May 24, 2007

Joe Sacco: Comics as storytelling’s new medium

For the past few years I’ve been attracted to new high-tech media and their power in storytelling, but last week my eyes were opened to the potential of the old-fashioned medium of comics.

Joe Sacco, a comics journalist, spoke at the University of Oregon last Friday afternoon to a group of comparative literature students. The class has spent the term considering how different forms of media have unique effects on our collective understanding of the content. They’ve looked specifically at work related to genocide, including such media as prose, poetry, films and finally comics.

The students read Sacco’s most popular work published in 2000 called Safe area Gorazade: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, a 240-page examination of a small Muslim village in war-torn Serbia. It’s unlike anything I have seen. It looks like a graphic novel, but it’s all based on facts and is a first-person account that tells the untold story of Bosnia in a way we’ve never experienced it.

When Sacco first developed his unique hybrid of eye-witness journalism and comics, he wasn’t sure that anyone would take him seriously. He hadn’t learned anything like this as a journalism undergraduate at the University of Oregon. A few years after he graduated, Sacco realized he knew nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I decided to educate myself and it just came to a point where I thought, if I don’t go and see for myself, I’ll kick myself for the rest of my life,” Sacco said. So he got a travel visa and went on a trip through the Middle East. Sacco had always drawn cartoons, and while if felt silly to draw them of what he saw on his trip, he just decided to go with it.

When he was abroad researching, he steered clear of other journalists and had a hard time explaining to his sources what he was planning to do with the material he was gathering. But after publishing his first major work, Palestine, in 1993, Sacco could show the book to his subjects and he found that the images were immediately understandable in a way that a book in straight prose isn’t.

Cartoons, like photographs, are universally readable. But there’s a big difference between the two forms, Sacco pointed out.

“Photographers hit the viewer with all the relevant information at once, which is powerful, but not necessarily complete or true. As a cartoonist, I’m trying to create an atmosphere through multiple images,” he said.

It’s closer to narrative nonfiction prose than anything else I’ve seen. But I have to admit comics journalism has something that even literary nonfiction doesn’t have.

Sacco pointed out, “A prose writer will describe the setting once, and the reader may forget. But as a cartoonist you get to bring the setting in again and again by drawing it in each scene. The background is always there.”

So the reader is immersed in the setting constantly reminded of how the place looks. That’s powerful.

Another intense aspect of Sacco’s work is that he includes images from his fieldwork that almost no mass media outlet would publish. Sacco’s sketches of dead, decaying bodies in Safe area Gorazade are shockingly detailed.

Explaining, Sacco said, “I decided I would depict things you don’t normally see. I’m using comics to portray violence realistically. I want to confront the reader with real violence as opposed to movie violence.”

To the room, Sacco asked, “You can tell me if it’s effective or not …”

As we looked over the images of skeletons with sunken frozen faces, we sighed almost collectively in resounding affirmation.

And one student spoke for all of us, saying, “We watch a lot of movies and see a lot of this stuff and it’s not that often that we cry a little when we see it, but with this I did.”

Now that’s powerful journalism.

For more information on Joe Sacco click here

1 comment:

Mark Brown said...

Safe area is a most spectacular work of art and journalism.

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