By Joe Sacco
Joe Sacco has become known as perhaps the only graphic-novel
journalist, having created short works for Time and Harper’s. Palestine is
the work that made him famous, a personal journal of his tour of the
Occupied Territories for two months in 1991-92.
Having first read Safe Area: Gorazde, Sacco’s later study of the Yugoslav conflict, I was unprepared for Sacco’s amateurish first attempt at graphic-novel journalism here. The book gets stronger as Sacco is drawn further into the plight of the Palestinians, but the beginning is really weak. Sacco’s strength, is as true of all the best journalism, is at uncovering the truth, and his work unabashedly exposes the harsh, blighted landscape and personalities of the Palestinians. That’s why the book sometimes stumbles – whenever Sacco gets self-conscious or self-righteous, inserting his distracting thoughts into the story or focusing on clever graphic design.
But when he finally finds a few key personalities to focus on, and spends more time detailing the landscape, the book really shines. The latter half of chapter four is perfectly realized, and stands out as the most poignant and shocking tale in the book. It details a Palestinian man unfairly accused, and his harrowing experience through torture. Left in solitary, tied to a heating pipe and with a burlap sac over his head, the man becomes increasingly desperate, suicidal, and claustrophic – just as Sacco’s panels and illustrations do. It is this kind of specific application, at its best, that allows the graphic novel to produce an intimate, personal journalistic experience that can surpass prose and photography alone.