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Brueghel in Bosnia 

Kristine McKenna talks with graphic journalist Joe Sacco

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When Art Spiegelman chronicled his father’s experiences under the Nazis in his critically acclaimed 1992 comic, Maus, it was clear that comics had the capacity to handle big subjects. No one has blazed further into the territory Spiegelman pioneered than Joe Sacco, a political reporter who has used his cartooning skills to document his experiences in the Middle East and the Balkans.

Born in Malta in 1960, Sacco spent his childhood in Australia and his early teenage years in Los Angeles. After earning a degree in journalism at the University of Oregon in 1981, he hit the road and lived in Europe as he worked toward finding his own creative voice. In 1991, he made his first trip to the West Bank, and at that point the form and content in Sacco’s work coalesced into his mature style. Sacco’s experiences in the occupied territories resulted in Palestine, a deeply moving account of daily life during wartime that was published by Fantagraphics in 1995. That same year Sacco visited Sarajevo and its surrounding areas just as the Bosnian war was winding to a close. His experiences there can be found in Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992–95, a wrenching study of a Muslim enclave in a state of siege.

Sacco’s new book, The Fixer — A Story From Sarajevo, examines the aftermath of the Bosnian war as embodied in a man named Neven, a former member of one of the paramilitary groups that simultaneously protected and terrorized Bosnian civilians during the war. Also out this year is Notes From a Defeatist, a collection of Sacco’s early work that serves as an illuminating chronicle of his artistic evolution. In September, Sacco returned to Portland, after having spent a year living in a small Swiss farming village. He’s presently working on a story about a Chechen refugee, and a longer piece about Gaza.

L.A. WEEKLY: Why are comics a better vehicle for your work than straight journalism?

JOE SACCO: I’ve been doing comics since I was 6 years old, so it’s a medium that’s been with me for a very long time, and I think there are advantages to it. It’s accessible and immediate — right away, the reader is thrust into a small town in Bosnia. I can make the crane that allows me to hover above a city — I don’t have to hire a helicopter to get the picture — and I can take the reader into someone’s past. I can ask visual questions that allow me to render it as faithfully as a film director.

 

Which artists have been important for you?

Robert Crumb and Brueghel the Elder — he’s a big influence on me. I love the solidity of the people in his paintings, and his work provides a window into daily life in Flanders during the 16th century in a way the Italian Renaissance simply doesn’t. When I first got to Gorazde, it looked like the Middle Ages because there were hardly any cars running and the electricity was mostly off, and I thought, “Wow! I can draw just like Brueghel!” I really got into drawing people doing things like chopping wood.

 

Why are you so sensitive to global politics?

It could have to do with the fact that my parents went through World War II in Malta, and I grew up hearing about it. We lived outside Melbourne when I was a kid, and all their friends in Australia went through the war, too. Whenever they got together that’s all they talked about.

 

Fantagraphics recently published a collection of your early work, much of which is quite lighthearted compared with the work you’re known for. When did you turn the corner into the serious work you do now?

 

From 1988 to 1992, I did a comic series called Yahoo, and in the course of that series I went from short, satirical pieces that were supposed to be funny, to more involved autobiographical pieces, to autobiography mixed with politics, and then eventually to telling the story of my mother’s experience during World War II. I found out what my strengths were doing that series. However, the first time I visited Palestine, I didn’t have some notion in my head that from then on I’d be doing “important journalism.”

 

What compels you to spend time in war zones as a source for your work?

It’s not as if I want to be in places where there’s shooting going on. Those particular situations — Bosnia and Palestine — are of great interest to me, and I want to put in my two cents because the media hasn’t portrayed those situations very accurately. I don’t blame the media for perpetuating this conflict, but in failing to fully inform the electorate, they prevent people from bringing their influence to bear on these situations, because they don’t know what the hell is going on with them to begin with.

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