Journalism by Joe Sacco – A Review

Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books 2012, pg 192

Joe Sacco’s work has long been a fascination of mine. The comics medium has a lot of potential, but even the most serious work is unable to distance itself enough from its roots in either style or in content. Sacco’s work, on the other hand, opens up different directions for comics, not so much in style as he is still in a realist vein, but in subject. It is the content that shapes the power of his style rather than the reverse (here I’m thinking of a Charles Burns whose style is amazing, but the story isn’t as much). In his journalist works published to date (I’m not going to count Notes of a Defeatist which is very alt-comic) he has focused on telling long stories that dig into an issue, telling as best he can, different sides of the issue. Even works like the Fixer seem to come out of his larger work on Bosnia, Safe Area Grozny.  Journalism, on the other hand, is a collection of pieces written for various publications over the last decade or so, ranging from embedding with the Army in Iraq to a long report on migrants in Crete to an investigation on the lives of Dalits in India.  The publications range from Time magazine, which includes some of his only colored work, to a French magazine devoted to comic journalism. The wide ranging publication history leads to less consistent work, as Sacco points out in several of the introductions that follow each story. Still there are some gems in the collection, especially his report from Crete, India, Chechnya, and the story of embedding in Iraq. The first three are also the longest pieces in the book and, therefore, offer the fullest look at a particular subject, akin to a full length magazine feature. It is in the longer stories his trade mark style of interviews presented as a mix of close ups, dramatized scenes as the interviewee narrates the story, and Sacco as character asking the questions, although in these pieces he doesn’t seem to characterize himself so comically. Some of the stories seem old news, but they are still powerful. In the Chechnya story there is a hopelessness both with the situation of the refugees and the aid agencies that just cannot cope with. The story of the Dalits of India is as equally hopeless and one can not help but wonder if there is ever a way to lift the Dalits out of poverty. While the previous two stories seem the farthest away, the refuges from Crete (he is originally from Crete) offers a story that should both be familiar to Americans and Europeans, detailing the problems with unwanted migrants. Crete has received numerous migrants from Africa who want to go on to Europe. It is a small country that has been unavailable to adequately cope with them. Unsurprisingly, there are problems and nativist groups who want to chase them out. Sacco gives a well rounded treatment of the story and both the “what right do you have to come here” and the “what right do you have to keep me out” view points are given in depth treatment, which is all one can ask of a journalist.

The question after reading the journalistic pieces is does comics journalism work? Or more to the point can it be taken seriously? I think they definitely work, although not in the sense of a daily newspaper. What he is writing is long form journalism, which is what he is best at. (There is one opinion piece from the NY Times and it isn’t that great, which he admits). Writing takes time and drawing the detailed kind of narrative he does even longer. His body of work, as this book attests, shows a solid journalist whose commitment to a story is strong. Still, I can’t see his work in major media (whatever of that there is left) yet. Not for his faults, but because, as I have long thought, few authors have managed to blend narrative demands with artistic in a way that doesn’t leave the reader wondering if the art work was really necessary or a better writer should have been added to the project. Sacco avoids both problems. It is too bad the only comics journalism magazine that I know of is in French.

You can read  his story about the war crimes tribunal which appeared in Details (which caused no end of problems for him when interviewing the subjects)at the publisher’s site.