Joe Sacco was 30 years old when he tossed his ambitions to be a hard-news writer aside and wandered into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to write a comic book with a social purpose.
That was 1990. Sacco’s colleagues ridiculed him when he told them what he was doing. His early drawings of himself depict a bumbling, rubbery-armed tourist groping his way. Initially he planned an illustrated travelogue similar to stories he’d written about previous trips through Europe. But once among the Palestinian people, Sacco found himself playing the role of reporter again. “[S]omething clicked in my head; I found myself interviewing people, searching out facts and figures,” Sacco said of the experience to Mother Jones magazine. He wasn’t after the scoops his editors would want. He embarked to tell a story of himself as adventure and wound up uncovering emotional and psychological truths that went deeper than the fact-telling work of a traditional reporter.
The experience led to nine stories that were published to diminishing commercial success. The experience “demoralized” him. But when Fantagraphics Books released them in a single volume in 2009 under the title “Palestine,” it went on to sell 60,000 copies in the United States. It won an American Book Award, and sold an additional 30,000 volumes in the United Kingdom.
Praise for Sacco was not limited to audiences in the West, however. Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said said of the book, “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco.”
Similarly enthusiastic but more personal praise comes from the artist’s Palestinian friends. “Joe, we like you very much,” said one while the sound of gunfire filled the air around them. “We don’t want to lose you. The bullets don’t distinguish between us and foreigners.”
Sacco’s dedication to his craft cost him early in his adult life. He spent a decade with very little money, learning the exquisite pain of begging constantly from friends and family and playing the destitute loner. The experience does not always have ennobling effects. Although we cannot say that firsthand knowledge of the pain of isolation was the cause of Sacco’s interest in the plight of others, it is clear that his own frustrations did not blunt his ability and desire to tell their stories, and in a medium typically devoted to glorifying violence. For his dedication and perseverance, Joe Sacco is our Truthdigger of the Week.
Click here to see Amazon’s entry for Sacco’s latest, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt,” along with a video showing some of his drawings in the book. The new work, a chronicle of runaway capitalism’s effects on American communities after the 2008 crisis, was written with Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges. Click here to download an excerpt from the book, and here to read a recent and related piece by Hedges.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly. Follow him on Twitter: @areedkelly.
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