, I think has an educational purpose. People learn about what I’m interested in. Ultimately, it’s very much focused on my own interests. And I know those things are interesting for some other people, I guess they’re along for the ride. I’m educating myself by going there, they’re educating themselves by reading my book about my going there.
And those interests you were talking about earlier, it seems like one common theme throughout the stories you choose to cover are those that don’t get a large amount of coverage… I hesitate to use the word ‘underdog’…
…it’s fine, you can use the word ‘underdog’, ‘dispossessed’. The disinherited, whatever you want to call those people. That stuff matters to me. I hope when people read my book that it will matter to them in the same way. That’s the idea. With comics you want to take people, the reader, and allow the reader to meet the people I met. So maybe they’ll be interested in those people’s lives as I was. Maybe they’ll befriend someone through the book in a way that you feel as though you’ve met on some level. Those lives matter.
There are a lot of interesting things in the world. I mean, I think it would be perfectly valid to write about architecture or that kind of thing, or the new car coming out, fashion week. I think there’s nothing wrong with that, I’m all for it. But my own particular interests are with those people we kind of run over.
That’s something you’ve done pretty much from the start of your career it seems. Even in your rock n’ roll journalism. They weren’t necessarily big name bands, but represented the gritty lifestyle of a touring band. What first got you interested in those kinds of stories?
I think ultimately it was a satirical impulse. I’ve always been interested in satire and satire is always looking at social, political problems or issues or values and holding them up to the light, somehow refracted through humour. That social criticism that comes from satire led me to a more direct analysis or direct journalism about subjects. I mean, if you read my very earliest work, they’re all kind of life’s big losers or life’s big winners at everyone else’s cost. Because even as a kid you say, “why is that asshole there, how did he make it to be CEO”, or “why does that guy think he can run for president? Why do any of them think they can run for president? What’s in the psychology of that person?” Those things start to go through your head and you begin to look at the world critically. So it comes out of humour, satire.
Yeah, and in some of that early stuff I see a Mad Magazine influence.
Oh yeah, and especially the Mad comics. The magazine I read and once there were some reprints of the early comics in the early 70s, I could never look at Mad Magazine again. All that mattered were those old Mads, they were truly funny. Mad Magazine suddenly looked like a child’s magazine. I was no longer interested, I didn’t know what I had been missing. That had a big influence on my sense of humour.
Bill Elder had a huge impact on the way I drew because his backgrounds were so busy that they overwhelmed the foregrounds. It’s that sense of detail, all that stuff that you can put in that’s amusing, I used to do that in my early comics and my earliest stuff that probably hasn’t been printed. Later, you develop that detailed style. So it comes out of that on some level I imagine.
What were some other influences on you growing up?
You know, I read these Sgt Rock comics before that, these British war comics—I used to live in Australia, so I used to read those. They didn’t really have an effect on me except that at some point I looked at Sgt Rock and said ‘this couldn’t possibly be true’. You know when you have that moment when you’re not sure something you’re reading is true or not and you say, ‘wait, these five American soldiers wrestled a gun out of a German tank and then shot down a plane with it’. Even in my child’s mind, I could realize this wasn’t possible. You realize that of course there’s a facade there, and maybe it’s understood that it’s a facade but when I was a kid I took it a bit more literally I guess.
And that kind of connects to your quest to find truth
I’m not sure you can draw a direct line, I mean you do realize there are lots of tall tales told and as much as possible I’m interested in work that is honest. It can have an opinion. It can have a perspective. It doesn’t have to be objective in that so-called way but honesty matters.
You made that transition from your early comics in Yahoo to Palestine, that was quite a jump. From satirical comics to gritty, meaningful stories about people who are struggling.
Right. That trend sort of started in my Yahoo stuff, I did a story about my mother in WWII and I did a story called “How I Loved the War” about the Gulf War started up and I was living in Berlin and breaking up with my girlfriend in America and how these stories intertwined, which I think is still one of most sophisticated works although I think other people might not think so.
But, yes, there are certain things that carried over. I had learned to tell other people’s stories, I had some inkling on how to tell other people’s stories from telling my mother’s story. I did a story, one of the last Yahoos, was about a stripper and she wrote it and I drew it. So you learn to work in that way where it’s someone else’s story and you’re trying to imagine it in your head and you ask visual questions to fill it in.
And then I also came out of that autobiographical trend, which is the reason why my journalistic work is autobiographical was that I wasn’t really thinking about, ‘oh, journalism has to be a fly on the wall’, so going to a place like the middle east and writing about my own experiences seemed to just come out of autobiography. It might be a leap, and I think it is, but it definitely is rooted in some of those early Yahoos.
And then Palestine did not do too well.
Oh, it was a rock, it sank like a rock.
As a cartoonist, I’m sure that was fairly difficult.
Yeah, it was difficult. Comics in those days, the idea was that you got one done every three months. The reality was you got one done every six months, or four or five months because you couldn’t make a living at that and you have to do other things to support yourself. Even other work- and I did some work with Harvey Pekar which helped a lot- but yeah, it’s depressing. In those days you would find that number four sold this much, number five sold a little less and so on. By all rights, Fantagraphics should have cancelled that book. One of the issues sold less than 2000 copies. Really pathetic. When it came out as a book, it did quite well which to me showed that the distribution system was probably a problem. In those days, people didn’t go into comic book stores. They were just the nerdiest places to go into, some of them probably still are. But there wasn’t a store like the Beguiling, or if there was there were very few. Was it around?
Yeah, I think so.
Oh. Was it up to its current standard and independent?
It was at a different location, but from what I’ve read about then, it was.
Very few places and avenues like the Beguiling though. And I suppose the subject matter was just coming out of the blue for a lot of people in comics. It took people who were not comics readers to pay attention to it before comics readers ever did and I still think I have a bigger fan base among non-comics readers than I do with comics readers. Most of the people who read my work are not big comics people.
That’s really interesting. How do you find interacting with those individuals? Do they respond to your work differently?
I think there are people interested in the art form of comics in every way it can go, so those are people who are interested in my work; they’re interested in the literary comics, political comics, they’re interested in the medium itself.
I find more than half of my readers are from schools, in classes where they read my work. People have been to the regions and they’ll see, oh this medium has taken this on, I’ll pick that up. It’s sort of more book people than comics people. Although some of those are the same people, and thank God.
But I mean, Palestine wasn’t a grunge comic. In that way, it wasn’t looking at alternative lifestyles and I love those comics, I really enjoy them. But it wasn’t that comic, and I think that’s one of the reasons it had a very muddy beginning, an uncomfortable birth.
And then Safe Area came out.
Safe Area was the one that sold well. And that pulled Palestine up and now Palestine sells better than Safe Area. Actually, I think Palestine came out as a single volume book after Gorazde. Just months after, or a year or something.
And Gorazde did well. I kind of owe that on some level to a review I got in the NY Times Books Review. For better or worse, there’s a few publications where they will do a feature or a review and other editors pay attention to that. It was after that that I started to get calls from other journalists. I mean I had always had some interviews but never from the big mainstream publications and suddenly I was just getting a lot of that. That’s when things started to work out financially for me.
In Part 2 Joe talks about the 7 years it took to make Footnotes in Gaza and his process among other things.