Joe Sacco Has Given Voice to the Oppressed in Palestine and Beyond

Joe Sacco's iconic graphic novel Palestine turns twenty-five this year. Its depiction of life under occupation is in keeping with his life's work — telling the stories of the oppressed that the powerful would prefer to forget.

Joe Sacco's iconic graphic novel Palestine turns twenty-five this year.

“The people he lives among,” wrote Edward Said, “are history’s losers — banished to the fringes where they seem to be despondently loitering. . . . With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better.”

It may be surprising to find out that a few paragraphs earlier, the iconic Palestinian intellectual was harkening back to smuggling illicit editions of Superman and Captain Marvel into his childhood home, because he wasn’t praising an academic tome or political documentary, but a comic book — specifically, Palestine by Joe Sacco.

Released twenty-five years ago this year, Sacco’s comic depicting life in the occupied territories was groundbreaking. It was — and still is — rare to see someone document the real people living in Palestine, behind the headlines and the political debates. Sacco paints a picture of life in the West Bank and Gaza in all its messy, imperfect reality, without an “agenda” or a proposed solution.

The images stick with you: Arab children hit with stray bullets filling hospital wards. Teenage settlers patrolling Hebron armed with Uzis. A grandfather crying after being forced by Israeli soldiers to chop down his family olive grove, their only source of income. Houses demolished in retribution for unproven crimes by the families of their residents. And despite their age, those stories have a troubling relevance today: last year marked a four-year high in the demolition of Palestinian homes, while just last month, Israeli forces uprooted three thousand Palestinian olive trees.

In Palestine, Sacco interweaves the history of the Balfour Declaration — the 1917 statement which heralded the British government’s support for a “national home for the Jewish people” — into the Nakba, and the reality of what these events represent for Palestinians. He tells stories like that of an elderly Palestinian refugee returning to his former village after half a century to find it has been demolished.

At a time when many claimed Palestinian people “did not exist” — as the former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once put it — Sacco’s portrayal of life in the occupied territories is a resounding rejection of that idea. Palestinians did exist, they do exist, and they will continue to exist, as real people, with lives, jobs, families, in the never-ending limbo of occupation.

After being born in Malta, Joe Sacco was raised in Australia and America, becoming a journalist working at US regional news services and practicing his illustrations on commissions for Malta’s tourist board. In the late 1980s, he went travelling, eventually finding himself in the Middle East at a time when Palestine was erupting. Since the First Intifada, he has written on the Bosnian conflict (Safe Area Gorazde and The Fixer), poverty in America (Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt) and the experiences of indigenous Canadians (Paying the Land).

In these stories, much like the gonzo journalists of the 1970s, Sacco rejects the assumption that the author’s story can be independent — that work can be constructed without parts of the writer spilling onto the page. Sacco’s Palestine acknowledges his own role in the story. From caricatured depictions of his bespectacled face lost in an Israeli protest crowd to his informal commentary on everything around him and the constant criticism of his own apparently flawed conduct, it’s impossible to miss Sacco’s role in his own work. In works like Palestine, the reader follows Sacco in his encounters with more and more of “history’s losers,” dutifully telling their stories and faithfully conjuring the misery they are stuck in.

Inspired by the paintings of Goya and Bruegel and the style of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Sacco’s illustrations take on an almost hyperrealistic style. The exaggerated expression of every character reflects who they are, while his panoramas capture every inexhaustible detail of everyday life. Sacco mixes a countercultural comic book style with such candid descriptions of his subjects — not as caricatures, but as actual people.

Interestingly, Sacco’s recent book, Paying the Land, takes a different turn. As a story of the indigenous Canadian Dene people over decades, his scope is massive, covering everything from widespread poverty, alcoholism, and drug abuse to the sprawling mass of metallic oil and gas pipes now scarring Canada’s vast landscape.

In one of the most compelling chapters, he examines the history of how 150,000 indigenous children were forcefully educated in state-run boarding schools where their culture and identity was deliberately erased, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse was rife. Some six thousand children died in the schools, which stayed open until the 1990s and were condemned in a 2015 report as state-sanctioned tools of “cultural genocide.” Through the lasting trauma of the children who lived through these institutions, Sacco offers a rare glimpse of the painful and fraught history of the Dene people, which shapes the pain and poverty they face to this day.

Another strength of Sacco’s is in the absence of political solutions and structures. His work has an in-built cynicism toward soldiers and politicians, toward enforcers or faraway figures who never face the suffering he documents. Some of that criticism was reserved for other journalists; as Sacco spent months with his subjects in places like Palestine and Bosnia, he’d witness the fleeting visits from Western journalists who would use the devastation as an eye-grabbing backdrop for a news report before disappearing the next day. As Said put it: “Joe is there to be in Palestine and only that — to spend as much time as he can sharing, if not finally living the life that Palestinians are condemned to lead.”

That cuts to the core of what is so great about Sacco’s work. His work isn’t mere reportage, or hunting for niche angles, but an attempt to flesh out accounts of real people, be they Bosnian war survivors who find a sense of cultural identity in Bosnian-made cigarettes or Levi’s jeans, Palestinians in semipermanent refugee camps sharing tales over copious amounts of sweetened tea, or the Dene people, “unmoored from the culture that once anchored them,” as their land is given over to fracking for oil and gas corporations.

Sacco’s loyalty is to the human beings caught in the middle of the great conflicts, upheavals, and liberal interventions of the ’90s and ’00s — those who influence the least, yet suffer the most. He has given a face and a voice to “history’s losers” — as Said called them — and ensured that their lives, stories, and everyday humanity were always front and center. A quarter of a century on from the first full publication of Palestine, Sacco implores people to refuse to forget the human cost at the core of conflict.