The first thing that comes to mind when holding graphic novelist and journalist Joe Sacco’s new book, “Footnotes in Gaza,” is the colossal amount of work that went into it. Not only is this pen-and-ink graphic novel almost 400 pages long, the subject too is heavy: The Israeli military’s massacre of Palestinian civilians in Khan Younis and Rafah (Gaza), during the 1956 Suez Crisis. The Malta-born American researched and reported on the subject for seven years, making two extended trips to Gaza – where he was often under fire from weapons paid for with his tax dollars.
Sacco, who has written and illustrated six graphic novels, is best known for his “Palestine,” penned after spending two months in the Occupied Territories in 1991 and 1992. It was not an immediate success, selling poorly when it first appeared as a comic series. After the publication of Sacco’s subsequent graphic novel – “Safe Area Gorazde,” which follows the war in Eastern Bosnia from 1992-95 – the “Palestine” series was compiled into book form in 2002. It went on to attain tremendous success, winning the American Book Award in 1996 and selling 60,000 copies in the US alone.
Edward Said, who wrote the introduction to the complete edition of “Palestine” said: “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco.”
“It was a surprise to me,” Sacco said in a telephone interview from his home in Portland, Oregon. “If you want to explain its success, I think it’s perhaps because it was addressing the occupation on a human level … Slowly there’s been a shift in the American perception of what’s going on in the Middle East but it’s been very slow and probably it hasn’t come as far as it needs to. But comic books are an easy entrée into this kind of thing.”
It was because he felt frustrated by the lack of objective reporting on the Middle East that Sacco decided to go see for himself in 1991. With a degree in journalism and already established as a cartoonist, Sacco felt his instincts as a reporter kick in once on location. Perhaps this experience cemented his unique blend of punctilious reporting and personal narrative.
Sacco has said he’s inspired by George Orwell’s “The Road to Wigan Pier” and Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” because of their remarkable ability to give the reader a sense of place.
The inspiration for “Footnotes in Gaza” came after Sacco accompanied journalist Chris Hedges to Gaza in 2001, both of them writing and drawing for “Harper’s” magazine. He had remembered a brief reference in a Noam Chomsky book to killings in Khan Younis in 1956 and suggested that Hedges follow-up.
Hedges’ reference to Khan Younis was cut out of the final “Harper’s” story, which galvanized Sacco. “Footnotes in Gaza,” he said, isn’t about the big picture but more about forgotten events left out of a larger story.
“No one has written about these incidents in English. Or when they do, they all quote the same UN document from 1956. I also wanted to show the context behind the situation.”
Part of Sacco’s genius lies in how his documentation of the smaller, human-scale events constantly brings us back to the bigger picture.
The layout of “Footnotes in Gaza” is reminiscent of Mike Figgis’ film “Timecode,” in which the screen is divided into quarters and the four shots are shown simultaneously.
Sacco’s drawings are tighter and more sophisticated than in “Palestine.” As references, he used his own photographs of refugee camps and pictures from UNRWA archives in Gaza City from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He then drew each panel by hand, including all the crosshatching.
As usual in Sacco’s books, we follow the author, a bag slung over his shoulder, eyes hidden behind his round glasses, in his painstaking search for information. Abed, Sacco’s guide and friend, is a solid and reassuring presence who becomes as involved in the research as Sacco. The past and present are juxtaposed in panels as Sacco records how he goes after the story, tracking down witnesses and survivors of the 1956 massacres, then recording their accounts.
Life in Gaza is far from calm. Sacco observes demolitions of homes, Caterpillars collapsing tunnels. He brings mortar fire, checkpoints and suicide bombers to the story. Throughout, the gaunt, red-eyed Khaled, a fighter on the run from the Israelis, pops in and out of Sacco’s life, desperate for a few hours of sleep.
“This is one of the first cases when I stuck to the story,” he remarked. “As I weave in the present with the past it’s to show that this is ongoing.”
It all seems a lot to absorb, but Sacco digests the information to make it palatable, spicing with comic relief where necessary, interjecting his own frustration with his rambling witnesses and cynical Western journalists, often poking fun at himself. One witness, a former fedai (resistance fighter) runs him ragged with interminable accounts about his life between 1948 and 1967. “That old fedayee, he’s a piece of work,” Sacco writes. “He’s marinated in ruminations of political betrayals and stewed for decades in remembrances of military ineptitudes. He loses track of the catastrophe at hand, ’56, which he abandons in mid-sentence to tug at some other dagger in his heart …”
Sacco the historian doggedly sifts through this information, holding onto the reliable and verifiable, never losing sight of the fact that memory can be problematic. On one page he has six witnesses recounting slightly different versions of the same event in Rafah.
“I felt it would be awful if this sort of history got lost,” he said.
In fact, many of the people Sacco interviewed between 2002 and 2003 have since died. He says a printing error omitted 40-odd pages of appendices from the end of the book – including a bibliography, documents and additional interviews, most with Israeli military personnel.
The Joe Sacco in “Footsteps in Gaza” is not the same as the green and “bumbling” Sacco who went to Palestine in 1991. He’s now seasoned and purposeful and the book is more sombre.
“What was disheartening was that there was a new plateau of violence that had increased several notches,” he recalled. “The weaponry that was being used, the number of people being killed. And suicide bombers didn’t exist the first time I was in Palestine. The situation is at as low a point as it can be. The Palestinian population is cut in two between the West Bank and Gaza. There’s a Palestinian leadership that doesn’t seem to stick up for the people. The building of settlements continues … The wall has become a de facto border. I don’t know how anything can be reversed without Israel imploding … It’s laughable that Americans call themselves honest brokers.”
Writing “Footnotes in Gaza” was such an exhausting experience that Sacco feels he needs a break from covering conflict. A break means launching into a no-less exhausting subject: migration and climate change, “the story of the century,” as he sees it.
Sacco’s book will follow African migrants moving through Malta in the hopes of getting to Europe. He plans to travel to India early next year to do a reportage/comic on rural poverty for a French magazine.
Sacco still seems surprised that what he does is now commercially viable. “It’s very funny,” he said. “I’ve gone from ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ to, now, it’s one of the only growing parts of the publishing industry.”