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by Joe Sacco

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating


Journalism by Joe Sacco
© Metropolitan Books
Metropolitan Books, June 2012

Journalism collects cartoonist Joe Sacco's short-form reportage and provides readers with an invitation to revisit some of the more important and tumultuous phases of international politics of the past fifteen years. Sacco brings readers through war-torn Gaza and Chechnya, visits with displaced Africans in Malta, and follows US soldiers in the Middle East during the invasion of Iraq. Sacco's stories are rendered in illustrated panels, filled to their edges with beautiful detail and heartbreaking dialogue. Sacco proves that one can use the comic book format across the norms of the genre to break into the field of political journalism. Often appearing in the foreground of his panels, Sacco seats his readers just behind him as he conducts his interviews and provides them with a welcoming-but never intrusive-gaze. Sacco's reporting is commendable in that he stays at all times no more than simply an observer, only later to reflect, sketchbook in hand, on all that he's seen.

Formally, the pieces in Journalism utilize a simple, but very effective structure. All his drawings are remarkably detailed, right down to each weathered wrinkle and war-furrowed brow, yet Sacco's reporting does not read as meticulous and distant as his drawings may suggest. It's apparent that each frame was pored over for some time after each interview and investigation, but Sacco interpolates his text within his frames in such a way that suggests an immediacy that his drawings cannot obtain. Outside of the dialogue, most of Sacco's text floats inside a skewed white square, like a post-it note stuck to a photograph. Sacco uses these tilted white boxes to his great advantage: some boxes will occasionally address his readers, while others allow Sacco to fit a wide range of facts and statistics into his story. Although it may sound almost inanely simple, Sacco's comics strike a delicate, precise balance of image and text and provide each piece with just enough casualness to create an important amount of accessibility.
By titling his collection "Journalism," Sacco invites his readers to join a discussion about comics as a form of reporting. Could this work? And what, if anything, could block this medium from such a serious form of writing? Sacco spends much of his preface on the defensive, trying to grapple with objectivity and fair and balanced reporting. If he's drawing the scenes he's reporting on, how can we be sure his renderings are as accurate and unbiased as a photograph? It's an unanswerable posit, but one that Sacco earns his way around. Again Sacco's incorporation of text provides the solution: some of the most engrossing moments in Journalism are blocks of dialogue, and often these scenes are so emphatic that the image almost seems secondary. A reader's attention will, and should, go to the words, and not question the specific minutiae in the illustration. "At the minimum I want to orient readers to a particular moment," Sacco explains in his preface, "but my goal is to satisfy an eyewitness that my drawn depiction essentially represents his or her experience."

One thing that Sacco's reporting does inherently lack is the sense of immediacy that prevails through much of the field of journalism. Considering the detail to Sacco's drawing, a "this just in" piece would be impossible to execute with the same journalistic standards Sacco employs in his longer texts. Unfortunately, this is a handicap, and one impossible to avoid. Looking over the subjects in this collection and their twelve-year historical span, one could read Journalism not only as new media reporting but as a collection of contemporary history. Most readers will not have a problem with this, but it may limit Sacco in his ability to stay current. Considering the amount of work it seems Sacco puts into his pieces, perhaps we should consider him stuck on a deeply fulfilling tape-delay.

In his preface (a manifesto of sorts for the form of comics journalism), Sacco attempts to encourage his readers to see that a cartoonist has "obligations that go deeper" than other journalists. "A cartoonist must draw," he explains. But, really, with the high quality of the pieces included in this collection, those that balance both readability and a staggering amount of informative reporting, this seems like a fight not for respect but for a title. Considering how good these pieces are, whether it can "officially" be called "journalism" or not seems beside the point; it's a fight that surely won't interest some readers. Anyone who reads Journalism will know that whatever it is Joe Sacco was trying to achieve with his writing, he's succeeded, and then some.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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