Arts: Comic strips go to war

Travelling to the world's war zones, Joe Sacco has invented his own job as a comic-strip foreign correspondent. He's already done Palestine and Bosnia. And Kosovo's next. By Nick Hasted
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The Independent Culture
Joe Sacco was trying to get to Kosovo when the war started. He wanted to walk with the UN observers, to enter the Serb side and see things for himself. He'd been to such places before. The last decade had seen him hone a unique skill as a comic-strip foreign correspondent in parts of the world that to many in the West seemed unknowable, their inhabitants faceless. With few resources or credentials, he has spent months living alongside Palestinians, then Bosnians, soaking up their stories. The award- winning, incendiary, 300-page comic-book Palestine was the first result. Now, he's finishing his Bosnian labours - a book on one-time besieged East Bosnian "safe zone" Gorazde, and five separate Stories from Bosnia. He's determined he'll get to Kosovo, next. He doesn't have a choice.

"I've always been one of those people who is upset by what is going on in the world," says Sacco, a far more ordinary-looking 39-year-old than the blank-eyed, rubber-lipped grotesque his comics show. "I remember waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, `I've got to go to Bosnia'. Knowing that if I didn't at that point, I'd despise myself. It's like lighting a fire under my ass. When I left, I was still feeling exhausted from Palestine. In some ways I felt like I should give myself a break, but on the other hand, I need to get there now. It's happening now."

Sacco's first exposure to the atrocities of war came from the World War Two memories of his Maltese parents. His subsequent rootless existence, migrating across the world, from Australia to his current home in Portland, Oregon, added to a questing perspective. He went to Palestine in the winter of 1991.

The resulting comic was the first since Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning Holocaust memoir Maus to successfully show the medium's potential for reportage of a sort impossible in other forms. Sacco's Palestine was a place of faces of desperate openness, blank exhaustion or wide-eyed rage, staring out at him panel after panel. He drew the Gaza Strip as a sinking shanty town, a vast panorama of close-packed humanity shuffling through mud, living in wall-less, rootless poverty, under pressing storm clouds. It restored humanity to a population previously seen only in TV flashes.

"If you're going to write about something, you should be at the centre of it," Sacco says. "Most people in America are not too interested in foreign events, it's all too complicated for them. I felt that if I presented Palestinians as human beings, with faces, in their living rooms serving you tea, they could relate to them. You can do that with a comic, you can take someone inside, take them into their homes. There are other advantages, too. Because I wasn't going in with a camera, people didn't act up, or shy away. In Sarajevo, people were so sick of talking to journalists that when they found out I was a cartoonist they welcomed me in even more. The disadvantage is it takes so many years to get the thing drawn."

Sacco's writing is distinguished by a sniping, self-lacerating wit, undercutting perspectives more bluntly partisan than most journalists would dare. He went to Palestine supporting the Intifada. He went to Bosnia "demonising" Serbs. But one of the riveting aspects of his work is the way such perspectives are buffeted by experience.

Sacco's time in Bosnia saw his gung-ho wish for the country to win its war muted by the wish of Bosnians to simply be rid of its drab grind. When he found himself face to face with Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, the hate he wanted wouldn't come. Though the only story from Bosnia published so far, Soba, puts the face of a Bosnian - the eponymous artist-soldier - to the conflict, its peculiar moments for Sacco came when he reluctantly crossed the line in Sarajevo, and spoke to the demon Serbs.

"It was a real test to go, which I'd been avoiding," he remembers. "I could be with Serbs on the Serb side, and cross a bridge and half an hour later I was drinking with my friends. It was distressing at first. Then I realised I wanted to push myself in that extreme way as much as I could, bouncing between them in half an hour, to see how that would affect me. You almost forget where you are, because the faces sometimes look so similar that you have to catch yourself, watch what you're saying."

Sitting down night after night with Palestinian and Bosnian friends, sinking so deeply into one side of a conflict, Sacco's work could be seen as propaganda for their struggles, more than journalism. It doesn't bother him.

"To me the way to be honest, if you have a point of view, which I definitely had about Palestine, was to show the Palestinians as honestly as possible. You don't want to hear a Palestinian speaking badly about `the Jews' because you're not used to it, but also you think, this isn't going to look good if I portray it. But I have to portray it, because it's what I heard."

The greatest fail-safe in Sacco's work is his honesty about himself. An early strip, War Junkie defined his ability to articulate his convictions by self-satire. Combining his response to the Gulf War with the simultaneous collapse of a long-term relationship, it shows the couch-bound Sacco sighing "Honey, I'm home!" to CNN even as his "real" life crumbles.

Hapless, pathological, emotionally extreme, this version of Sacco has become muted as his involvement in events became more direct. But he still talks up the illicit, gonzo thrills of stalking Karadzic, the reprehensibility of notching up one more atrocity, knowing it'll be "good for the comic".

"You shouldn't empty yourself out, you shouldn't fill yourself up with politics," he cautions. "I think that's dangerous. I'm glad you brought War Junkie up. It's my favourite comic, in some ways. It's maybe a subconscious way of saying I am a person with a life, outside of all this political stuff. It doesn't appear in Palestine or the work I'm doing on Bosnia because I've already told that. I never need to write about myself in that way again."

For now, as the bodies pile up in Kosovo, Sacco is cutting himself off from involvement, turning to the daily labour of finishing his book on the siege of Gorazde. This latest turn has not outdated his story. He's dealing with the slaughter there led by the Serb paramilitary leader Arkan, the dumping of thousands of corpses, even as the UN is targeting him as a war criminal.

He's describing starvation, finding depressing resonances every day between his old notes and the nightly news. All he wants to do now is finish his story, repay the trust his informants put in him. "These are ongoing problems," he says, "and I want to get this information out as soon as I can. It's making me more determined to work on it. There's nothing more I can do."

`Palestine' (Fantagraphics) and `Soba' (Drawn & Quarterly) are available from comic shops. `Gorazde' will be published early next year.