The Cartooning Crusader

by Hasan Altaf

9780805094862The title of Joe Sacco's Journalism (Metropolitan Books, 2012) ostensibly refers simply to the book's contents, the collection of the author's shorter reported pieces. Filed from the Hague, from Chechnya and Palestine, from Iraq, they have been published over the past few years in various magazines and newspapers, including Details, Harper's and the Times Magazine. It hints, though, at larger ambitions: Journalism is about not just the individual pieces, but also about journalism itself, as a practice and an art, a profession and maybe even a calling.

As one of the foremost practitioners of comics journalism, especially focused on conflict (he is most famous for his reporting from Bosnia and from Palestine), Sacco has the unique perspective of one who has had to face down the entrenched traditions and prejudices of his profession. In this volume's “introductory fusillade,” a self-described manifesto, he takes on some of the myths and sacred cows of the field. In particular, he addresses the challenge of objectivity, writing that “…there is nothing literal about a drawing. A cartoonist assembles elements deliberately and places them with intent on a page.” The cartoonist, that is, chooses everything, is responsible for everything; if the reporting involves a “river,” a writer can simply say “river” and a photographer can simply take a picture, but the cartoonist must choose precisely how he or she wants to depict that river.

In all forms of journalism, of course, objective reality is subjectively interpreted: Photographers choose what to shoot and how to shoot it; writers can flip an entire story on its head by shading their adjectives. It's easy to forget this, though; it's easier to read a reported piece as objective truth than to try to remain aware of all the assumptions behind that objectivity. As Sacco says, “journalists are not flies on the wall”: The presence of a journalist changes the story automatically, and the particular character and background and attitudes of that reporter change it further. Comics journalism of this kind – it's self-conscious, deliberately; Sacco usually draws himself within his stories, interacting with his sources or as another actor in the scene – serves to highlight that fact, making it clear just how much the reporter is in charge of our understanding.

Reading Journalism, my impulse was to go back and reread some of the reporting I've most admired over the past few years, to see if I could tease out the role of those journalists in their narratives. Luke Mogelson's recent pieces from Afghanistan, for the Times Magazine and GQ, reflect this honesty. Another example would be, strangely enough, Joan Didion; she describes herself in the introduction of Slouching Towards Bethlehem as “temperamentally unobtrusive” and “almost neurotically inarticulate,” but in all her essays (in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in Salvador and Miami) it's clear that this is the story as Joan Didion saw it, as Joan Didion understood it, as Joan Didion's presence in some minor way shaped it. Alma Guillermoprieto, too, displays this understanding in her writing – for example, in her reporting from Mexico and from Cuba. What Sacco has done, in all his work and now explicitly, is to bring it to the forefront, to acknowledge this responsibility.

The other great strength of this work is, for lack of a better word, its purpose. No one could argue with Sacco's fairness, the care and seriousness he brings to his reporting, but there is a level of sympathy and involvement here that I wish were more common in journalism. Which is not to say that journalists should be advocates, arguing for a particular policy or a particular viewpoint or a particular plan of action, but only that the world itself is not neutral and that journalism is not neutral. Seeing is a loaded act, reporting is a loaded act, telling the story is a loaded act. The dread specter of advocacy and behalfism does not loom here, but journalists do have a greater responsibility to those who, as Sacco puts it, “seldom get a hearing.” They have a duty to those ideas that might be unpopular, or to those stories that would not be heard without them. Sacco's “Kushinagar,” a short piece about Dalits in rural Uttar Pradesh (published in 2011 in the French magazine XXI, later reprinted in The Caravan), does an excellent job of this: It's a story that could so easily be ignored; its telling does not serve and in fact runs counter to the interests of the important or powerful people involved – but it's a story he chose and worked to bring to light as well as he could.

There is also, however, something that is extremely disturbing about Sacco's work, although I think that is inherent to his form and to its power. Comics suggest fantasy: Comics belong to superheroes, to capes and tights and Boom! Bam! Pow!, to primary colors and exaggeration. It's strange to look at these drawings – for example, of African migrants, stranded in Malta, in “The Unwanted” – and know that this is the real world, that these are real people within his panels. The weird-factor is greatest in one of the stories from Iraq, “Down! Up!,” originally published in Harper's in 2007. The piece depicts the training, by American servicemen, of members of the Iraqi National Guard. The subject being military training, the comic is by definition physical, active, full of sequences (pushups, wrestling, a barking drill sergeant) that would be appropriate in any comic book. But it's not a comic book, it's not fantasy: All of this is real. The dissonance of reality and fantasy make Sacco's comics uncomfortable reading, but at the same time reinforces their power.

Some of the most powerful and effective journalists are those who have, in some sense, invented their own forms, changed slightly the rules of this game. Joan Didion is one of them, of course, and I think Journalism solidifies Sacco's membership in that company. His comics demand not just that we look at what he is showing us, but also how he is showing it to us. He's not just playing the game; in some small way, he's acknowledging that it is a game, and changing it just enough to reduce the comfortable distance between us and what we're reading. He makes the argument that journalists have a particular set of responsibilities – to their stories and to their sources, yes, but also to something larger – and by doing so, he reminds us that as consumers of journalism, we too have our own responsibilities. Perhaps it just took a comic book to bring those to light.