Joe Sacco: A long drawn out conflict

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Joe Sacco talks to Tim Sanders and Patrick Ward about how he got into comic journalism and the power of cartoons

Why did you decide to make your new book, Footnotes in Gaza?

I went to the Gaza Strip with Chris Hedges, an American journalist for Harper's magazine. He was writing and I was illustrating. This was at the beginning of the second Intifada. We decided that we would focus on one town in Gaza, Khan Yunis.

In the back of my head I remember reading something about Khan Yunis some years ago in a Noam Chomsky book, just a reference to a large-scale killing there in 1956. We got there and I told Chris about this incident and we thought it would be a good idea if he could talk to older people about it.

It turned out the incident was pretty traumatic. About 275 people were killed, according to a UN report. He wrote this up into his wider story on Khan Yunis and what was going on in contemporary times. But the historical bit was cut by the editors, for whatever reason. That irked me, because it's one of the main historical episodes that gets cut out because it doesn't seem to be as relevant as what's going on now. Those historical bits are the building blocks of the modern catastrophe. And if the reports were true, it's the largest massacre of Palestinian civilians on Palestinian soil ever.

So I decided I'd go back and research the incident. I found out that about ten days later in Rafah there was another incident where 111 people were killed and my focus began to shift a bit to Rafah because I wanted to do something fresh. But to tell the story of Rafah you have to tell the story of Khan Yunis.

In Rafah Palestinians were screened to find soldiers and Fedayeen. This was in 1956 during the Suez crisis when the Israelis occupied Gaza. In the process of the screening a number of people were killed. The book basically looks at those two incidents. It comes out of this desire to refocus the spotlight on some historical incident that's been forgotten. That's why the book is called Footnotes in Gaza, because it barely rated a footnote. Nothing's been written about it in English as far as I know except Chomsky mentioning a UN report.

Do you see yourself as a journalist or a cartoonist?

I see myself as a cartoonist first in life but, when I'm there, clearly I'm behaving as a journalist, asking questions and taping the conversations. But the difference when you're a cartoonist is that you know you have to draw some of these things, so you're also asking visual questions like, "So was the barbed wire here or was it there?" These things would be irrelevant to a prose writer.

I take photographs for reference - they're not interesting photos in and of themselves. It's more like, this brand of car is all around, I'd better take some pictures of it. I went to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency archive in Gaza City to get photographs of the camps in 1956.

What reaction do you get when you tell interviewees that you are a cartoonist?

At first I was a little sheepish about saying what I do because I wasn't even sure of it myself. But on these recent trips I took a copy of my book Palestine, and before I talked to some of the older people I would hand the book to them to see what I do. What's interesting is that they weren't put off by it. They would actually often recognise themselves in the same kind of predicament they could see from the drawings, so actually it worked to my advantage.

Did you decide at some point you were going to become a cartoonist rather than being a journalist?

I got my degree in journalism, but when I got out of university I couldn't find a job like that. The sort of jobs I had were in trade publications, weekly newspapers and city papers where an ad guy would tell you, "This guy has advertised. Maybe you can do a story about him." That was not my idea of journalism. So I never really had a period of being a journalist.

At some point, as I'd been drawing since I was a kid, I decided to put my energies into that. I started a humour magazine in Oregon and then I started thinking of cartooning as where I wanted to be. It was more so I could express myself.

Do you think of yourself as part of a cartoon tradition?

I'm relatively unschooled in the cartoon tradition. It's only in retrospect that I've looked at George Cruikshank and the artists for illustrated newspapers and things like that. I began to learn about that sort of stuff after I started doing it. But I do see that there's nothing new under the sun in a certain respect.

I was influenced by Mad comics, artists like William Elder who had these manic scenes where the foreground almost got lost in the background. Things were happening in the background that distracted you from the foreground. Who knows where he got that from? He might have been influenced by some of those early cartoonists and I wouldn't know it. You're just absorbing things whether you know it or not.

I can't think of anything like comics for expressing yourself, really. When I think of documentary film it's very hard to get such a personal vision. In the earlier days - 15 or 20 years ago when I was doing Palestine, which came out as comic books - comics were so under the radar that no one expected anything from them. You could really do what you wanted without any critique because no one was interested. That's good in a way because you just establish what you want to do without any input. Now there's a lot more focus on it, but in those days no one was buying the damn things.

When you think about the next chapter in one of your books, do you see it first or do you have the words?

The words are extremely important. I see myself as a writer in a cartoonist's body. Words are really crucial. I'd rather see a comic that's really shittily drawn but with good words than the other way round. My process is collecting information, transcribing my tapes, indexing all my journals - it's a very long process - and then writing the script. I never know how long it's going to take. Writing is an unknown for me. It could take six weeks, it could take three months.

What do you think about more mainstream cartoons?

I think The Simpsons has been very subversive over time. It's a good healthy thing. Sometimes what you can do with cartoons is different from what you can do with real life actors. I don't think Bart Simpson could have been invented in another context. I've seen them really stick the knife in - especially into traditional middle class family values.

When you look at Steve Bell's cartoons, they are so fierce. It's like he disembowels his targets, and I really like that. With a lot of American political cartoonists, their cartoons are good but they are the kind of cartoons the president will hang up on his wall because he gets a laugh out of it. The American political tradition of cartoons, not all of it but a lot of it, is more a lampooning, easy style, whereas some of the British stuff is much more take-no-prisoners. There's no way a British politician is going to enjoy looking at those cartoons.

Your comics are quite like documentaries, aren't they?

Documentaries have their own advantages and their own particular power. In comics you can very seamlessly go into the past. In the book you'll see scenes set in the 1950s. But in documentary, any time they switch to getting actors to recreate scenes it always seems fake and they never have a budget for it, so you'll see a documentary about the Crusades and you'll see five knights going across the desert.

With cartoons you are a cinematographer: you can keep hiring extras, costume designers, everything.

When you start a project like Palestine do you know exactly you want to say?

I knew before I got there that I was pretty aghast at the whole concept of occupation - even getting to that point was a long education. I came out of the autobiographical tradition of comics. Some of my comics before that, in a series called Yahoo, were typical American autobiographies.

When I started to go to the Palestinian territories I thought I'd just do comics about my experiences there. Having a journalism degree, I thought I'd talk to people and incorporate that. I had no conception of comics and journalism in that way - it was very organic.

Do you have any hope in the peace process?

I think my hope has dwindled. Why haven't the Americans really put their shoulder into it? American politics and Israeli politics are somehow mixed up in a weird, incestuous way. It's almost like there's no separation between internal US politics and Israeli politics.

When Benjamin Netanyahu calls up US congressmen you think, wait a minute, do you ever hear about Gordon Brown calling up US congressmen to exert pressure? It's an odd thing, an unhealthy relationship.

It seems Netanyahu has decided to play it really hard with Barack Obama. Obama is a smart man who probably means well, but he's also a politician and a compromiser, and I can't say I have a lot of hope that he'll really be the man to put great pressure on the Israelis to move in a positive direction. When push comes to shove, Obama's out for Obama.

Can you change things with a cartoon?

I don't really look at my work in those terms. I know some people have read my work and become very interested - interested enough to go there themselves. But it's all part of a popular front in a way, with different media and different people in their own ways focusing on certain issues, little by little chipping away.

I don't think my work is what pulls some fa├žade down but I think it is part of a whole that is working at something. Whether that'll be successful or not, I can't say. A lot of what you do is because of what you feel you have to do, whether it makes an impact or not, whether it shifts a molecule or a mountain. You have to do it because you are compelled.

Footnotes in Gaza is published by Jonathan Cape Ltd and is available from Bookmarks.