Footnotes in Gaza
Joe Sacco, writer/artist
Metropolitan, December 2009
Journalist Joe Sacco’s latest book is about two massacres of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers in two Gaza Strip camps/towns during the Suez Crisis in 1956. I think there are several things you can point to in it and say “Joe Sacco does that very well.”
The first is what you might refer to optimistically as scale or pessimistically as sprawl. There’s a memorable three-page sequence in the early going tht compares what the Palestinian refugee camps looked like in the mid-’50s, the time of the events the book spends most of its time chronicling, to what they looked like in the mid-’00s, which was when Sacco did the chronicling. On the first splash page, rows of little brick houses with sloping roofs and walled-in yard-like compounds trail off into the distance; a little street crosses the page in the foreground while the rows stop short of the horizon, which is buffered by a strip of wildnerness and then another, barely visible town just at the limit of sight. On the second page, giant apartment buildings jut upward against tiny shacks whose metal roofs are pinned down by bricks, tires, and debris; the roofs and clotheslines and water towers and telephone wires begin right at the bottom of the two-page spread and keep going until the taller buildings literally blot out the vast majority of the horizon, and even chunks of the sky. The message seems clear: Things may have been pretty bad for the impoverished, angry people of Gaza back then; everything is worse now. This is driven home later in the book by a second spread that mimics the set-up of the one that established the look of the camps today: This one show a barbed-wire fence and the ruins of bulldozed homes as far as the eye can see. Sacco is fond of that temporal-juxtaposition device, never more brutally used than when we see a contemporary row of cars parked against a wall on the right-hand side of a spread where dozens of dead bodies had been shown to us against that same wall some fifty years before on the left-hand side. Sometimes Sacco uses his skill with scale not for a landscape or panorama, but for single structures: The IDF towers that oversee the town of Rafah or a nearby checkpoint on the road to Gaza City rear up to the sky like menacing robots, while bulldozed multi-story building where many people once lived dwarfs us with the absence of it that we project against the sky. Other times it’s explosions and chaos that overwhelm us, swirls of stippled smoke and fire obliterating buildings and bodies alike.
The second thing Sacco does well is visual repetition. You see this in that initial page of the mid-century refugee camp and its little block houses, of course. But later, you see it with bodies. Men forced to run pell-mell through the streets of their camp by angry soldiers firing in the air, and sometimes not in the air at all. Often they are all made to strike the same pose, arms in the air to show they are unarmed; the unnatural positioning leads to a criss-cross effect as the men scramble around and past and behind and in front of one another. Sacco will shift to a bird’s eye view here, make skillful use of alternating gray and white clothing there, freeze the men with their backs to us like they’ve been paused in the middle of a Michael Jackson video dance routine here, throw them into a morass of beatings by the Israeli soldiers like a nightmare version of that third, battle-heavy Where’s Waldo? book there. Repetition leads to perhaps the book’s single most striking visual: The men of the town of Rafah, rounded up en masse in a schoolyard, forced to sit on the ground with their hands on their heads for hours at a time. Sacco shows this vista from slightly above and in front, from a three-quarter angle, from behind; the men become a featureless mass of little ovals of fear and discomfort, bleeding and pissing on one another, slightly cracked eggs in a massive carton.
The third thing Sacco does well is conveying a sense of action, or intense activity if you distrust that word’s genre connotations. Sacco’s careening caption boxes alone can get across the sweep of a magnificent view, the interruptions of constant cellphone calls, the chaos of constant violence, the chatter of a party, the march of history, the swell of a crowd, and the dance moves of beautiful women all by themselves–and in the book’s first seven pages, they do all that and more. Elsewhere he uses perspective tricks, like a swoop of flame that makes it look like a burning soldier has literally been propelled toward us. In the chaos of a sudden attack by an Israeli patrol he cross-cuts two different sentences like a giant X across an almost collage-effect collection of panels showing him and his companions as they flee in all directions; you have to read one of them backwards, manga-style. And it’s all but impossible to forget the montage based on the two stick-swinging soldiers seared into the memory of every man in the town as they tee off on hundreds of terrified captives being herded through a narrow gate, or the jump-cut chaos of a black-bordered POV sequence that makes as bold a use of the cut-to-black as anything since a certain HBO TV show.
The fourth thing Sacco does well is portraiture. This book is just as much a Beard Parade (and Mustache Parade, and Grumpy Little Kid Parade, and Wrinkled Old Lady Parade) as R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis Illustrated, and there’s just as much care and attention put into differentiating each from the other. (The exception are the Israeli soldiers in the flashback sequences; they have a uniform build, the shadow of their pith helmets rendering them eyeless and inscrutable. Only the notably monstrous or humane gain individualization.) But even still there are standouts. Take Sacco’s frequent interview subject and companion Khaled: A Palestinian guerrilla marked for death by the IDF and constantly moving from place to place, he nonetheless has a Cheshire Cat serenity in his heavy-lidded face. We frequently see him in repose, including one sequence where he lies immobile in bed, staring directly at the reader as he speaks of his utter exhaustion with his life on the run. The lines with which Sacco crafts his massive forehead, riven with wrinkles like the rungs of a ladder, and his jutting ears, and those preternaturally taciturn eyes, are all about the smoothest you’ll see in the entire book; they make him look like a Dick Tracy villain.
The regional leaders Sacco shows us also have a comic-book or James-Bond heavy vibe to them. Nasser is almost always shown pensively stroking his chin or smoking a cigarette, constantly scheming and planning for the greater glory of the Arab World, by which he means Egypt, by which he means Nasser. Ben-Gurion, with his wild ring of white hair, and Dayan, with his can’t-make-it-up Hollywood pirate eyepatch, point to maps and whisper in ears, goading like composite human versions of the angels and devils who appear on cartoon characters’ shoulders. At one point, the Egyptian and Israeli leaders are shown in the exact same poses as their forces clash; the implication of this mirroring for the Palestinians used as pawns in their schemes to provoke one another into a ruinous war is perfectly clear.
Individual militants can look like bad guys, too. An aged fedayeen telling of his career of raids on Israel-held lands at the behest of the Egyptian military looks for all the world like the standard stereotypical supervillain image of the Ayatollah, while his evident horror at having been made to fight side by side with out-and-out murderers whose “talents” the cynical Egyptians wanted to make use of but then hopefully have put out of commission by Israeli bullets is reflected in the mad eyes and bestial unibrow of one such killer who stares right at the reader with psychotic intensity.
I’m making Sacco’s portraiture seem un-subtle, I know. And in those cases, I suppose it is, to an extent anyway; his level of craft always elevates his Eisnerian-pantomime body language and facial expressions above caricature. But when he really sharpens the knife in this regard, when he puts together a sequence or assembles a moment that plays across a human face like a miniature film, that’s when he’s at his most dangerous and devastating. Right now I have the book open to a page where a three-panel tier at the top shows an old man, again staring straight at us, recalling how little time he had to bury his slain relatives in the first two panels, and then bam, in panel three, his eyes are closed and he’s silently weeping. Below that we see the first-grader self of a woman who’s old now, a look of utter confusion and dismay on her face as she watches the women of her neighborhood writhing on the ground and screaming in grief. Somehow even more frightening to me is a woman whose house is the last one standing on a block constantly being bulldozed by the Israelis as part of their policy of leveling any structure from which any kind of threat has emerged. (Sacco never says it outright, but it appears that saying that this justification is gilding the lily would be the understatement of the decade.) As the woman tells Sacco of her plight–how they’d leave their house since it’s clear the Israelis want no one in this area, but they have no money to move anyplace else; how her daughter has started pissing on herself and just crawling around in terror when the ‘dozers strike–she looks this way and that depending on where she’s standing, but the expression of wide-eyed, slackjawed horror on her face never changes at all.
But there are a pair of sequences even stronger, to me, than those moments. They’re stronger even than the rare times when Sacco makes his feelings on these subjects clear–his disgust at the grotesque, casually genocidal racism of an archival Israeli document about the displaced Palestinians; his disgust at the hypocrisy of Palestinian militants who decry the civilian casualties inflicted by Israeli soldiers even though their weapons allow for deadly precision, but disregard the fact that human explosives who enter a pizzeria or board a bus are the most precisely guided weapons of all; his digust at himself for forcing old, bereaved, desperately poor people to relive the worst day of their lives, then getting mad at them for digressing or getting their facts mixed up. These two strongest segments are sequences in which the immediately identifiable, loving connection of family to family and the unimaginable reality of violence are smashed together with astonishing power. The first is in a flashback from an old woman, picturing herself as the little girl she once was when soldiers entered her home and shot her father to death as she sat next to him. He slumps against the wall in a jacket and striped pajamas and traditional headgear, his head pointing sightlessly downward as if staring at the dark mass of blood staining his stomach; next to him the chubby, curly-haired, barefoot little girl, looking like one of those Campbell’s soup cherubs, looks up at her dead father, her tiny face seeming to crumple into a black hole of utter sadness. The second is another reminiscence by an old woman, recalling how she found her husband in the chaos after the book’s central round-up took place. Two panels show him fleeing for his very life, panicked and paranoid, mouth agape, eyes darting to and fro, a look of raw animal terror on his face–until in the third panel his wife literally catches him as he runs, looking up at him plaintively as he turns toward her mid-stride, the fact that he’s been grabbed by the woman he loves and not by…someone else clearly still not having registered. In that moment I tried to imagine what it would be like for my wife to see that look on my face, the look of all other thought and emotion and sentience out of my eyes, the look of a lifeform’s basic, primordial desire just to survive the next moment.
The fifth thing Sacco does well is convince you–or me at least–that there are no good guys in this world, only bad guys and victims, and that you’re lucky beyond imagining that you’ve never been forced you to find out which of the two you really are.