Prime Edition


Joe Sacco

Jonathan Cape

Pages: 208 Rs. 499

Comics and conflict, for once easy bedfellows

Joe Sacco’s collection of graphic shorts is a chilling depiction of the inequities and injustice that can be found the world over. This is a work worthy of a pioneer of the genre, writes Samit Basu

SAMIT BASU  17th Nov 2012

Joe Sacco

ournalism is a collection of short graphic pieces Joe Sacco's done from all over the world. They've been published in leading magazines, but collecting them in a single volume was an excellent idea, because this book really showcases both Sacco's immense skill and his easily discernible passion, not only for his work and medium, but for his subjects – war, internal displacement, poverty, migration, conflict between nations, classes, religions, races. Journalism is a brilliantly-executed work of graphic reportage, and would be an immensely pleasurable read if not for the very disturbing subject material, and its vivid depiction of some very harsh truths about the world we live in.

Sacco spends some time in his introduction explaining how comics are a perfectly valid medium for journalism, but given the sheer quality of his pieces, he needn't have bothered. Journalism is tremendously immersive, and going through it reminds the reader that other forms of more technologically advanced tools that are more traditionally associated with delivering an accurate, live portrayal of events – photography, video – are just in the end other media, tools that a journalist uses to get to the heart of the matter. And comics is the ideal form for this book, because it allows you to choose your level of engagement – the art is very thoughtful, each panel a little scene that allows you to engage with its world as deeply as you dare to, and the text is direct and simple because there's really no need to show off his technical abilities here. Sacco lets his material do the talking. There's also a certain timeless quality to the overall image – while all these stories are definitely reportage from a very specific place and time, the sense that all these events have happened before and will happen again is very clear. What's also very interesting to anyone involved with journalism is the section after each story where he chronicles the origins of the piece in question, and tells us the complexities involved in doing extremely serious work in a medium that most editors and journalists don't really understand yet, even though it's almost been a thousand years since the Bayeux Tapestry.

There are stories set in Chechnya, Malta, the Bosnian war crimes trials, Iraq, Palestine and India. Sacco's authorial tone is clearly something he's spent a lot of time considering – a great deal of empathy is visible all through the book, especially in the stories where he spends time as an embedded journalist with American troops in Iraq, getting to know and understand them even if he's opposed to the invasion and occupation in the first place. The stories about refugees in Chechnya are particularly touching, and require no reporting balance – in these, Sacco really sets himself free as a passionate human rights advocate, as someone who gives voices to people the world is happy to leave behind.

In these, Sacco really sets himself free as a passionate human rights advocate, as someone who gives voices to people the world is happy to leave behind.

Of special interest to Indian readers, of course, will be Kushinagar, where Sacco spends time with Dalits in Uttar Pradesh living in abject poverty and fear in Indian villages. He tells us how they live, and about the ex-royal landowners, corrupt bureaucrats and petty thugs who oppress them. Kushinagar was created for the French magazine XXI, which specializes in long-form journalism and is, according to Sacco, the publishing industry's greatest champion of comics reportage.

"Once I decided to draw a comic about poverty in India," writes Sacco in his afterword to the piece, "the problem I had was narrowing my focus. I could have examined the notorious farmer suicides or the urban slums, but I wanted to get off the beaten track."

he idea of coming to India specifically to draw a comic about poverty and picking the Dalits off a shopping list of people in tragic circumstances is one I might easily have found troubling, but given the compassion and skill with which Sacco had told his other stories I read his India piece with an open mind and was glad I did: it's very well done. There's no poverty-porn here, no grand all-encompassing stereotypes or speech-making about fascinating, exotic, mysical cultures. Not that I was expecting Joe Sacco to Slumdog-ify a story about the human condition. The characters are very real, drawn from enough distance for the reader to not grow sentimental or misty-eyed about them. The petty tyrants who ruin the lives of the Dalits are exceptionally well shown, and the horror with which an outsider sees many of the everyday customs Indian journalists wouldn't have noticed is particularly interesting. Inevitably, Sacco gets chased out of the villages he visits by upper-caste thugs, who are enraged by this white man's efforts to show India and its culture in a poor light.

Journalism is an important book, the result of a great deal of very hard work, and should bring many first-time Sacco readers to his other books as well.

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