The Cartoon Picayune

Joe Sacco on Comics Journalism

Last week, the visiting artist at the Center for Cartoon Studies was none other than Joe Sacco, the most prominent comics journalist working today. His visit was very significant for me personally, but I’ll leave my thoughts on that for a post on my personal blog later this week. I’ll refrain from talking too much about the art here, but I may talk about that in the other post. I couldn’t resist snapping into a more journalistic mode here.

While Joe Sacco may not be the first cartoonist to use comics for non-fiction storytelling, his unique blend of first-person reportage from war-torn regions has convinced many that journalism and comics are a natural combination.

Sacco spoke at length about his belief in the difference between seeking out the literal truth versus what he calls “the essential truth.” “Journalism is never an ideal situation,” says Sacco. He describes there being a tension in his work between the accuracy of the quotes and the interpretation of the drawings. “Drawing is interpretative and I am a filter, ” he says. He values being able to talk to people on the street as a humble cartoonist, but is no longer afraid to interview a former general or a high-ranking politician.

He also thinks that comics can reinforce a sense of place better than other mediums. By showing the mud in every panel, Sacco is visually reminding the reader that the place is muddy, which is something that would be gratuitous to say again and again in prose.

Sacco spends months living in places like Palestine and Bosnia, reporting as a journalist. When he returns home to Portland, Oregon, he transcribes his interviews, of which 75-80% are taped. He carefully organizes all his journal entries, photos, and interview notes. Sacco indexes every fact by date and by subject. He then writes a full script with no visual directions or page breakdowns, just narration and quotes.

When the full script is completed, Sacco will begin drawing pages as they come in the script, spontaneously laying out and designing them as he gets to them. This process keeps the work fresh for him years after he has reported it.

Also essential to the process are his journals, which he writes in for up to an hour and a half each night while traveling, and which later provide him the context necessary for writing the story. Sacco was in Bosnia for four months in the mid-90s and wrote nearly 400 pages of journal entries. He says he can only rely on his visual memory of a place for a year or two and that the journals help him remember.

Sacco does not thumbnail, nor does he really work in a sketchbook. He received laughs after saying he only draws if he’s going to get paid. “Everything I commit to the page is something I want to be printed,” he said. This is, in part, because his last book, Footnotes in Gaza, took him seven years to complete. Also, he says he wasn’t financially stable until 2000 when his book Safe Area Goražde was released.

“The way you wanna live in your late twenties isn’t the way you wanna live in your late thirties,” Sacco says. “I can remember a time when I was just eating potatoes and onions.”

Sacco demonstrated techniques at a tool demo on Wednesday, talked one on one in a Q+A with James Sturm Thursday morning, and gave a slideshow presentation Thursday evening that was hosted by Dartmouth College.

Sacco is currently reporting for a new project, which will incorporate journalism and fiction in comics, as well as for a book with prose journalist Chris Hedges. “I don’t wanna do another book about massacres,” says Sacco.