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.


Evolving Thoughts On First-Person Journalism

Here as I put together the first issues of The Cartoon Picayune, I am struggling to establish standards of quality, style, and ethics. One of those things I can't really make up my mind about is the appropriateness of first person. I don't want my anthology to just be a venue for autobiographical comics, but I realize that gonzo-inspired first person journalism like that of Joe Sacco is foremost on a lot of people's mind when comics and journalism are together.

So I was pleased to hear one of my favorite non-fiction authors, Lawrence Weschler, talking about this subject on NPR's On The Media (though not specifically about comics). The whole interview is nice, but I was particularly interested in this portion:

...It seems to me that there is a warrant between the writer and the reader that the writer is doing his best to deliver the reader the world as the writer experienced it, and parenthetically, the more distinctive the voice, the clearer it is to the reader that it is one person’s take on things.

In my class, I insist on an “I” voice. And it doesn’t even have to use the word “I,” but it has to be so distinctive that it is clear to me that it is just one person’s modest take on the world: their best take.

Let’s be clear on my standards. At the top of my standards are fairness, accuracy, creating something that’s true to life — all of that are very high on my standards. I’m just claiming that it’s impossible to go out there as if you’re going to laminate the world, as if you’re going to take a Xerox machine and put it up to the face of reality and deliver it to your readers. That’s ridiculous. Everything, everything is selection, is shading, is trying to figure out what order things should go in and so forth, is imputing significance to a whole series of granular facts and so forth. That happens all the time. And the people who I cherish are people who can tell me stories that illuminate the world for me in an accurate way. And nothing that I have described detracts from that.

Weschler is a fantastic writer and journalist, and he makes me reconsider the rules I set out in the submissions page about the first person. The whole thing about journalists avoiding "I" seems valuable to me because I see it as representing modesty and showing that an attempt has been made towards objectivity. However, I now see the humility in admitting that you, the author, are the responsible party. Still, in comics, the author's subjectivity is inherent in every mark on the page and perhaps more visible than in any other medium. More to think about. Here's another interesting Weschler interview if you're interested.