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Joe Sacco (photo)

I met and chatted with Joe Sacco in Cambridge, MA, in 2002.

In all these years I never got to transcribe the interview, but a kind dispatch from home all the way across the pond included a box with mini-tapes and my Sony m-430. Listening to it felt like time-travel.

The recorded conversation runs for over an hour against a backdrop of loud indie rock and various rounds of Coronas. I am happy to finally share an edited transcript of his answers below. It’s been 9 years since then, but the ideas remain vital. You can hear a 20-second snippet here:

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Joe Sacco’s books can be bought directly from his original publisher, Fantagraphics Books, here.

I wrote about Joe Sacco’s work for Nieman Storyboard in November 2009.

On Depicting Himself

For me it’s essential, the idea that I represent myself. The way I do depict myself is really central to my work because I do journalism but I don’t really believe in objective journalism. To me all journalism is subjective; even that journalism that pretends to be objective, because writers come from a view point; they come from a culture. I don’t think they can be objective about things or places they don’t know much about. So I think it’s important to depict myself for that reason. I want the reader to know that this is me and these are the things seen through my eyes. There’s also other factors; it’s hard to write about things and write yourself out of them.

For example when I was in Gorazde with people they reacted to me. I was an outsider and that meant a lot to them. Now, it would have taken a lot away from the book if I had ignored that completely. The fact that I was an outsider was actually part of the story to them. So you have to depict yourself as an outsider I think in a lot of cases. As I’ve said it’s also hard to throw yourself out of something.

Joe Sacco by Joe Sacco

On Filtering

It’s important for me to put the reader in my position, of being in a situation which they are not familiar with. It’s important for the reader to know that I have prejudices, just like they have prejudices, so they can judge what I say and what I write about. It’s very clear I’m from the West, so when I talk to a woman about the hijab I don’t want to come across as some Know-it-all, or some moral person who can make decisions about what they wear. That’s not really my position. I can comment on that but it has to be clear that I am commenting from the viewpoint of someone from the West.

from Palestine (2007), by Joe Sacco

It’s important to show you are telling someone else’s story and to actually show that is an essential part of it to me. I am and act as a filter and I want them to see that filter openly. Most journalists pretend there’s nothing in between you and the experience. That’s bullshit. They are between you and the experience. I focus on exchanges with people. I do it almost accidentally, because I don’t have the money to pursue that big general, big official point of view, which is of no interest to me anyway. Hanging out is a big part of it. Letting people get to know you is a big part of it.

panel from Palestine, by Joe Sacco (Fantagraphics Books, 1993-2002)

On Representation
I try to represent people as accurately as possible, physically. Obviously it’s cartoony so you’re playing around with this to some extent, but as far as their personalities and how they come across as people I try to portray that as accurately as possible. There’s no moral question to me about that sort of thing. That again is just an artist’s interpretation.

Artists interpret things in particular way. Goya’s illustrations are his interpretation of war. Maybe he’s emphasising one thing over another but that’s the power of Goya; he’s trying to get to the essential truth, and sometimes you can’t get to the essential truth if you depict everything exactly the way it is because some things will crowd out the truly important things.

Plate 36: Tampoco. Aquatint print from "Los desastres de la guerra" by Francisco Goya, 1810s.

The people who have appeared in my books have reacted quite well to them when they read them; particularly the Gorazde book. The “Silly Girls” loved it, I’m glad to say, because that’s what I was most worried about; I was really worried about how I had depicted them. They obviously knew enough to understand it was an artistic representation. If the chapter I write is four pages long there might have been forty pages worth of conversation for it. You obviously edit a lot. You always edit. They seem to have been satisfied, and that’s the main thing to me.

I obviously wish I was a better cartoonist in some level so I could capture even more of it, but ultimately I’m satisfied with my work.

panel from Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 (Fantagraphics 2002)

On His Work’s Impact

There’s a real separation between me and the people I depict in my books, and the real difference is that I can always get out. I always have an exit. That’s very comforting to me. It’s a very strange feeling to me that I can always walk away of a situation. Five years elapsed between the time I wrote the book on Gorazde and the next time I went to Bosnia. And I went back and some people were in a really bad situation, whereas my life had taken a very good turn; I had many options. It’s a strange feeling to know that you can just walk away from these people and go on with your life.

I don’t have a huge fan base. I’m very aware how my work doesn’t really solve anything. What I’m aware of is how hard the world is and how good I have it relatively speaking, in comparison to them. My work has certainly informed me, rather than have informed anyone else. It definitely made an impact on me and on how I see the world.

About the author

Ernesto Priego has contributed 34 articles.

Ernesto Priego is lecturer in library science at City University London. He has a PhD in Information Studies from University College London. He lives in London and is a founding member and editor in chief of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship.