Joe Sacco’s reporting in comics form has been published in such venues as Time, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine. Sacco has traveled the world to interview Chechen refugees, U.S. soldiers in Iraq, African immigrants in Malta, and impoverished Dalits in India. This book collects most of the shorter pieces that Sacco has had published over the last 20 years or so. These pieces vary in length; most are just under 10 pages long. The longest piece, “The Unwanted,” previously published in two parts in the Virginia Quarterly Review, stretches to almost 50 pages.
The first question readers might have about Sacco’s work is why anyone would tell—or read—stories like these in comics form. My feeling is that comic art (by which I mean sequential art of the type used in comic books, not humorous art) can enable readers to see people and events that would otherwise be difficult to visualize but that might be impossible to capture (or too graphic to look at) in a photograph.
The work of a comics artist like Sacco is of necessity interpretive. Sacco chooses how many panels to devote to a particular subject, what expressions to draw on an interviewee’s face, and which moments in an event to capture and commit to paper. All these choices affect the way a reader reacts to a story. In his preface, Sacco says that he does his best to picture events as accurately as he can. If he didn’t witness an event firsthand, he asks questions to find out what the setting looked like. However, Sacco embraces the subjective aspects of his work, noting that all journalism is interpretive and that even the mere presence of a journalist has an impact on events:
Despite the impression they might try to give, journalists are not flies on the wall that are neither seen nor heard. In the field, when reporting, a journalist’s presence is almost always felt. Young men shake their guns in the air when a camera crew starts filming, and they police each other when a reporter starts asking probing questions. By admitting that I am present at the scene, I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with seams and imperfections practiced by a human being—it is not a cold science carried out behind Plexiglass by a robot.
Sacco’s embrace of subjectivity often involves drawing himself into a scene or, more rarely, describing his own thoughts and questions about what he’s seeing. These stories aren’t exactly first-person accounts of Sacco’s travels, but Sacco isn’t absent from the narrative. Most of the time, he lets his interview subjects tell their stories, and his drawings show their faces as they speak to him. Some drawings show Sacco’s renderings of scenes he’s only been told about, and others depict scenes and settings he’s visited himself.
As a journalist, Sacco attempts to give a comprehensive view of the events he writes about, but, as he explains in the short explanations that follow each section, circumstances sometimes made it impossible for him to get the stories he wanted or the space he needed to have to tell the story more fully. One of his most impressive efforts at a comprehensive view is “The Unwanted,” a lengthy piece on the massive influx of African immigrants to the small island of Malta. Sacco, who was born in Malta, speaks to long-time Maltese citizens who are troubled by the way the racial and cultural balance of the island is changing. He also talks with Africans who have ended up in Malta and the immigration and government workers who are trying to get a handle on how best to handle the situation. The uncertainty, fear, pain, and anger on all sides comes through clearly, and it’s obvious that there are no easy answers. As he closes the piece, Sacco notes that the Maltese are known for their hospitality. St. Paul was taken care of when he was shipwrecked on Malta, but one of his relatives retorts that St. Paul was only there a while, and then he left.
As I read these stories, I was unsettled and moved by the pain Sacco has born witness to. This was one of the books I read during the 2-day power outage and heat wave in DC, and I was ashamed of myself for whining about the heat when I was safe in my condo with enough food to eat, no fear of bombs outside my door, and the knowledge that power would be restored and that there were places within a few miles where I could find air-conditioned comfort and a warm cup of coffee. How could I complain when Dalit families in India must raid rat holes to find bits of grain to eat?
I know such complaints as mine are only human and perfectly normal under such circumstances. My feelings of guilt aren’t useful to anyone, but I don’t know how else to respond when I read stories like these. Yes, I can make donations and say prayers. I can vote for people who I think (hope) will try to end torture and pressure corrupt governments (including our own) to be just and merciful. But the problems seem so intractable, and I’m not in a position to do much about it. Part of me wants to not know about such suffering—and part of me wonders if there’s any point in knowing. And yet another part believes that it’s important to know, to tell. I can only hope that as each of us learns and tells that the stories will reach the right people—or enough people—to bring about change.