Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Sacco and the hole truth

Getting the facts down in comics is a lot more complicated than it looks.

A couple of weeks ago, cartoonist Dylan Horrocks teamed up with novelist Emily Perkins to present their collaborative mini-comic - ‘All Hail Ellie, Devourer of Worlds’ – before a live audience. It was a charming and thoughtful way to unveil their charming and thoughtful collaboration, especially since the comic itself was all about the process of crafting stories and creating fiction and how hard it actually is.

(The comic can be bought from Horrocks directly here and there is a fine interview with Perkins on comics here.)

While answering questions from the crowd afterwards, the subject of capturing truth popped up, and Horrocks conceded that any attempt to capture reality on the comic page was always going to have a bit of the fictional around it – artists choose the amount of detail that goes into their pages, exaggerate for dramatic or comical effect and can even be unintentionally misled by their own subject matter.

Horrocks did tie things up nicely by pointing out that while he couldn’t always capture the absolute truth in non-fiction comics, he could always try to strive for honesty as much as possible, which is about all anybody could ask for.

The same night that Horrocks and Perkins presented their piece, I went home and cracked open Joe Sacco’s latest book for the first time. Unsurprisingly, this question of reality versus fiction comes up several times in Footnotes in Gaza, as Sacco bypasses decades of injustice, brutality and hatred in Palestine to focus on one particular day more than five decades ago.

In the very earliest stages of the book, Sacco discovered that the horrible things that took place at Khan Yunis and Rafah in 1956 had been virtually airbrushed from history, and many who did know of them disputed their very existence, or regarded the entire case as a minor footnote in a long history of blood and dust.

Even those with the best of intentions, including the publishers of Sacco’s work, couldn’t see the importance of 1956. Not now, not after so long.

But Sacco met and talked to people who were there on those terrifying days, people who hid under the bodies of their neighbours, people who avoided sudden death thanks to pure chance. It was an incident that sparked off new hatreds that still fester, a show of power that relit old fires of conflict for a new generation and Sacco was there to listen.

But finding the facts behind what happened is difficult. Many of those involved have died, and those that were there on that fateful day are often unsure about the details. Geography and actions are fluid in the memory, and even though the storytellers are absolutely convinced of their facts, it sometimes fails to stack up with reality.

Sacco also runs into trouble when many who are currently suffering are actually offended that he is ignoring the current predicament to focus on long-ago. The artist tries to point out that the events of 1956 are still important, as they were one of several sparks that led to decades of fire between the people of the area, but that still is hard to do.

It’s not easy to convince people who just saw their grandmother buried in rubble of the importance of the past, but that’s the whole point of history. While it’s hard to look past current pain and find the causes in the past, it’s also necessary if we’re ever going to learn. We all make mistakes, but if we don’t learn from them, we’ll never get anywhere.

Maybe I’ve just being watching too many Adam Curtis films lately, but I really do believe that one of the big issues facing humanity as a race is the desperate need to learn from our historical mistakes, or we’re not going to get anywhere as a species. Stirring up history can also stir up dark, powerful and uncontrollable forces, but it’s necessary. We need to get past this present arrogance, the selfishness of the now.

In the end, Sacco can only capture what he can, but his little slice of history contains important lessons. His style remains, as ever, perfectly suited to the material – not only is he is able to draw the pain and anguish on victims’ faces, but he can also recreate geography that disappeared decades ago and compare it to the current reality.

He also has an easygoing and empathetic interviewing style that sometimes produces marvels. And his unwavering eye can sometimes produce moving results from the most mundane events.
Because it’s all about the people. And Joe Sacco drinks tea and watches television and walks around with people in the heart of an impossible situation, and they’re just like everybody else. This is the other great lesson that can be taken away from Footnotes in Gaza – “Hey, they’re just like me. Why do we have to hate them again?”. It’s one that is always worth spreading.

Maybe he doesn’t get all the exact facts, maybe the memory has distorted and truth is an impossibility. But Sacco’s work is as honest as ever.

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