Thursday, August 24, 2017

My 33 Favorite Comics - # 32: Safe Area Goražde by Joe Sacco

Readings & Watchings:

Secondary Sources:

Joe Sacco, "The Fight for 1st Amendment Rights," The Comics Journal # 115, Fantagraphics Books, April 1987

Domingos Isabelinho, "Oporto ComicS," Azul BD Três #1, Jogo de Imagens, November 1993

Andrea Juno, Dangerous Drawings, Juno Books, 1997

Domingos Isabelinho, "Joe Sacco, War Junkie," Salão Lisboa 2003 [Lisbon Comic Con 2003], Bedeteca de Lisboa [Lisbon Comics Library], May 2003.

Domingos Isabelinho, "Notes From a Defeatist," The Comics Journal # 256, Fantagraphics Books, October 2003

Monica Marshall, The Library of Graphic Novelists: Joe Sacco, The Rosen Publishing Group, 2005

Joe Sacco, [Talk at the Walker Art Center, November 13, 2007]

Comics As Journalism [Joe Sacco's Lecture at The Leslie Center for the Humanities, 2011]

Primary Sources:

Joe Sacco, Spotlight on the Genius that is Joe Sacco, Fantagraphics Books, February 1994

Joe Sacco, Palestine, A Nation Occupied, Fantagraphics Books, July 1994 

Joe Sacco, War Junkie, Fantagraphics Books, May 1995

JoeSacco, Palestine, In The Gaza Strip, Fantagraphics Books, January 1996

Joe Sacco, "Christmas with Karadzic," Zero Zero # 15, Fantagraphics Books, March 1997 

Joe Sacco, Šoba, Drawn & Quarterly, February 1998

Joe Sacco, Safe Area Goražde, Fantagraphics Books, June 2000

Joe Sacco, Notes From A Defeatist, Fantagraphics Books, January 2003

Joe Sacco, The Fixer  - A Story From Sarajevo, Drawn & Quarterly, October 2003

Joe Sacco, Footnotes In Gaza, Henry Holt, 2009

Joe Sacco, Journalism, Henry Holt, 2013

I met Joe Sacco in 1993 in the Porto Comics Con. Maybe he doesn't remember, but we went to the movies to watch Opening Night by the great John Cassavetes (Husbands, by the way, is one of my favorite films). He had finished his Yahoo run with # 6, about Susan Catherine's career as a stripper, to start the mini-series Palestine. The rest, as they say, is history...

I'll start this post writing a bit about two other people, though...

Above are Joe Sacco's anthologies and graphic novels in chronological order. The time span is 1994, for Spotlight on the Genius that is Joe Sacco, to 2013 for Journalism. The first books (until Šoba, I mean) have the characteristic look and garish colors of traditional comic books. In fact Spotlight on the Genius that is Joe Sacco, Zero Zero # 15, and Šoba are, in fact, comic books. If that's not a problem for the first comic, an anthology of Sacco's early (not so) funny cartoony stories, it is a problem, but is it really?, for the other two and War Junkie. In fact that's a divorce between form and content which I view here as more problematic, and more profound, than in Barron Storey's case (which is more a problem of the appropriate metaphor - Anahoho - vs. some inappropriate, and quite absurd ones - Agonista -, for instance). Kudos then, to Jim Blanchard who designed the Palestine collections, toning down the garishness of the covers usually seen in comic books and softcover collections of the time.

The real breakthrough, it seems to me, was  Carrie Whitney's cover for Safe Area  Goražde. Here's what I wrote about it in "Joe Sacco, War Junkie":
On the cover we see a khaki colored town destroyed by war. In the title the "Safe Area" part is painted black while "Goražde" is in red. Everything else (the author's name, the subtitle, a brief note from the publishers about the author and the preface) are white. On the bottom tier we can see a map of the Goražde region over an army green background. We don't need to be geniuses in order to understand that the khaki and green represent war, red represents the blood spilled in Goražde and the white [or whiteish] represents the honest and pure intentions of the author, publishers, and preface writer.
I also mentioned the impressive red of the endpapers and I could add the mourning color (at least for Christians): black. More important than all this, which is pretty impressive in and of itself on Carrie's part, is how this cover left behind decades of childish and garish comics covers... in 2000. I mean, we can look at Seth's pioneer (and probably a bit inappropriate) design for the Fantagraphics Peanuts collection, but that was a few years later...

Anyway, if the garish colors were inappropriate on serious comics covers (or interior pages, for that matter), what about caricature? That's a really tough one because caricatures and India ink were a mainstay of comics throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. I'm not forgetting somewhat more naturalistic veins which started in adventure newspaper comic strips during the 1930s, but Joe Sacco doesn't belong there (oddly enough, as far as alternative comics go, that particular branch didn't originate much; alternative comics came from underground comix and "Peanuts," mainly).

Chris Ware said it better in Dangerous Drawings:
Artists [...] like myself, are all trying to tell potent stories with the tools of jokes. It's as though we're trying to write a powerful, deeply engaging, richly detailed epic with a series of limericks.
 The first page of an article that Joe Sacco wrote for The Comics Journal.

As you all know by now Sacco has a degree in journalism. His stint at Fantagraphics made him go from journalist to editor to cartoonist. At around this time he edited Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy and not long after his own series Yahoo started its run.

The first page of "Palestine," as published in Palestine # 1 (February 1993).

In spite of the serious theme caricature is widely used above. Even so, I wouldn't be too harsh judging Sacco here because I believe, with Charles Baudelaire, that laughter is evil (we laugh when we feel above someone), but grotesque can be saved and grotesque is what I would qualify this page. The free flowing captions were inspired by the master of grotesque and paroxysm, Louis-Ferdinand Céline.

By issue # 6 of Palestine (April 1994) Joe Sacco published the above masterpiece. He quickly understood that a serious theme needed a serious drawing style. I love the body language of the characters (they are trying not to slip), their slightly bended bodies suggesting a cold weather, and my favorite: the Tsugian walker on the upper right corner.

Above is one of the last pages in Safe Area Goražde. We've already seen how important this book was to establish alternative comics in general and the graphic novel artistic movement (and I say this following Eddie Campbell) in particular. We can identify Joe Sacco's later style: the Célinesque captions continue flying around, so to speak, the Breughelesque detail is all over the place, except... in Joe Sacco's self-portrait. He's the only caricature that still remains. He put himself in his reportage comics to follow two traditions: the underground tradition of autobio comics (three names come to mind: Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Robert Crumb, Justin Green - whose Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary should definitely be in my list), the tradition of the New Journalism (and three names come to mind too: Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Hunter S. Thompson). Since the beginning (and I mean "Cartoon Genius" in Yahoo # 1 - October 1988) that Joe Sacco drew himself with opaque eye glasses, but, in that story, he wasn't half as cartoony as he is above. I don't really know why he does it, but I suspect that he's following Scott McCloud's smiley face theory, according to which readers of comics find it easy to identify with simple cartoony faces than to complex portraits (add naturalistic backgrounds and... voilá... total immersion). This is absurd, of course, but enough about what I don't like in Joe Sacco's work. What I really like is that he gives a voice to those who have none in the Western media circus. And does so not with popaganda, but by being a really fine reporter.

P.S.: This is a cause very close to my heart.

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