In Disaster Drawn (2016) Hillary Chute puts forward a convincing and comprehensive argument that comics as a medium are perfectly positioned to document the horror and trauma of war, while bearing witness to spaces that have previously gone unreported due to censorship – there are, for example, no photographers allowed into the torture chamber – or because many stories of ordinary lives have simply been ignored for a variety of reasons.
The book is full of illustrations to help contextualise points, with some insightful textual analysis to help the reader better understand how meaning is created in a comic through style, use of gutter, etc. The book also creates a genealogy of key developments in war reporting, with case studies of the likes of Callot, Goya, Nakazawa, Spiegelman and Sacco so that we can see how different artists have influenced each other over the centuries.
I reviewed the book for the next issue of the Spokesman Journal, where I focussed primarily on the work of Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s eyewitness account Ore Wa Mita (I Saw It) which would spawn “atomic bomb manga”. But in this blog I’d like to share Chute’s observations of Joe Sacco, whose work is predominantly associated with the Balkans and Middle East.
I first came across Sacco’s work after watching Michael Moore’s superb documentary Bowling for Columbine (2002). In this, Moore made the observation that on the day of the infamous Columbine High School massacre (April 20, 1999) there were more bombs dropped in Kosovo than at any other point during the war. The point of Moore’s observation was that Marilyn Manson was demonised in the press as the reason for the killings, whereas Moore wonders if it may have had anything to do with a large defence manufacturer in Littleton being one of the main employers in the area: We are all products of our environment. This raised the issue of how the media tend to simplify the complexity of atrocious human acts to conform to prevailing narratives. All of which led me to Joe Sacco.
Sacco trained as and identifies as a journalist and is credited as creating ‘comics journalism’ as we know it today. This style is largely influenced by the New Journalism of the 1960s which moved away from reporting as an “objective act covering raw data” and instead allowed the scene itself to flourish, warts and all. Sacco has made it clear he does not believe in ‘objective journalism’ but this doesn’t mean that he isn’t governed by ethical standards. His skill, according to New York Times journalist David Rieff, is his ability to “evoke reality in lived details”.
Rieff explains that Sacco’s comics, such as the Bosnian inspired Safe Area Goražde (2000), is “the one that those of us who covered the fighting actually experienced day by day, rather than the one we mostly reported on”. Sacco is effectively recording the kind of voices and stories that would otherwise be overlooked and therefore is offsetting the “institutional narrativizations of history across (and enforced by) conventional genres and disciplines”.
Sacco visited Goražde, a largely Muslim enclave in Bosnian Serb territory, four times in 1995/6 purely because it was completely ignored by the media. In the comic he writes “It’s suffering was the sole preserve of those who experienced it” and to ensure those who “had been cut off from the camera” are as visual as possible, he has drawn detailed portraits of witnesses directly facing readers. You can’t escape their faces. Art has rendered them solid. Goražde, along with Srebrenica, was one of six enclaves deemed safe by the UN in 1993. But clearly this was not the case.
Likewise, Sacco believes that “landscape is character”. He does this by constructing double page spreads of street scenes crammed with life and details. The eye inevitably misses something; every time you return to these pages you notice something or someone new. Revealing information that had been ignored by mainstream media has made Sacco’s work a vital voice in any discourse on war. His approach was validated when Palestine (1996) was reviewed in the New York Review of Books.
Hillary Chute argues argues that Sacco employs a photorealistic approach as a means of ensuring people written out of history are not forgotten. She observes that this is in stark contrast to the work of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1980) which uses sketchy lines “in order to signal his abdication of aesthetic mastery as appropriate to representing the Holocaust”.
As a literary journalist of ten years or so, I’m fascinated by Sacco’s approach and how he thinks about narrative. His work, such as Footnotes in Gaza (2009) “presents itself as a counter to official documentation, visualizing history based on oral testimony, and meticulously archiving previously unarchived voices”. Dawn of the Unread II will be giving voice to people written out of history: To ordinary lives that don’t quite fit into convenient metanarratives. Joe Sacco has been vital in helping me think about how to approach this subject – both through the art and the content of stories.
Hillary L Chute (2016) Disaster Drawn. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. £25.95 HB
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.