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The following review of the Joe Sacco event at the ICA on 29 September 2009, appeared on the Cartoons Are For Children blog written by Simon Hacking.

This Tuesday, American cartoonist and journalist Joe Sacco spoke about his life and career at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, and gave a tantalising sneak preview of his upcoming graphic book, Footnotes in Gaza.

The latest in a series of reports from war-torn regions of the world, Footnotes marks Sacco’s return to the Gaza Strip seventeen years after the visit that inspired his breakout comic, Palestine. This time though, rather than simply journeying around the troubled state, Sacco had a clear purpose: to discover, through interviews with local Palestinians, what really happened in 1956, when 111 Palestinian refugees were reputedly shot dead by Israeli soldiers.

Having spent seven years constructing this 432 page tome (by far his longest comic to date), Sacco impresses with the consistent and rigorous impartiality of his approach, letting the stories of those who remember the massacre speak for themselves. In fact, when the event’s moderator, the comics historian Roger Sabin, asked Sacco whether he believed that the massacre’s culprits should be found and prosecuted, he responded simply by stating “It’s not for me to say”. To Sacco, the evidence must speak for itself.

However, despite this admirably detached approach, Sacco’s book is not completely bias-free. Most notably, the vast majority of his sources are Palestinian, with only the occasional Israeli counterpoint. Sacco is very clearly taking the victim’s side in a story that has, in the past, only been told from an Israeli point of view. Interestingly though, Sacco mitigates this bias by constantly confronting the reader with the problems inherent in investigative journalism: contradictory stories, incomplete accounts and unwilling interviewees. By acknowledging that he may not have the full story, he arguably presents as honest a picture of his discoveries as possible.

As well as discussing his latest work, Sacco had some interesting things to say about the comics form in general. When asked why he chooses to use comics rather than prose, he cited the medium’s unique ability to deal with time. On a comic’s page a cartoonist is able to depict past, present and future simultaneously in a way that is not possible in prose or film. This co-mingling of timeframes allowed Sacco to emphasise the importance of the events of the past on Palestine’s present, explicitly linking the lives of the Palestinians he interviewed with the events that befell them in 1956. Similarly, his use of cartooning, also a particular feature of comics, has a distancing effect similar to that used by Art Spiegelman in his seminal Maus. This allows Sacco to confront such issues as mass murder in a way that forces us to look at them in a completely new way, uninfluenced by the stark visuals of newspaper photography and TV news channels, creating an experience that would not be possible in any other medium.


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"...a very special conversation between two incredible artists."
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