January 2010

Martyn Pedler


Worse Then, Worse Now: Footnotes in Gaza

Joe Sacco’s Palestine has been considered a bona fide classic for long enough that the hand-to-brow media confusion over his work seems to have died down: “You mean it’s political non-fiction… and it’s a comic book? Outrageous!” Sacco must’ve felt it, too. When interviewing subjects for Palestine, he didn’t admit it was for a comic book. He was still "sheepish and unsure" about the whole idea. Now -- having won an armful of awards for other books in the meantime -- he wades back into Palestine with the hefty new Footnotes In Gaza. The opening pages show him surrounded by the news-chatter of other journalists, all looking for stories. “Bombings! Assassinations! Incursions! They could file last month’s story today -- or last year’s, for that matter -- and who’d know the difference?”

Maybe this is what prompted him to focus on two specific incidents, mostly ignored in official records. First a “large-scale killing of civilians” in Khan Younis in November 1956, and then more killings, around the same time, in the neighboring town of Rafah. The book is comprised of Sacco’s attempts to find eyewitnesses to these events in some of the worst areas of the Gaza Strip, and to turn their stories into coherent accounts of what happened. (Sometimes with, like, maps and everything.) He’s questioned more than once on his interest in this ancient history. A kid who sells Sacco honey-drenched pastries says: “Forget the past. What about now?” Sacco replies that “50 years from now, they’ll forget about you too.”

The dour cover of Palestine’s collected edition and the critical praise heaped upon it had made me forget that it’s actually… well, not funny, exactly, but possessing a definite gonzo quality. It’s live-wired, irreverent, and occasionally hysterical. (To give you an example, the twenty-fifth word of the first issue is “CRAZEEE!”) And when Palestine begins, the art looks inspired by the exaggerated indie-comics school of Peter Bagge and Robert Crumb. In an interview for The Guardian, Sacco says those early issues of Palestine prove he couldn’t draw at all. That’s not true, of course, but his style has definitely changed. In Footnotes, it shifts into something different: more detailed, more somber. It’s especially visible in the faces. No matter how many talking heads history requires, they never once turn into generic men with identikit beards or women with interchangeably sad eyes. What’s charming is that while Sacco’s style has changed, he’s kept his own self-caricature almost the same. He doesn’t lavish the same attention on his own face as all the others, and you still never see his eyes. There’s something humble about it.

Sacco himself -- as a protagonist -- sits much lower in the mix in Footnotes. He summarizes less and lets others tell their own stories in their own words more. That makes it sound like his earlier work fell into the all-too-familiar sinkhole of storytellers who put themselves before their subjects. These books could so easily have been The Joe Sacco Show Starring Joe Sacco, but they’re not -- mostly because he’s so brutally honest about his own emotions. He’s no heroic comic book journalist, no Clark Kent or Peter Parker. In Palestine, his emotional honesty approaches self-loathing. “A comic needs some bangbang,” he says, hoping to see some violence in Gaza, or he gets glib as his sympathy is overwhelmed: "Yep, another Palestine room [...] in other words, let the tales of woe begin!" Sacco’s still frank in Footnotes, but his motivation has mutated into something more fitting for a mild-mannered reporter. He demands a taste of witnesses’ stories before he’ll enter their homes, because he can’t bear it when “someone puts the kettle on and we’re trapped for another half hour…”

Sympathy fatigue is one thing, but he makes another kind of journalistic confession, too, and it’s fairly shocking when he does. (Especially if you skipped Sacco’s introduction -- and no one reads introductions since Robin Williams told us not to in Dead Poet’s Society, right? Seriously, you don’t want to get on Williams’s bad side. He’s crazy.) Sacco writes: “You have just finished reading a string of personal recollections that tell the story of the widespread killings of Palestinian men by Israeli soldiers in Khan Younis on November 3, 1956. Based on the testimony, the men were shot in their homes or lined up and shot in the streets and against walls. Now allow me to kick at the pillars upon which our story stands.” Kicking the pillars involves highlighting the inconsistencies of individual stories. At first he wonders if it’s his place to question them, but later, he doesn’t think twice about dismissing one heartfelt story while deciding another holds water.

That’s what a historian does, right? Especially when so many of the people living in Gaza “overflow with history [he] cannot use.” Combine the play of memory and subject matter and you can’t help but be reminded of the recent Israeli movie Waltz With Bashir. It follows Ari Folman, the film’s director, as he tries to remember what role he’d played in the first Lebanon War of the early '80s -- and how he could have forgotten it. Folman has said he was inspired by Sacco’s work; in the same interview, he also says that he considers his film more of a “moving graphic novel” than a traditional animated movie. As if to test his theory, an actual graphic novel of Waltz With Bashir was created out of still images snap-frozen from the movie. Bashir’s bright, hyperreal visuals aren’t just about style -- they’re in service of a shattering final scene. (One that I’m about to give away, so skip to the next paragraph if you like.) Folman’s animation is suddenly replaced by grainy video footage of the massacre’s aftermath. All the questions of slippery, subjective memory are gone in a gut-punch.

The real Sacco, outside of Footnotes In Gaza, takes plenty of reference pictures, I’m sure. Inside the story, he’s more hesitant. He’s in Gaza when Rachel Corrie, an American, is killed by a bulldozer while defending a Palestinian home. (After sifting through these forgotten tragedies for hours, this moment’s contrast slapped me hard -- because it was actual, worldwide, unfootnoted, newsworthy news. I remember it.) “She is about to enter the realm of iconography,” he says, watching photographers snapping away at Corrie’s body in the hospital. There’s a dignity in the distance of his art that he doesn’t trust photography to provide. When the book finally recreates the murders in Khan Younis and Rafah -- something you know is coming from the very first page, and Sacco putting off revealing again and again -- it doesn’t feel the least bit exploitative.

And at the same time, this style of comic book journalism that once seemed so freakishly odd gives him complete control over his subjects -- down to inserting a single, silent frame to show the halting pause between the two halves someone’s impossibly painful story. In fact, Footnotes In Gaza might be entirely incomprehensible in any other form. Sacco’s own narration intersects with spoken dialogue before flying off on another tangent, and those narration boxes are off-kilter on the page, too. Panels tumble into each other, just like facts and figures of the stories he’s told. He draws some gorgeous time-lapse splash pages showing the same location, then and now, clearly marked -- but for the most part we’re swimming in time, back and forth, carried instantly between by dozens of different voices.

“The tower of memories has collapsed,” he says while trying to get more details of ’56 out of one old woman. “She gropes around to offer us a piece of her rubble.” Sacco, in turn, offers it to us. All this discussion of journalistic bias and untrustworthy memories, though, lets the book have its own version of Waltz With Bashir’s smash-cut to reality. Sacco’s pillar-kicking is like Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope. He first gets us used to the grey zone of conflicting eyewitness accounts; then he dedicates an entire page to these voices agreeing on one particular, awful detail like being beaten senseless with sticks by solders. This chorus carries more weight than any simple fact ever could. Memory might matter, but the bodies matters more. After hearing one man’s story, he announces: “But all this should let us forget the essential truth: Khamis’s three brothers were shot by Israeli soldiers on November 3, 1956.”

I couldn’t read Footnotes In Gaza in one sitting. I kept picking it up, putting it down, reading it in fits and starts. Sacco still uses short, subheaded sections, but when one of those subheadings is titled WORSE THEN, WORSE NOW, you get some idea of the emotional smackdown in store. (Not since Graham Greene’s The End Of The Affair have I been so reluctant to finish a book that I thought was amazing, just because it hurt so goddamn much.) Underneath Sacco’s self-doubts about his journalistic ethics and integrity, he comes across at deeply sympathetic in these books: to the Gaza refugees in the rubble of their homes, to the dead American soldiers paraded on TV, to two young Israeli women he describes back in Palestine who are sympathetic, too, to everyone in Gaza but say they’re exhausted. "We just want to live our lives, okay?"

After nearly 400 pages, Sacco guesses you might feel the same way. “The historian could keep on digging, but he’s tired now,” he says, “he wants to get on with his own life, and he knows the reader does, too.” He has the energy left for one last gambit: an ending that, like Waltz With Bashir, deliberately shifts style. Dates, names, and voices fade away in these final pages. After all he’s drawn and all you’ve read about these tragedies, then and now, Footnotes In Gaza leaves you with this feeling: You don’t know. You can’t know.

Martyn Pedler is a writer and critic in Melbourne, Australia. He's in the middle of a Ph.D. on superhero stories and, after reading this book, doesn’t really have a quirky bio-line in him. Find him at www.martynpedler.com