PORTLAND-BASED ARTIST Joe Sacco continues to push the boundaries of journalism and comics in his latest book illustrating personal stories of war, Footnotes in Gaza. Sacco spent eight years researching and drawing his newest work, which weaves together stories about violence in Gaza circa 1956 with Sacco's current-day adventures trying to track down the nearly forgotten history.
MERCURY: For this book, you hung out with people the US and Israel consider terrorists. Was there ever a time when you felt in danger and that trying to interview them was a bad idea?
JOE SACCO: The word "terrorist" is so easily thrown around that I kind of dismiss it. I mean, I think people commit terrorist acts and there are people who are terrorists, but that word is used as a broad brushstroke to paint whole resistance movements and I think that's invalid. And I have no problem saying that's invalid. I mean, if someone committed a terrorist act, they committed a terrorist act, which I define as attacking civilians for political reasons. By that definition a lot of things could be considered terrorism. But yeah, I'm interested in why people struggle, I'm interested in what their lives are like when they struggle.
I was wondering if you strove to be more accurate in this book because the literature about both sides is so heavily made up of propaganda. Even with this book, some people describe it as anti-Israel.
I knew, when you're approaching this particular topic, it doesn't matter how accurate you are. That doesn't matter to some people. What matters is that this could be used against them in some way. And that's not my intention. My intention is in bringing something to life—history that seems to be rather important—and I don't consider this to be an anti-Israel book. It's certainly about certain actions that were committed by Israeli forces, but, as far as I'm concerned, that's a matter of record and it's history.
Your guide, Abed, rants against the US. So why did he agree to help you?
I think it helped that I'd done the book Palestine. That was kind of an entry to a lot of people. They'd seen that I'd done something serious about their situation and they were willing to help. Abed often would show the book to people I was interviewing so they could sort of get an idea of what I was doing. And because it was drawings, they could see images that they were very familiar with and it sort of made sense to them in that way. I always thought if I handed someone a book in prose I'd written about their situation, if they didn't read English it wouldn't have meant anything to them.
They could see the pictures you'd drawn of refugee camps and say, "Oh, that's like me!"
Yeah, they got the idea of what I was trying to do. And then they knew why I was asking a lot of visual sort of questions. You know, "Can you tell me, how were you running down the street? With your arms up?" I mean, if it's an emotional moment, of course you're not going to stop them to ask, "And what were you wearing?" But you might try to get that in. As an artist I'm trying to get as much visual information as possible, but there are many places where I'm not getting precisely, you know, were they wearing a shoe or a sandal. You look at yourself as sort of a film director trying to recapture some historical moment. You're not going to have every horse in place at the Battle of Waterloo.
Seeing these people in these terrible situations and then being able to go home to your nice life in America, I was wondering if you felt obligated to write about their lives out of some guilt.
Obligation sounds maybe too dutiful. It's almost like a compulsion to tell some of these stories. And yes, I do have a very clear sense in my head about how nice and easy my life is and the things I enjoy. The main thing that sort of strikes you is that some people, they're really just innocents in a situation they didn't choose and they can't really change it. I mean, the people in Gaza today, they can't get out. They have very limited opportunities, they have no way of making money. So you realize that's the world we live in, where there are people like me who can sit in their comfortable home and draw these things and people who actually have to live it.
This is a different track, but I'm wondering why you decided to live in Portland. You went to high school here, but why stay?
Well, I didn't stay. I've actually moved away a number of times. I lived in New York, I lived in Europe a couple of times, I lived back in LA. I've moved around quite a lot. But I came back about six years ago or maybe seven years ago to finish this book. Because I was living in Europe at the time and I was thinking, "What's the next city I want to live in?" I just needed to be in a place where I know I can work and I will have as many distractions as I want, not too few necessarily—it's not like New York where you're just distracted endlessly. Portland's a place where you can hear yourself think.
I thought it was refreshing in this book that you talk about trying to figure out who's telling the truth in your reporting. You made the holes in the narrative part of your story.
You do evaluate people's stories, you do decide what's exaggerated. And sometimes it's a matter of gut instinct. I think, like any journalist, you look for what are the common parts of the story, but I think it's important to show that history is imperfect. Oral testimony is imperfect and also, I think, relying on documents is imperfect. Not all documents exist, a lot of things were never written down, and I think states have a way of keeping documents from the public. The idea of gathering the story is as important as the story itself.