There are two Joe Saccos.
The Joe Sacco most see is the artist's self portrait, the caricaturish fellow wandering through and narrating the non-fiction comics "Palestine" and "Safe Area Gorazde." He's a slight man, with hunched shoulders, a paunchy belly, slightly protruding lips and haunted eyes.
If you go to an event where you know Joe Sacco is going to be, do not look for this man: you won't find him. The real Joe Sacco is slim and wiry and very fit. His eyes, far from haunted, communicate intelligence and intensity, and his accent is far more cultured than one would expect from a "New Yawker."
I had the opportunity to meet up with Joe at a lecture he was giving at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, a town in south-central Arkansas. The school was inaugurating the graphic novel section of its library, and Joe was one of the invited guest speakers. His topic: Comics As Journalism.
Howard Price: You started drawing comics at a very early age, and then chose to pursue a degree in journalism when you graduated high school. Were any of the classes you took in college cartooning classes?
Joe Sacco: I took one class in journalism school on cartoons, but it wasn't about drawing them so much as looking at them and appreciating them in some way. We had a couple of exercises where we had to draw some things, but it wasn't a drawing class. I've never taken any art classes after junior high school.
HP: When you graduated, you did some journalism for some trade magazines. Deciding that it wasn't working out for you, you chose then to become a professional cartoonist.
JS: I was working in journalism and not finding much of interest, and, just for my own sake, I was falling back on doing comics, just as I used to do as a hobby--as a means of self-expression. But I had other jobs while I was trying to figure out what to do.
I ended up starting a magazine in Portland, Oregon called "Portland Permanent Press." I had a guy named Tom Richards who was my partner, and it was basically a humor magazine with comics, interviews with comedians... it was kind of an odd mixture of things. We did it for about fifteen issues, and then after that, I didn't want to get a regular job, so I worked at a library and would draw comics on the side, and eventually I built up a career around it.
HP: So "Portland Permanent Press" would be your first professionally published comic work?
JS: Well... yeah, if you can say a self-published thing like this is professional. We scraped together a living out of it for a number of months, but even then we both had to get part-time jobs.
I did some comics when I was in Malta in 1983--romance comics. That was really my first professional comics work. I sort of finished with the idea of trade publications as journalism, and I didn't want to do that at all. I went to Malta and did some comics, I came back to America, and I decided I'd better get serious again, but eventually I drifted back into comics.
HP: You've stated that your style of journalism is not the objective kind of journalism--that you come with certain prejudices that you are very up-front about right away. Should books like "Safe Area Gorazde" be viewed as reporting journalism, or more as editorials with straight facts?
JS: I view them as journalism. All I'm doing is acknowledging the fact that I come in with my own prejudices; that I have an opinion. That doesn't mean that what I'm writing isn't fair, because I think it's very fair. I do try to show what I saw, whether it's good for the image of the side that I feel is wronged or not.
It's the same viewpoint I had with the Palestinians. The whole idea was to do a comic book about the Palestinians. Now right away, you can say that's not objective, because it's about one side. That's what I mean about not being objective: yes, I want to show that one side, because I don't feel that side is being told.
HP: So did you not show the other side because you already felt that it was over-exposed?
JS: I think the Israeli side is pretty well known, understood, and rehashed over and over again.
HP: What about when you were in Bosnia? Were there ever any thoughts of showing the other side of that one, the Serbian side?
JS: I'll do a comic about the Serbians, because I spent time on the Serb side, in Sarajevo. I spent a fair amount of time on the Serb side.
HP: When you decided to start doing the comics and marrying the journalism into that, was there anything in the back of your head that said, "This is crazy. This has never been done before."
JS: No. To me, it comes out of the whole autobiographical strain of comics. It was almost a natural. Just depict yourself in a setting that was autobiographical--that's what I was doing: these were my experiences in the Palestinian territories, and what ends up happening is grafted to that--all the peoples' stories--and that is obviously much more important than my own little trip. But I wasn't really thinking I'd done something new... I knew it was different from other work, but I wasn't coming up with theories about it. It was pretty organic. It's like, I was interested in this, I'm going there, I might as well do comics about it. It wasn't like, "Oh, I should do it this way..." or "The reasons for doing this or that..."
Those things come later when you're giving a lecture, or giving an interview. You start sorting out in your head.
HP: So you were going to these places anyway, and then decided to do the comics.
JS: I wanted to go and see for myself what was going on, but I didn't want to go and just be a voyeur. I thought, "Well, I should do something about this. I should draw something. I'm a cartoonist, let me make some comics about this and at least the experience will be recorded somehow."
HP: Is there a personal connection that keeps drawing you to that region of the world, given your several trips there?
JS: There's a sense I have that there's a lot of injustice in the world, and those were a couple places it's been very apparent. Especially in the Middle East, because American policy is so intricately involved, and I live in America, and I pay taxes here. So if American money is doing something that I don't approve of, then obviously I'm interested--I want to find out more about that.
HP: So there could possibly be trips to South America?
JS: I'm interested in what's going on there, too. Ultimately, it's what you're passionate about, and you can never really know what you can get passionate about. There are some things that go on in the world that I'm very interested in, but they don't pull me in the same way. If they did, I'd be a psychological mess.
HP: Obviously the hot spots today are Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the surrounding countries. Are there any plans to do a book on that, or is that widely enough covered?
JS: That seems widely enough covered that I wouldn't go on my own. If a magazine would have said they'd like to get some visual representation or a look at the refugee camps, I'd be curious to do that because I think there's a humanitarian disaster going on, but the rest of it seems a little... it's so well covered. And so under covered, too, because it's so hard to actually find out what's really going on as far as the front lines and all that.
HP: The comic book reading population is such a small slice of mainstream readers. Has there been any push to get books like "Safe Area Gorazde" more into the public eye?
JS: There has been a push. I'm sure more than half of the books that have been sold have been to people who have never read a comic book in their life, because it's been pretty well reviewed. It's gotten around, and Fantagraphics has done a splendid job pushing "Safe Area Gorazde" into bookstores.
HP: Do you run into other journalists when you're out, and what kind of reactions do they have when they learn you're a cartoonist?
JS: I've had nothing but positive reactions from journalists. Some of my great friends in New York were correspondents in Bosnia. I traveled with a war correspondent to Gaza a few months ago to do illustrations for one of his stories. I know some war correspondents, and we're pals. They admire what I do. I admire what they do, and they're also a little envious of the fact that I can spend so much time doing my stories.
HP: You said you have plans for a book about events that occurred in Serbia. Is that the next book, or do you have something else in line first?
JS: No, I've got something else I'm doing. It's about Sarajevo at the beginning of the war, and the paramilitary gangs that were basically defending Sarajevo before there was an army to do it. These gangs got out of hand. It took about a year and a half for them to really reach their maximum potential of strangeness, and then the government had to crush them. The government had needed them, and then the government had to crush them.