Journalism by Joe Sacco (2012) 192 p.



I feel instinctively compelled here to say that Sacco is doing “important work,” but the more I reflect on that the less clear it is. Unusual work, certainly, to be rendering warzone journalism in cartoon form. But is that intrinsically more valuable than a traditional feature article in the same magazine or weekend publication in which all these pieces originally ran? Ultimately the cumulative effect Journalism had on me – running the gamut from Yugoslavian torture to Chechen refugee misery to Palestinian besiegement to Indian caste poverty – was identical to the effect that any number of longreads on the same barbaric topics has on me: a sense of resignation, a glazing over of the eyes to the myriad ways in which human beings are determined to inflict pain, humiliation and deprivation on each other.

Documenting all of that is of course important work, at least in theory, and I admired the way Sacco refused to follow what he calls the “American” style of journalism which strives for an impossible impartiality; he always draws himself (literally) into the story, and is well aware of the way in which his very presence as a white outsider with a translator changes the way people are going to react to him, and the answers they’ll give to his questions. This works better in some cases than others. While embedded with a unit of US Marine reservists (who knew the USMC had reservists!) in Iraq in the mid-2000s, he veers quite close to a Ken Burns vision of America as a fundamentally well-meaning force for good, and is unable to interview any actual Iraqis apart from those who have volunteered for the new American-trained army; while examining the African immigrant experience in Malta in 2009, on the other hand – possibly because he’s Maltese-born and speaks the language – he’s able to fairly examine not only the Africans’ stories of genuine persecution and suffering, but also the point of view of the Maltese, who have seen the demographics of their tiny island change dramatically in a very short period of time; the kind of scenario that right-wing pundits in places like Britain or Australia can merely threaten about. Ten years later, with not just Malta but Greece and Italy shouldering an unfairly huge burden of the African and Middle Eastern refugees who arrive in the EU, this piece feels particularly prescient.

I remain unconvinced, however, that Sacco’s comics contribute anything above or beyond traditional journalism. I certainly don’t think they debase the trade, which he makes clear (especially in the afterword to his piece on the ICTY) that a lot of other people do. But they’re mostly interviews with the broken and downtrodden – there are a lot of images of people simply sitting there and talking to him and his translator – and various simplistic illustrations of people in the act of labouring outside their village, or sitting in an overcrowded boat, or being pushed around by soldiers or the police. It becomes repetitive, and begins to feel superfluous. Sacco is without a doubt a good journalist, but I’m not sure his perfectly competent artistic abilities add anything to his career. On the other hand, I’m not sure he’d argue they need to; he’s just a good journalist and a good illustrator, hence the comics. Maybe, unlike the intractable political conflicts he covers, it doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.