This lovely edition of Joe Sacco’s classic graphic novel Palestine is being promoted as “celebrating fifteen years of . . . Joe Sacco’s groundbreaking work of comics journalism.” So, it’s not a graphic novel? It’s “comics journalism.” OK, I’ll buy that. Whatever you call it, this title is an extraordinary look at the country and people that make up Palestine, and this edition is a publisher’s gift to a brilliant work of art.
Bound in hard cover, with a colour plate on the front cover and embossed gold titles, the book just feels rich. It is solidly put together, with the original nine isues of the comic all joined, plus a wealth of support material including Sacco’s rough sketches, some photographs used as source material, and some additional text to fill it all out. I can’t imagine that it would be possible to assemble a more complete edition.
The story itself? It concerns a visit to Palestine by a working artist and journalist, namely Joe Sacco, and his experiences while there. It attempts to present a non-biased view of the situation in Gaza, as it was seen by a non-partisan observer. Can anyone really be described as non-partisan? And depending on where you live, and who your companians are, can anyone be non-biased? That’s a question for the ages I suppose, but Sacco certainly presents a balanced look at the state of Gaza in 1987-1992, the time of the first Intifada.
In an appreciative foreword, Edward Said describes the work thusly, “There’s no obvious spin, no easily discernible line of doctrine in Joe Sacoo’s often ironic encounters with Palestinians under occupation, no attempt to smooth out what is for the most part a meager, anxious existence of uncertainty, collective unhappiness, and deprivation, and, especially in the Gaza comics, a life of aimless wandering within the place’s inhospitable confines, wandering and mostly waiting, waiting, waiting.” He continues:
Joe is there to find out why things are the way they are and why there seems to have been an impasse for so long. He is drawn to the place partly because . . . of his Maltese family background during World War Two, partly because the post-modern world is so accessible to the young and curious American, partly because like Joseph Conrad’s Marlow he is tugged at by the forgotten places and people of the world, those who don’t make it on to our television screens, or if they do, who are regularly portrayed as marginal, unimportant, perhaps even negligible were it not for their nuisance value which, like the Palestinians, seems impossible to get rid of.
But I’m making it sound like this is one long political diatribe, and it is no such thing.
No, this is a comic book. A serious one for sure, but a comic book nonetheless. So, how’s the drawing? The action? Excellent. Sacco is a superb draughtsman, rendering page after page of black and white images that capture real faces, real people, in real situations. At first I thought some of the likenesses of these Palestinians were almost racist caricatures, but as I looked again, I saw portraits of people Sacco had met, or at least seen while on his journey. Emotions are fraught, as they would have been in Sacco’s presence. You see terror, humour, anger, affection. Sometimes the pages are organized and straightforward, then chaotic and confused, like life itself. The text is easy to read and potent in its message. This is a comic book, but it tells an important tale, and it’s one that you might not hear from other sources.
Sometimes the comic book is the place to go. Palestine is a model for all that is right in that world.
(Fantagraphics Books, 2008)