BEIRUT: Joe Sacco is in no mood to mess around. “I can’t pretend I am ‘objective’ about certain topics,” he says.
“In some situations there is such a thing as the oppressor and the oppressed, and my goal is to give the oppressed a voice.”
The vaunted Maltese-American graphic novelist is well known for his unwillingness to kowtow to conventional notions of journalistic objectivity: presenting two, equally apportioned sides to every story.
“The problem with journalism is that it is often a mere recording of events from day to day,’” he explains. “A newspaper story might be factually accurate without giving the reader a sense of the ‘why.’”
It is Sacco’s pursuit of this sense of “why” – his scrutiny of the big and small facets of history to find another way to understand and explain the world’s daily tragedies – that drives his work and gives it its potency.
He is making his maiden voyage to Beirut this week, among the cluster of writers and literary personalities to participate in Hay Festival Beirut. One of the international franchises of the U.K.’s renowned literary festival in Hay-on-Wye, the event was launched here in 2012, and provided a rare platform for the mingling Lebanese and international writers.
Sacco was born in 1960 in Malta. His parents – an engineer and a teacher – emigrated when he was very young to escape the influence of Roman Catholicism, a theme he has explored in numerous works since.
He spent his childhood in Australia, where, surrounded by European immigrants who regularly talked about war, he grew up thinking of conflict as a part of life.
At the age of 12 his family moved the United States, where he studied journalism at the University of Oregon. There he worked a series of jobs that included co-founding the satirical comic magazine “Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy.”
He was intrigued by the media’s portrayal of the Middle East and eventually his travels found him in occupied Jerusalem.
“The only time I heard the word ‘Palestinian,’” he recalls, “was in relation to incidents like terrorist attacks and hijackings. As a result, I grew up thinking Palestinians were terrorists – pure and simple. I had to educate myself about the Palestinian issue.”
At first, Sacco was nervous about venturing into the West Bank and embarrassed to tell people he was writing a comic book (of all things) about the Occupied Territories during the First Intifada.
Yet after two months his notebooks were bulging, and “Palestine” was published in nine issues between 1993 and 1995. Perhaps surprisingly for those who have come to know his work more recently, his first solo venture was not a commercial success.
His breakthrough came in 2000 with the release of “Safe Area Gora?de: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995,” which won an Eisner Award for best original graphic novel – though recognized as a graphic novelist, Sacco himself prefers the less inflated term “comic book.”
“Palestine” was later republished more successfully in a single volume of 288 pages. He’s since released several other books and collections of earlier pieces, which focused largely on Bosnia and the Palestinian territories.
“Footnotes in Gaza” (2009), one of his best-known works, delves into two mass killings in 1956, which had been consigned to the bin of history – one in Khan Younis, and one in Rafah. “Footnotes” is now being adapted into a feature-length animated film, to be directed by Denis Villneuve – who helmed the 2010 screen version of Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play “Incendies.”
“I’m somewhat ambivalent about turning ‘Footnotes in Gaza’ into a movie,” he says.
“I don’t think that film is any more or less valid a medium than comic books. But the story is about the massacre of Palestinians in 1956, and that’s a story that should be heard by a wider audience than I’ve reached with the book.”
Sacco wants nothing to do with the new project.
“I decided to be hands off,” he continues. “For one thing, I don’t want to interfere with someone else’s artistic vision, and for another, I spent seven years on the book and it was really time for me to move on to other subjects.”
It will be interesting to see how successfully Sacco’s engaging mix of memoir, reportage and history, conveyed through close-ups, talking heads and double-page panoramas can be transferred to celluloid.
Although adult comic books can lend themselves to exaggeration, Sacco’s figures are solidly drawn and plain-speaking. “I do think a journalist should be honest,” he explains, “recording exactly what he or she is seeing and hearing.”
Each detailed frame, which readers can pore over at their own pace, gives each person’s stories a rich context that is impossible to relay in an article or a minute-long TV report.
For Sacco, there is a difference between how journalists and artists operate, a distinction he upholds in his work. “You have to be a little cold-hearted to get the story accurately,” he explains. “Whatever you might be hearing, you have to keep people on track. It’s a bit clinical. You can’t let yourself get emotionally caught up.
“For me, the emotion comes later when I’m drawing. When you’re drawing someone, you internalize that person somehow. You have to channel their feelings into the drawing.
“Journalism is about switching something off; art is about switching something on.”
Although he never studied art – and still doesn’t think drawing is his strong point – he continues to hand-draw everything, working from photos and sketches he makes while in the field.
It’s a painstaking process, so he is picky about which projects he takes on.
“I have to ask myself whether I will still be 100 percent engaged in the project three or four or five years down the road when I’m still drawing it,” he says. “I cannot work on a story I am not emotionally committed to.
“So I only tackle projects that kick me in the gut.”
As gut-kicking material is a core criteria for starting a project, Sacco concedes Lebanon’s stories may tempt him to pick up his pencil again.
“Lebanon is a complicated place and I can think of any number of stories that might sustain my interest,” he says.
“This is my first visit. Sometimes you don’t know what story would interest you until you’re there.”
Joe Sacco will be speaking at the Beirut Hay Festival on May 8-9. For more information visit www.hayfestival.com/beirut. His latest book, “Journalism,” is available from select bookshops.