Joe Sacco’s one of a kind war correspondence

Maltese-American Joe Sacco has taken war journalism to a different level. With his work, brutal war scenes are depicted in drawings. Thousands of people have learned about war in places such Bosnia, Palestine and Iraq through Sacco’s comics. His books such as Palestine, The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo and Notes from a Defeatist have bought a new approach to war journalism, as well as bringing a number of awards. The stories that based on Joe Sacco’s interviews with people who have a real experience on the ground bring to life details that are normally lost, even in the age of mass communication.

Originally posted in Bant Mag.’s september 2013 issue.

Interview by Cem Kayıran

Sacco released a collection named Journalism earlier this year. A departure from his earlier works, Journalism consists of Sacco’s short form comic stories originally authored for magazines and newspapers..

We can see clearly the people he has interviewed, the settings they have experience and the reality of war areas with every minute detail through Sacco’s drawings. However when representing himself in his drawing, he makes his glasses all white and you can’t see his eyes. Through this trade mark the artist brings a sincerity to his drawings.

In Journalism Sacco transports the readers across the globe. We see the dangerous warzone in Gaza through Sacco’s experiences, there are interviews with African immigrants who have take refuge in Malta and the war criminals who have been on trial at The Hague. Then there is the unpublished Iraq story – an illustration of the futility of the war itself.

Busy on a number of other projects, we spoke to Joe Sacco about his work.

When you interview people, do they know that they’ll be a cartoon persona? Does this fact affect the questions you ask or your approach to the subject?

When I first started doing this work, I was hesitant to tell people that I was working in the medium of comics.  I suppose I didn’t have the confidence to explain myself well, and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing.  So I told people I was working on a journalistic project, which seemed a fair enough description for what I do.  Things have changed now, and when I interview people, I tell them my work will be in comics form, and I often show them one of my books so they understand exactly how I’ll be approaching things.  In fact, this has turned out to be an advantage.  In Gaza, for example, I could show one of my previous books and a person who couldn’t understand English could at least see the pictures and feel there was a certain truth to them.  No one has ever responded badly to what I’ve shown them.  Anyway, after an interview subject knows what I am doing, they seem to understand why I am asking such “visual” questions – questions about what things looked like.  So, to answer the second part of your question, I certainly need to ask questions that will help provide me with visual information.  I am always aware that I will have to be drawing scenes people are describing to me later.

When you come across an interesting news, what are the things that you first pay attention to as a reporter and cartoonist? How does Joe Sacco’s mind react to the world news as a pioneer of political comics?

Well, I follow a lot of different subjects in the news, and much of it interests me.  What I respond to the most, as far as future subject matter, has to do with what hits me in the gut.  Comics take a long time, so any subject I tackle must not just compel me to act in the present moment, but will have to strike me hard enough to compel me to act in future moments, too, when I might be working on a book about the subject.  In other words, I have to pick and choose a subject that will still be of interest to me years later.  There are many worthwhile subjects in the world, but I simply can’t get to all of them, and to be honest I’m coming to a point when I want to steer away from conflict journalism.  All conflicts are very particular to a given set of circumstances, but as a journalist they begin to look quite the same on the human level.


Your latest book, ‘Journalism’, is a collection of your short-form, magazine works. What is behind the title you choose for the book? What do you think about the impression that this title builds in the reader’s mind? 

The title isn’t exactly meant to be a provocation, but I did want to make a case for the sort of work I’ve been doing this past 20 years.  I also wanted to explain my notion of what journalism is, especially in terms of objectivity and subjectivity, and the simple title – ‘Journalism’ – was a way of signaling that.

What is the first book that comes to your mind related to one or more of these tags we give here; “tree”, “forest”, “fire”, “fireman”?

Fire and Fireman?  ‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury.  I thought the book was poorly written, but the idea of “burning books” and destroying knowledge is a very scary notion and one that unsettles me.  The loss of the library of Alexandria, for instance, bothers me even though it happened many centuries ago.  I hate to think of what we will never see that once existed in that repository.


Originally posted in Bant Mag.’s september 2013 issue.