Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt
(Nation Books, 2012)
Joe Sacco has earned praise as the innovator of an entirely new genre within the comics field: long-form comics reportage, exemplified by his magisterial graphic novels Palestine, Safe Area Gorade, and Footnotes in Gaza (his masterpiece to date). His work demonstrates a formal command of the comics page, rhetorically juxtaposing images of time and space to trace the contours of history and the fugitive procedures of memory. His fine, heavily crosshatched pen and ink drawings document scenes of devastation, despair, and struggle. These compulsively detailed images invite an extended gaze that both informs the reader and invites her to participate in Sacco’s practice of ethical witnessing.
Sacco’s long-form works have defined him not only as the pioneer of a genre, but also as a man with a beat: the contested territories in Palestine and the war-torn former Yugoslavia. But over the years Sacco has produced a number of shorter comics pieces for various publications, covering stories in such places as Iraq, India, and Malta. Collected in his new book, Journalism, these short-form works reveal his broader mandate to document the experiences of individuals and communities suffering and struggling within social and political situations beyond their immediate control.
Sacco situates himself in a tradition that includes New Journalism, and identifies Orwell as a primary influence. In a medium that processes experience through the gestures of an artist’s hand, how could he not? But Sacco’s drawings resist a strongly interpretive impulse, striving instead for accurate representation (with some margin for the abstraction and elasticity inherent to cartooning). Nevertheless, Sacco’s point of view is inscribed onto every page: The artist-reporter nearly always appears as a character in his stories, signaling his involvement in the events being depicted even as he frames those experiences after the fact.
Sacco self-reflexively complicates the position of the observer in his work. In “The War Crimes Trials,” an account of the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague, Sacco wryly comments on the position of Western governments that observe human rights disasters in places like Srebrenica and Rwanda from a distance, but act as arbiters of justice after the fact. He ironically notes the acquittal of a Bosnian Serb determined to have been present at a scene of torture, but found, ultimately, to have been “only watching”—as if passivity equals innocence. Sacco refuses to let power off the hook for failing to act justly. His response—to privilege the word of the powerless witness throughout his work—puts Sacco in the tradition of Studs Terkel and other oral historians who have given voice to the otherwise voiceless as a form of resistance.
Two of Sacco’s Iraq narratives (produced for the Guardian) provide a fascinating diptych. For “Complacency Kills,” Sacco embedded with Marines patrolling a treacherous strip of Iraqi highway, reporting the events he observed and the responses of the soldiers he met. “Trauma on Loan,” by contrast, is based on interviews with two Iraqis, both former detainees engaged in a lawsuit against the American government alleging torture and inhumane treatment. Sacco depicts their travails as public plaintiffs, but also visualizes their allegations of brutal mistreatment at the hands of American soldiers. There is a sense, in Sacco’s work, of putting on and re-enlivening testimony in the manner of a performance artist. But by giving concrete form to testimony that is contested by institutional power, Sacco more directly assumes an advocate’s role.
Sacco brings his formidable skill to bear in Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, his collaboration with the writer Chris Hedges. The two extensively visited several American sites that Hedges describes as “sacrifice zones”: places “that have been offered up for exploitation” to corporate power. Sacco provides illustrations of the people, communities, and landscapes Hedges describes in his text, as well as short comics which illustrate the first-person testimonies of vulnerable individuals rooted, by economics and history, to landscapes that have been poisoned—often literally—by moneyed interests. Sacco’s images in this book stand in chilling parallel to those in Journalism and elsewhere: Tent cities in Camden, New Jersey, and trailer parks for migrant laborers in Immokalee, Florida, echo the squalor of refugee camps in Ingushetia and Malta; the polluted, destroyed Appalachia of Welch, West Virginia—the site of mountaintop removal by powerful coal companies—recalls Sacco’s depictions of bombed-out landscapes in other parts of the world.
This is no coincidence. Hedges explicitly ties the ideology of capitalism to violence. He begins the book’s tour through hell in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, one site of the genocidal land-grab at the heart of American history, and now home to the profoundly depressed Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. This, Hedges argues, was merely the prototype for the internal, corporate colonialism that increasingly oppresses America’s domestic population as resources, both natural and human, reach a point of exhaustion.
At the end of this nightmarish travelogue, Hedges finds a site of hope at Zuccotti Park. His discussion of the Occupy Movement becomes a manifesto, consolidating the forceful arguments he has articulated in his columns at truthdig.com and elsewhere. American civilization is at a crucial point, he argues, and if a total breakdown into oligarchy is to be avoided, the sustained, nonviolent, egalitarian protest demonstrated by Occupy represents the best model for a radical social renewal, equivalent to the peaceful revolutions he witnessed as a foreign correspondent in East Germany and Prague. “There are no excuses left,” Hedges forcefully exhorts. “Either you join the revolt or you stand on the wrong side of history.” In Joe Sacco, Hedges finds an able ally. Sacco has already revolutionized his art form; the implicit ideology of his engaged comics finds common cause with the currents that may revolutionize the American future.