JOE SACCO: Cartoon Genius & War Reporter - article in "Embassy" (Ottawa)

“Joe Sacco: Cartoon Genius And War Reporter” / Embassy Magazine / Jordan Michael Smith / July 27, 2005

The rags-to-riches story is a powerful American myth, all the more so because occasionally it is true. Joe Sacco did not start out in rags, and he is not exactly rich, but both accurate enough to make Sacco's life as riveting as those of his characters in his books.

Mr. Sacco single-handedly invented the genre known as "comics journalism." Art Spiegelman's Maus examined the effects of war, but it was based on Mr. Spieglman's visual transcriptions of his father's Holocaust experiences. Mr. Sacco's work, in contrast, is eyewitness reportage about contemporary war zones. His 1993 publication Palestine, which won the American Book Award, featured Sacco living with Palestinians during the first intifada in the early 1990s. Safe Area Gorazde saw him living in Eastern Bosnia from 1992-95 during the war. His latest hardback, War's End (Drawn and Quarterly, $19.95), is about the last years of that same Bosnian war.

Mr. Sacco has been drawing since he was six years old. After receiving a journalism degree from the University of Oregon in 1981, Sacco toiled in various editorial and cartooning jobs for most of the decade. He edited news for the trade publication Comics Journal, he co-published an obscure monthly comics newspaper, and he even put out some romance comics.

In 1998 Sacco began traveling around Europe, looking for action -- a cartooning Jack Kerouac in his own On the Road. Following rock bands, drawing posters for German concert promoters, and designing record sleeves for underground musicians; some of these bohemian experiences are retold in Notes From a Defeatist, a collection of Mr. Sacco's earlier pieces.

Sacco traveled in the Palestinian territories and Israel in late 1991 and 1992. As Palestine documents, he was sheltered by refugees, and generally depended on the kindness of strangers, while dodging Israeli bullets and seeing houses bulldozed. "The first time I visited Palestine, I didn't have some notion that I'd be doing 'important journalism,'" he told the LA Weekly.

Indeed, Mr. Sacco was in near-despair at this point, thinking about quitting cartooning and getting a more stable job.

But the first issue of Palestine hit the shelves in Jan. 1993, and immediately garnered attention. By the time the book collection was released in 1996, he was being hailed as, as he puts it, "a cartoon genius." Sudden fame proved difficult for Mr. Sacco, and his attempts to grapple with stardom's pressures are documented quite hilariously in sections of Notes From A Defeatist and in Spotlight On The Genius That Is Joe Sacco.

In between the time he returned from Palestine and the book version was published, Mr. Sacco lived in Bosnia during the war. The harrowing experiences of living in a town on the brink of destruction and chasing after war criminal Radovan Karadzic form the basis of Safe Area Goradze and War's End.

Since then, Mr. Sacco's work has been ubiquitous, appearing most prominently in the Washington Monthly, a weekly political magazine that is influential among liberals in the U.S. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship to return to Bosnia and revisit some of the people he stayed with during the Bosnian War, experiences that resulted in 2002's The Fixer.

And now? Mr. Sacco is presently working on Footnotes In Gaza, a book about the Gaza Strip to be published in 2006.


War's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-96
By joe Sacco
Drawn and Quality
65 pp. $19.95

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