ONWARD TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS by SHIGERU MIZUKI reviewed by North Adams Transcript

“Onward Towards our Noble Deaths - Review” / Berkshire Eagle Online / North Adams Transcript / July 11, 2011

Journalism in graphic novels? Help me here. Sure, there's a graphic account of the war on terror and even an illustrated interpretation of the 9/11 report. My favorite of the last few years is Diedle Lefevre's collaboration with graphic-novelist Emmanuel Guibert and designer Frederic Lemercier The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan With Doctors Without Borders. Documenting the late photo-journalist's 1986 travels in Northern Afghanistan with the famous NGO, it's a beautiful mix of Lefevre's black-and-white photographs and Guibert's and Lemercier's strip illustrations from the poor, remote center of the war against Soviet occupation. And there's Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicles, the most comic of the bunch, his flat-head account of existence in Myanmar with his NGO-employed wife (where do you buy diapers?) and Pyongyang, a revealing account of travels and work in North Korea with his trusty translator/handler.

What guys like these have done proves journalism, the documenting of a time and place and the who-what-why, the history, even if not so comic, is especially suited to graphic depictions.

The most daring, relevant and wonderfully drawn of this group is Joe Sacco. His comic-Gonzo style visualizes troubles in Serbia, Palestine and giving us a sense of everyday life as well as the injustice--and worse--that have gone on there. The most recent is Footnotes In Gaza...

Sacco, author-illustrator of Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 is the premier graphic journalist, the creator of detailed, investigative comics that are no laughing matter. He approaches his subject in classic Gonzo style, making his personal story part of the larger narrative, giving his reporting its wide-eyed, contemporary background imposed on, in Footnotes's case, events over 50 years old. He concentrates on collecting personal accounts to make up for a lack of official documentation. Perspective--no pun intended-- is everything in his work.

Sacco traveled to Gaza in 2001 with reporter Chris Hedges for Harper's magazine and soon returned to collect accounts of massacres that occurred during the '56 Suez conflict. As readers of Palestine know, his sympathies are with the Palestinian people, disqualifying him as journalist to a certain thinking. Yet no one can deny the reality he saw there, it's reported elsewhere, rarely, but it's there to be reported. The Palestinians suffer overwhelming shortages and joblessness, repression and the effects of what amounts to war. Sacco takes time to express sympathy for Israelis thrust into terrible situations, as well as disapproval of some Palestinian actions. These brief vignettes offer precious little balance in a badly out-of-balance situation.

How far can a comic's believability go? In his introduction, Sacco acknowledges the "scant" official documentation he saw as well as the reliability of oral testimony. He secured some documentation by sending researchers into the Israel State Archives and the archives of the Israel Defense Forces (listed and quoted in the Appendix). He issues the hope that his work will cause some Israeli veterans to come forward with accounts of their own.

Sacco also cautions readers not to see his illustrations as fact. Despite using historical photos when drawing his half-century ago landscapes, he says that drawing comes with "a measure of refraction" and should be seen as such. (It's surprising how little things change in his depictions from 1956 to then-present day.)

Sacco draws complications of life in Gaza; the waste, the shortages, the crowds, the filth. He finds that the half of Gaza's workforce which once worked in Israel had found themselves replaced there by Thai, Romanian and Chinese workers.

Invited by a United Nations Relief Worker Agency employee to visit a home in Khan Younis, Sacco sweats and becomes claustrophobic at the tight conditions in which the 11 people live. He hears what little work is available to them, hunting scrap or winning a rare teaching position funded by the UN RWA. He is told the Palestinian Authority hires police whose only duty is to collect salaries. The most well-off man he meets works for an American aid-agency as a facilitator of "democratization." "Basically, it's bullshit," says the man.

When the accounts of the massacre come, they are illustrated in horror and inexplicable cruelty. Some of Sacco's most extreme panel's are over-sized Hieronymus Bosh-like nightmares depicting killing, detention and states of cruel pandemonium. Cross-hatched scenes of darkness, or those with the story-teller super-imposed on his own story, are done to chilling effect.

Unlike Palestine, the art work doesn't change as the narrative continues but maintains a direct, composed style. The portraits are all of a kind, similar in mood and expression. Footnotes' best illustration come from finding just the right combination of action and composition. The scatter of spent shell casings on a blank background paints a picture of what just happened.

Comic touches are few. A restaurant menu is rolled open to reveal "Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions!" Sacco makes laughs at his own expense. His over-characterized face--large lips, receding hairline, eyes constantly whited out behind large, round spectacles--is the only one not drawn seriously. He makes fun of the press corp and their proclivity to drink and party even as duty calls. These moments recall the indifferent press in the movies The Year of Living Dangerously and Under Fire.

The party scenes illustrate frustration and promise somehow existing just beyond the murderous bickering. Among the international crowd of reporters and NGOs are "hepcat Arabs from Ramallah and right-on Jews from Tel Aviv sharing salads and grooving to the same post-bop jazz. Are the dark-haired cuties who jump up when the dance beat kicks in Palestinian or Israeli?...Ahhh, even in the belly of the world's most intractable conflict there's a glimmer of hope in which to exalt!"

In a series of almost four wordless pages he runs a final account of the massacre as it has settled in his mind, his perspective inside the punished crowd, as if in attempt to develop a difficult empathy.

War time Manga first published in 1973 and finally available in our country offers World War 2 from the viewpoint of our enemies. In fact this is a fictionalized memoir -- Mizuki calls it "90% true" -- of the author’s service on a small island in New Guinea.

In Mizuki’s presentation, average Joe Japanese soldiers contend with the island’s greatest dangers -- malaria and alligators -- until the American army shows up and begins to push inward. Young and inexperienced, with a focus more on their tummies and libidos, the Japanese soldiers don’t take seriously the cultural expectation of their military careers -- an honorable death in service to their country. Their commanding officers take it very seriously, though, and the reality of a suicide charge clashes with their personal fears.

Mizuki peppers the tale with an amiable goofiness that captures the period and his experience, but it is filtered through a graphic rage at what he and his fellow soldiers experienced. Sometimes grim and gruesome, "Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths" is a powerful revelation of the price of war on all sides, and the expectations of national service that hold countries above men.

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