Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Shaking Hands with Other People's Pain: Joe Sacco's Palestine

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Shaking Hands with Other People's Pain: Joe Sacco's Palestine

Article excerpt

In the very beginning of the graphic novel Palestine, Joe Sacco recounts his own ignorance and prejudice when it came to thinking about Palestinians. Growing up mostly in the U.S., he did not question the picture of Palestinians as terrorists: "Terrorism is the bread Palestinians get buttered on, I'd swallowed that ever since airliners went sky high in the desert, do you remember that, do you remember Munich and the blown up athletes, the bus and airport massacres?" (7). Yet in the present of the text, which takes place over two months in the winter of 1991-92 as the first intifada begins to run out of steam, Sacco finds himself in Israel and Palestine seeking to give voice and face to these "terrorists," to rethink his own notions of prejudice and pain, and to convince others to do the same. As Sacco's first sustained graphic work, Palestine represents the beginning of his career drawing in the realm of atrocity. Two later texts dealing with atrocity have received wide recognition: Safe Area

Gorazde, which documents a phase in the Bosnian war, and his follow-up to Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza; yet both of these display a hard-boiled perspective toward the cost of war. It is the author's naive, eager attitude toward documenting the pain of others that marks Palestine as unique in Sacco's body of work, as a sense of discovery permeates all nine collected comic books that comprise the volume.

In Palestine, Sacco also lays out the stylistic and formal foundations that characterize all his later works. In Sacco's basic format, the reader follows the character of "Joe Sacco" as he enters a war zone and encounters various people deeply affected by war and atrocity. In terms of the graphic sequences, Sacco moves between his present encounters and others' past experiences. Hillary Chute says of Sacco's work that "it strives to materialize visually an archive of oral testimony [...] reconstructing the bodies of others, bodies that have been ignored by official discourse" (114). But this reconstruction of others' bodies is mediated and complicated by the ways that Sacco reconstructs his own body, transforming himself into a major character. Charles Hatfield calls this autobiographical tendency "ironic authentication," by which he means a strategy authors use to "reenact or 'speak to'" the making of the work itself. More importantly, the distance that such irony creates both pictorially and cognitively allows for artists to approach "subjects that are almost impossibly hard to handle, where questions of truth and artifice are fraught with special urgency, both psychologically and politically" (131). Sacco's works thus fuse documentary and autobiographical methods, dramatizing the tensions between personal revelation and public political and social discourse.

Sacco's peculiar visual style, based on the exaggerated and "ugly" aesthetics of the underground comix movement, constantly calls attention to Sacco as artist/creator whether or not Joe Sacco the character is present within the frame; in other words, at first glance the consistent, striking style renders all the sequences ostensibly self-referential, even when the sequences represent the perspectives of others who are recounting their own past suffering. This seemingly contradicts Palestine's purpose of engaging with the rhetoric of testimony and the documentation of human rights violations. Sacco must therefore engage with particular evidentiary strategies in order to communicate the "realness" of the various scenarios he presents. How, then, does the graphic work of a single author/artist present itself as evidence of others' truths? What kind of truth is Sacco dealing in here? What I propose in this essay is that Sacco's form of truth-telling happens in the exchange between reader and text and is based on a kind of emotional and corporeal form of evidence that occurs through a haptic, visceral engagement with the pain of others. While this is not the kind of evidence that can stand in a court of law, it acts as a forceful form of evidence in the court of public opinion, which has its own power to enact change in the world. …

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