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.
Your first book of political reportage was Palestine. Prior to actually going to Palestine, how did you know the media was portraying that situation inaccurately?
With Palestine, that was easy to know because there are so few Palestinian voices in the media. The obvious reason for that is U.S. interests lie with Israel, and our media reflects that.
Having spent a good deal of time there, what do you think it will take to resolve that conflict?
I don’t see it resolving anytime soon. I was there several times over the past year, and during that year the level of violence went way up on both sides. It’s no longer a question of police in Jeeps coming around shooting a few rubber bullets — it’s tanks and aircraft now. It looks increasingly likely that there won’t be a viable Palestinian state, and that these two peoples will be forever conjoined in some way that might result in an apartheid situation. Israel knows that removing the settlements would do a great deal in terms of moving toward a just solution, but it would take considerable will among the Israelis to do that, and it would be messy — at least 15 percent of the Israeli population would oppose it tooth and claw. The U.S. has played a lousy role in this situation all the way through, and should be pressing Israel harder to make concessions.
For decades different ethnic communities lived side by side in the former Yugoslavia, then a fierce sense of tribal identity flared up and separated people. What caused this to occur?
It occurred because some politicians saw it could be exploited in their quest for power. For all the good Tito did [when he ruled communist Yugoslavia until his death in 1980], he created problems in not allowing people to talk about crimes that had been committed among these ethnic groups at various points, particularly during World War II. There was no truth-and-reconciliation commission, and many people weren’t brought to justice. These are things politicians can use, and that’s what Milosevic and Karadzic did.
How do you explain the atrocities committed during wartime? Do some people have the capacity to switch gears and take pleasure in killing?
There are always a limited number of sadists in any war, and a few hardcore sadists can turn a group around. They tend to make sure the people around them get blood on their hands, too, so everyone has a vested interest in continuing the killing. It’s hard to get anyone involved to speak openly about those things, of course. Every now and then a journalist is around one of those people whose star is rising, who feel like they can do anything they want. But when I was there in 1995, the Serbs appeared to be on the losing end of the Dayton Accord and the Hague tribunal had been set up, so people weren’t bragging about things they’d done during the war.
What finally made the Serbs and the Croats stop killing one another?
Sheer exhaustion was part of it, but international pressure also had a lot to do with it. And, a lot of what the Serbs wanted out of the war was accomplished in that they cleared vast areas of the Muslim population.
You returned to Gorazde in 2001. Has the city begun to recover?
No. They’ve fixed up some houses at the center of town and painted them garish colors, but the outskirts of town are still wrecked. Gorazde is a dying city, and the ethnic cleansing continued to go on there long after the war ended in that, little by little, all the people are leaving Gorazde.
Are people capable of recovering from the extreme trauma they often suffer during war?
There are always individuals who are just too fucked up, but generally I think people do recover. In Gorazde, there are two girls who dream about a new pair of 501 jeans, and that’s a beautiful thing — the fact that they’re hanging on to anything as normal as that is good, because it shows that people just want to be a part of the world, in all its silliness.
Your new book is about a fixer named Neven. What is a fixer?
There are many kinds of fixers, but generally they’re people who can translate well, are knowledgeable about the local scene, and can make introductions and make things happen for you. With Neven, I could’ve said, “Take me to the 5th Army Corps and get me an interview with a general,” and he probably could’ve arranged it. A fixer can really influence a journalist’s story in that his or her politics can determine which stories they introduce you to. They can steer you in a particular direction or not translate specific things, and there’s no way you can know they’re doing it. One point I wanted to make with this book is that journalists are dependent on these people, for good or for bad. I can’t know for sure if Neven was telling the truth, but my tendency was to believe him, and I think he gave me an accurate overall picture of what happened. However, I always had to remember that it was through Neven’s filter.
Why does someone become a fixer?
They’re often people who enjoy talking to foreigners and want to improve their English, but mostly it’s money that makes them do it. When I was in Bosnia a fixer could make $150 a day, which was more than most people there were seeing in a year.
Do you consider Neven a sympathetic figure?
It’s hard to describe him with a single adjective because he’s complicated. I didn’t know anyone in Sarajevo on my first visit, and Neven was the first person I spoke to. In his way he took me under his wing, and I appreciated that because he was a tough guy and I was a little afraid when I was there. It was good to be around this guy because it felt like his street credibility was rubbing off on me on some level. It wasn’t until later that I learned he didn’t have street credibility with everyone. ‰
Sarajevo didn’t have an army, so when it came under attack it needed people like Neven to step into the breach. He admitted to me that he’d been a sniper, but without people like Neven, Sarajevo probably would’ve fallen, and who knows what the consequences of that would’ve been. Neven considered it a tragedy that the paramilitary groups that defended Sarajevo were crushed, but they definitely had to be stopped. Ultimately, Neven was someone who was able to thrive for a time in a very chaotic circumstance, and then it turned against him and he was back to being caught up in it.
Who is responsible for intervening when genocide is being committed? As the strongest military power in the world, is that America’s responsibility?
I don’t know if you can make a blanket statement like that because every case has to be judged individually. I don’t think America is obliged to be the policeman of the world. However, you could certainly make the case that situations on the scale of what occurred in Rwanda must be addressed, and truth be told, America is the country with the equipment and manpower to do these sorts of things.
Are there other areas of the world that are of particular interest to you?
Almost any place can interest me, but I have to chain myself to a desk and work right now. I’d be interested in going to Iraq, but I’d have to be sent there because I couldn’t finance a trip like that on my own, and I’m not sure who to approach. It’s unlikely I’d approach an American paper because they end up hammering you about “their style” and things that seem trivial to me, like how to abbreviate lieutenant colonel.
Do you go into these projects prepared to lose your life?
No. Obviously, this work is risky on some level, and I know that something can happen, but I try to be very careful. I’m not a war photographer running into streets taking pictures of rolling tanks.
Does making this work depress you?
Occasionally. When you see a bombing in a café in Tel Aviv, houses being demolished and people getting killed by tank shells, it’s depressing as hell. But I channel those feelings into a sense of purpose — I’ll think “Okay, I’ll sit at my drawing table and start working, and three years from now there’ll be a book coming out about this.” I’d get more depressed if I wasn’t doing this work.
Having made a firsthand study of war, what conclusions have you drawn about human nature?
You see extremes of humanity in places like Palestine and Bosnia — you see enormously good people who’ll give you the shirt off their back despite the fact that they have nothing, and you see incredible cruelty. Mostly what you see is innocent people being crushed beneath the wheels of history.
From The Fixer (Drawn & Quarterly Publications).