Book review: JOURNALISM by Joe Sacco

Many black Africans travel across the Mediterranean Sea, attempting to get to Europe, but end up in the tiny island nation of Malta.

Cartoonist/war correspondent Joe Sacco’s new book, JOURNALISM (Metropolitan Books; on sale June 22, 2012) is doing an interesting thing, addressing wars and other conflicts in recent human experience in a graphic form, while attempting to operate in the discipline suggested by the book title. Moreover, he generally succeeds in his mission, though it must be said that the writer himself may be his harshest critic.

Most, but not all, of the work had been published before, in a variety of venues. “The War Crimes Trials,” for instance, was commissioned by Details “during the short stint when Art Spiegelman [creator of the historic graphic novel Maus] was the magazine’s comic editor. Sacco’s access was limited by Detail’s reputation for “glossy photos of spoiled young men and saucily clad women,” so that the last page was compromised. I thought it nevertheless worked well.

There were three pieces in The Palestinian Territories chapter, including getting to “look inside” Hebron, seeing both sides of the struggle between the residents and the Israeli neighbors. The Caucasus section is dominated by a 40-page explanation of “Chechen War, Chechen Women,” which explains the history of the conflict and literally illustrates the fate of the victims of war.

In the Iraq section, Sacco complains that his “Complacency Kills” piece could have reflected any war; to me, that was a strength, the universality of conflict. “Down! Up!” may remind you of the gym teachers or coaches you hated most.

The India section addressed Kunsinagar, a section in northern India in the Uttar Pradesh province where the notion of “untouchables” has been abolished legally but not actually, corruption runs rampant, and a certain sense of hopelessness rules.

The best-realized section, though, has to be the Migration tale, “The Unwanted.” Many black Africans travel across the Mediterranean Sea, attempting to get to Europe, but end up in the tiny island nation of Malta. Almost everything you’ve heard in the debate in the United States over illegal immigration shows up here: mutual distrust of the natives and the newcomers and neo-Nazi resistance to the Africans, who also fight among each other. This piece works so well, I suspect because Sacco is Maltese and still knows a bit of the language, though his family had emigrated to Australia a number of years ago.

In some ways, though, the most interesting part of the book is the Preface, “A Manifesto, Anyone?” Critics, Sacco notes, “question the notion that drawings can aspire to objective truth? Isn’t that — objective truth — what journalism is all about? Aren’t drawings by their very nature subjective?” While the answer to “this last question is yes…this does not let the cartoonist who aspires to journalism off the hook. The journalist’s standard obligations—to report accurately, to get quotes right, and to check claims—still pertain. But a comics journalist has obligations that go deeper than that.” Fascinating stuff.

“Another trap promoted in American journalism schools is the slavish adherence to ‘balance.’ But if one side says one thing and the other side says another, does the truth necessarily reside ‘somewhere in the middle’? A journalist who says, ‘Well, I pissed off both sides—I must be doing something right,’ is probably fooling himself and, worse, he may be fooling the reader.” I have frequently heard this very observation from some newspeople and it pains me greatly. It’s like saying that some claim that six million died in the Holocaust, while others deny it happened at all, so we’ll compromise and decide that three million died. This obviously pleases no one.

“Balance should not be a smokescreen for laziness. If there are two or more versions of events, a journalist needs to explore and consider each claim, but ultimately the journalist must get to the bottom of a contested account independently of those making their claims.”

I highly recommend this book. According to the press release, “Sacco received the Eisner Award for Safe Area Gorazde, which was also named a New York Times Notable Book and Time Magazine’s best comic book of 2000; his most recent book, Footsteps in Gaza, won the Eisner award in 2010 and was also the first graphic novel to win the Ridenhour Book Prize.”

[I received a review copy of JOURNALISM, but no other compensation.]

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