Trouble with Comics, Guest Reviewer Month: Jim Rugg Reviews Footnotes in Gaza

Guest Reviewer Month: Jim Rugg Reviews Footnotes in Gaza

Footnotes in Gaza
By Joe Sacco
Published by Metropolitan Books
In November 1956, Israeli soldiers rounded up Palestinian men in the Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah and according to UN records, killed 275 of them. The incident was not well documented. In 2001, while researching a story for Harper’s magazine, Joe Sacco heard first hand accounts of these events. When his editors at Harper’s magazine cut this section from the article, Sacco decided to return to Gaza to research what had taken place there in 1956.

In 2002 and 2003, Sacco traveled to Gaza to conduct field research; specifically he wanted to interview eyewitnesses to the events in Khan Younis and Rafah. Footnotes in Gaza details those research trips and the interviews he conducted. Based on eyewitness accounts, he depicts the incidents in comic form. He rounds out the book with additional research notes, historical documents, and interviews with Israeli Defense Forces and UN personnel.

The book seamlessly cuts between autobiography, interviews, recreations of the stories told in the interviews (i.e. 1956), and historical notes meant to contextualize the events and details in the interviews. It is amazing. The density of narrative is staggering with many of the layers reliant on the comics medium to maximize the stories’ clarity and effectiveness. It is hard to imagine any medium telling this story better than comics.

Sacco’s ability as a cartoonist keys the book’s success. Sacco draws extremely detailed backgrounds that give the setting a tremendous amount of weight. That detail, especially the historical depictions of Gaza, paints a disturbing picture of the plight of the Palestinian refugees without relying on heavy-handedness or purple prose. He uses an intensive cross-hatching style that creates a wide range of value and texture, giving the setting a rich atmosphere and weight. But when he draws his interview subjects and the people he encounters in Gaza, he replaces a little bit of the realism with caricature. This effect breathes life into the people that populate the stories. It is so subtle and yet vital to the power of the work. It humanizes what could easily be a very dry report. Finally, when he draws himself, he completely replaces the realism with a cartoon icon. And in this slight of hand, he gives the reader their entry point into the story via a technique Scott McCloud details in Understanding Comics. Basically, the simpler the image of a character, the more natural it is for a reader to identify with the character. So to summarize – he creates a hyper-realistic environment, populates it with people using visual cues the way we identify people we don’t know very well (think of someone you’ve only met a couple of times or the way you see a bit actor in a couple of different movies and he/she looks familiar, perhaps you recognize a distinct feature but you can’t quite place him/her), and then allows you to slide into his generic character in order to experience this world and story.

The book explores a polarizing topic, and the politics can be uncomfortable. The autobiographical elements mitigate this potential problem to some degree by using an observational approach that removes some subjectivity. Despite Sacco’s apparent feelings regarding the situation, the story is told in a very straightforward manner.

The tone of the interviews ranges as one would expect from witness to witness. Sacco does a good job keeping the interviews in context. When a number of common elements arise between interviewers, it is captioned accordingly in the comics. And when interviews contradict or vary, that too is noted. For instance, one series of interviews with a family of survivors includes conflicting accounts of which family members actually witnessed which events. When Sacco recognizes these inconsistencies, he discusses them with the survivors. He also questions stories that seem unlikely. When one witness says he was shot in the head from point-blank range 36 times, Sacco acknowledges the problems with this claim. Sacco encounters a variety of obstacles in his interviews, from faulty memories to obstinate old-timers more interested in discussing the 1960s. At one point, he notes his frustration at knowing more about the events than those he interviews. It reminded me a little of Radio: An Illustrated Guide (the Ira Glass/Jessica Abel comic that chronicled the behind the scenes of an episode of This American Life). Anyone interested in documentary work would probably find this book fascinating for its inclusion of the author’s process.

In between the difficult task of trying to find coherent witnesses to a 50-year-old atrocity that are willing to talk to a westerner, we get to see the present state of Gaza. The details he records are just as captivating as the stories from 1956. In one sequence, he drinks coffee and talks to a number of young men while gunshots sound all around them in the night. It reminded me of the tense scene in Boogie Nights, when Diggler and his friends rob a heavily armed, coked up drug dealer while a boy sets off firecrackers intermittently around them. Sacco’s nerves unravel more and more with each gunshot while his companions maintain their conversations as if nothing unusual is happening. During the time he spends in Gaza, he sees a number of homes destroyed by the Israeli Defense Front and talks to various people who have lost homes to the IDF demolitions. His interaction with people in 2003 in Gaza creates one of the most unsettling elements of the book – little has changed since 1956 for the people that survive in Gaza.
It is not a happy story to read. But it is a remarkable comic, a graphic novel in every sense of the phrase. The strength of images in the hands of someone who knows how to wield that power is rare. As a comics fan, I feel lucky that Sacco works in this medium. I am not qualified to judge the book on its journalistic merits, but the transparency of Sacco’s research leads me to believe it is sound in that regard as well. It is a masterpiece by a great cartoonist. 

Jim Rugg is the co-creator of Street Angel (published by Slave Labor) and Afrodisiac (published by AdHouse Books).

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