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Footnotes on Footnotes

Nicholas Jahr
September 1, 2015

Sarah Glidden & Mike Dawson on Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza

by Nicholas Jahr
The Israeli occupying army carried out bloody atrocities in the Gaza Strip [during the 1956 Sinai War], killing “at least 75 Palestinians immediately after capturing the strip during a brutal house-to-house search for weapons and fedayeen in Khan Yunis” and killing 111 Palestinians in “another massive bloodletting” at the Rafah refugee camp in “disorders” after “Israeli troops stormed through the hovels, rounding up refugees for intelligence screenings.” General E. L. M. Burns, Commander of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO), commented that this furnished “very sad proof of the fact that the spirit that inspired the notorious Deir Yassin massacre of 1948 is not dead among some of the Israeli armed forces.” The head of the Gaza observer force, Lt.-Col. R. F. Bayard of the U.S. Army, reported that treatment of civilians was “unwarrantedly rough” and that “a good number of persons have been shot down in cold blood for no apparent reason.” He also reported that many UN relief officials were missing and presumed executed by the Israelis and that there had been extensive looting and wanton destruction of property. Israel claimed that the killings were caused by “refugee resistance,” a claim denied by refugees (there were no Israeli casualties). — Noam Chomsky, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, & The Palestinians*

*Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza, p8

— Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza

† Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza was published in 2010 by Metropolitan Books. I’ve read every Joe Sacco book as they were published.... Until now, I never had a problem making my way through his comics, but for some reason I had a massive mental road-block up on Footnotes. I tried reading it a number of times, but never got more than maybe halfway through. In all truthfulness, this book was largely my impetus for relaunching this podcast...

— Mike Dawson, TCJ Talkies Ω

Ω Making one of my occasionally futile efforts to clear my desktop recently, I rediscovered the above episode of The Comics Journal podcast [iTunes download]. More than a year ago now, host Mike Dawson talked with artist (and very occasional Jewish Currents contributor) Sarah Glidden about Joe Sacco’s masterpiece of comics reportage, Footnotes in Gaza. I’d meant to write about their conversation when it first dropped and then all hell broke loose in Gaza and life intervened and I set it aside. As one of Rafah’s ‘originals’ tells Sacco (Dawson quotes the line in the podcast): “Events are continuous.” Each war and atrocity is rapidly overtaken by the next; it’s hard to keep up.

Dawson and Glidden’s conversation meanders across the sprawling tempography depicted by Sacco, from whether it’s all worth it to the pervasive sense of hopelessness to whether reporting should offer up solutions to the ethics of reporting and representation. It’s an engaging discussion that raises a lot of interesting questions, which remain worth considering at length.

One of the issues the two explore is what they dub “simpleface” cartooning, the idea developed by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics that, as Glidden gently mocks it, “if you have a simplified drawing [of a face], anyone can project themselves into the drawing.” She argues Sacco’s work overturns that notion: “Now... I think that’s probably bullshit. If you look at this comic... every single face is individuated.... Each person is moving differently. That helps me immerse myself in this world.” Dawson seems to agree:

If I’m writing for people who are like me... maybe it’s okay to be simpler, because maybe it’s easier for my audience to just... have a sense of who I am and what my life is like... and kind of jump into my head a little more through the simplicity. But maybe it’s just not possible with this.

This (qualified) dismissal seems off the mark on several levels. A while before they dismiss McCloud’s simpleface, Dawson points out a quirk that is actually fundamental to understanding Sacco’s work: “A very interesting thing about Joe Sacco is the way he portrays himself in his comics. Because all his comics feature him as this goofy-looking wierdo, like this Muppet. In the middle of everything that’s happening.” Dawson wonders if that helps readers connect with him.

Image of Joe Sacco from Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, p132Glidden observes that Sacco exaggerates his own features slightly more than those of his other characters, and one of the key ways he pulls that off is by drawing his glasses so that they entirely blot out his eyes (leaving only white circles). “I think he’s said he just did by chance in the beginning,” Glidden remarks, “but then as his work has gone on it became a thing that he just kind of has to do.”

What’s ironic about this is that McCloud uses the exact same trick in Understanding Comics:

McCloud Understanding Comics p28

Sacco’s self-caricature isn’t quite as abstract as McCloud’s, but this is McCloud’s simpleface in action (while if there’s any borrowing here, it’s almost certainly a matter of McCloud borrowing from Sacco, parallelism seems far more likely); the hazy self-image we carry that makes it easier for us to project into the abstraction of cartooning, to identify with a caricature. McCloud goes on to note how Japanese comics artists would often draw their protagonists ‘abstractly’ and other characters more realistically, “emphasizing their ‘otherness’ from the reader.” As Glidden’s comment above can be read to suggest, Sacco strikes me as deploying a subtle version of this technique. He may have backed himself into an aesthetic corner with his self-depiction, but at the very least I think his decision to stick with it is more purposeful than that implies.

McCloud’s Understanding Comics also examines how Japanese comics artists (among others) would combine abstract/iconic characters with highly detailed, realistic backgrounds, allowing “readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world.” This “masking effect” strikes me as fundamental to Sacco’s repertoire. Sacco doesn’t cheat; he puts in the time, the man makes the marks. Closely scrutinize images of large crowds in Footnotes and you’ll see that most of the figures are distinct; he seems to draw nearly every smithereen in a pile of rubble that was once an eight story building. And in the midst of all this Herculean detail, “in the middle of everything that’s happening,” we have Sacco’s goofy muppet. As Sacco introduces readers to places and situations pretty foreign to most of them, where life is unstable in more ways than one and the rules with which they’re familiar don’t quite hold, his depiction of himself as perpetually out of his element, nervous, occasionally befuddled, legitimizes any uneasiness and discomfort they feel, thereby reinforcing their identification with him as guide and proxy.

Sacco’s inclusion of himself in the narrative also speaks to another point Dawson and Glidden raise. Glidden comments: “I really wish I loved all comics journalism that I came across. When it’s just an illustrated history lesson, I get so bored.” Amen. But it’s not just that she gets bored: “I don’t trust it either. Because I don’t know how they got this information; I don’t know the person writing it. But with Sacco’s work, he’s putting it all there, and I think it’s important that he puts himself in it too.” She’s already touched on this idea earlier in their conversation:

The reason why I really trust him as a writer and why I trust the contents of this book... is partly because he shows himself there. And he shows that he’s a human person with his own flaws, and he’s the one reporting this story, and he’s being honest about that. He’s not pretending... ‘This is the story of what happened in Khan Younes and Rafah in 1956. This is God talking.’ He has to show himself questioning the discrepancy in these two peoples’ stories, and talking about the process of collecting this information, and what it does to people.

By including himself, by letting the reader see his process, Sacco makes his work seem more reliable and accurate (occasionally by exposing the limits of accuracy). This sort of transparency is rare in reportage, though granted, once we recognize it as a narrative device, the serpent devours its tail and its possible to critique its curation. Sacco is, after all, choosing when to lift the curtain and give us a peek.

Regardless, this is a key ingredient in Sacco’s unique synthesis of cartooning and the ‘real.’ Combined with the onslaught of detail he presents through his meticulous draftsmanship — Dawson talks of his “world-building” and Glidden refers to the way he uses not just aesthetic detail but narrative detail as well, say, depicting kids using wet flour to squash bugs — it invests his comics with a powerful sense of veracity, of presenting an ‘objective’ depiction of the world.

Sacco’s style is uniquely suited to depicting the terrain, to a story so focused on memory, its unreliability, its inevitable fluctuation and dissipation. His cartooning makes it impossible to ignore the subjective perspective at the same time as it conjures up the objective, defying our meager categories. All that rich detail he commits to the page, the intricacy of his draftsmanship and his labors to preserve a sense of the material, of physical space. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that at almost dead center in the book you turn the page and plummet into a spread of the Philadelphi Route along the edge of Rafah (circa around 2003), of a vast empty space where once there were homes, of “the ground where they have been swallowed,” of rubble and shifting sand and dirt, of black marks on the white emptiness of the page. This is drawing, a friend once pointed out to me, of marking a page so that you think this is something and this is nothing. Footnotes in Gaza is a heroic feat of preservation, a testament to the art of draftsmanship, to the defense of memory and history, to our struggle against those never-ending continuous events by which we will inevitably be overtaken.

Nicholas Jahr, a member of our editorial board, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasjahr or read more at his website.

Nicholas Jahr is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn and a member of Jewish Currents’ editorial board. In the past he has written for the magazine about comics, film, the diaspora, Israeli elections, and Palestinian nonviolence. His work has appeared in the International New York Times, The Nation, City & State, and the Village Voice (RIP).