Comic Journalism (and a History Lesson, too)

Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books Inc., 2001.

Palestine is an excellent and unique book by Joe Sacco. What makes this book different from other books about the conflict between the people of Israel and the people of Palestine is that this book is in comic form. He covers the topics of gender, race, and the militarization of society, while giving his subjects a face (both literally and metaphorically). The book contains a scathing satire of the stereotypes of both Jews and Arabs, and uses some really creative ways of getting the author’s point across.

Palestine is a powerful book because of the author's self-awareness and his treatment of the subject in a manner that is not self-righteous. Sacco adds strange, humanizing details to his characters - such as a mole, messy hair, or a discussion between Cairo hotel employees about how good Pink Floyd is. Because of his inclusion of this information that is not entirely applicable to his argument, the reader is made to feel that he/she is learning things at the same speed as the author. At the same time, the sheer amount of information it contains is staggering. The accounts of the personal lives of people on all sides of the issues, the historical information, and the opinions of the author all piled on top of one another makes this book almost intolerably heavy.

Sacco gives a lot of historical information about the intifada and other aspects of the development of the conflict. He does not fail to demonstrate his biases and feelings on the subject of the Israel/Palestine struggle, interjecting his own opinions throughout the book. I think this is very respectable, because if an author is going to put a bias into his work he should come out and say it. It is also intriguing how his opinions change as he continues his travels. He seems to start out siding with the Israelis, but after talking to many Arabs, his opinion begins to shift. In an interview for The Stranger, Sacco said “A real historical injustice is being perpetrated on the Palestinian people,” and “As far as what I saw or how people reacted when I was there, that's something I have to be objective about." His role in his book as an observer, a gatherer of information, and a teller of stories adds an extra dimension to the information given.

I find his depictions of large toothed, big nosed, people to be extremely stereotypical. Many of the caricatures of his subjects are similar, whether it is because of their looks or their personalities. The characters seem to engage in this competition of who's been shot more, who has more kids in jail, etc., for most of the book. Its hilarious, but at the same time it is really depressing. The characters do have individual stories in some cases, such as the interwoven story of the man's dating life in the beginning. Even the story about "Shreef, the Muslim in Love" does not make up for the fact that the characters are largely just reinforcing the same points over and over. Sacco is thorough, but repetitive. The book becomes hard to read after several chapters of similar responses to interviews, but I do believe the repetitiveness has a purpose.

The militarization of society is very apparent throughout the book, with the stories of peoples' sons in jail and soldiers on the streets during demonstrations as well as daily events in general. Perhaps Sacco's repetition of certain aspects of Palestinian society is for the purpose of levity and in order to stress that it is such a big part of daily life. On the eighty-first page, Sacco says "'s all but impossible not to sit beside a prison or jail story... I'm so numbed by so many accounts of incarceration that the sort of thing that raises my brow is a male in his mid-20s who hasn't been arrested. I want to ask him why the hell not?” The author, and his representation of himself in the book, realizes he's being repetitive and adds that tidbit of information in so that the reader knows what his purpose has been.

On the eighth page of the first chapter, Sacco puts himself into the story and states that "... my mind gurgles over with televised pools of blood...” I think Sacco does realize the impact of his subject matter, and saying that his mind gurgles over is just another way of espousing just how suffocating the problems of these people may be. He goes on to a situation where he's interviewing some people and one man is saying how one man has one son in prison, another has two in prison, etc. etc. etc. The character goes on and on and I detect a certain tone of mockery in his depiction of the man. Fortunately, the fact that the book is in comic form definitely adds depth to the stories because there are faces to go with the names.

The militarization of society also plays a large part in the adjustment of gender roles in Israel and the area known as Palestine. Sacco shows this throughout the book, with demonstrations he (or his character in the book) witnesses. One demonstration specifically is put on by women and children. One could say that the women are playing an important role, and it is good that they are allowed to play that role. One could also say that they are just using women for their cause (either side) as many causes have done throughout history during tough times. Women, overall, are portrayed as being strong in this book. The deciding factor is whether they are strong because they have to be, or strong because they can be. Sacco does not put any spin on his representation of gender roles in that militarized society, but he does offer a view of the roles people are playing in order to get things done.


Bennett, Katherine E. "Joe Sacco's Palestine: Where Comics Meets Journalism."
The Stranger 1994

Sacco, Joe. Palestine. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books Inc., 2001.