Comic books, the rock ‘n’ roll of literature, have always been a rigorously disreputable form of junk art for adolescents of body or mind. Hyper-energetic, crude, sexually regressive, and politically simplistic, comics—like rock (and, in recent years, hip-hop)—give fluent voice to their audience’s basest and most cynical impulses. These are their virtues, arguably, as outlets for emotional release and as social counteragents.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some young musicians developed grander notions and concocted a wholly different sort of rock, a bombastic, pretentious monster of musical crossbreeding (the mind of Little Richard combined with the heart of Richard Wagner) too colossal to be contained on a 45 RPM single or even on just one 33 RPM album. Record shelves buckled under with extravagant multidisc “concept albums” and “rock operas” laden with pulp mythology and inchoate mysticism, performed by rock bands such as Genesis and King Crimson, accompanied by the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra and its chamber choir. Pop music, inflated beyond recognition, nearly suffocated under its own weight.
Over the past ten years or so, something similar has been happening in comics. A generation of ambitious, serious artists and writers have been applying vast amounts of their creative energy into a milieu which is essentially the visual equivalent of the rock opera: the “graphic novel”—that is, a full-length book in comics format (cartoon drawings with word balloons for dialogue) printed between hard covers or glossy soft-cover. The idea is not new. In Europe, books such as Frans Masereel’s Passionate Journey and Otto Nuckel’s Destiny had told stories intended for adults in expressionistic woodcuts or drawings as early as the 1920s, although they were only a distant ancestor of the comics we know. The first self-proclaimed graphic novel in the US, Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, was published a quarter-century ago, in the same year as The World According to Garp.* No one seemed to pay much attention to what Eisner and a handful of others inspired by him were trying to do until 1992, when a special Pulitzer Prize for letters went to a graphic novel, Maus, a two-volume Holocaust allegory by the “underground” comics (or “comix”) artist and writer Art Spiegelman, an acolyte of the gonzo comics innovator Robert Crumb.
Since Maus, more than a thousand graphic novels have been published, and they are, on the whole, grandiose mutant spawn of mainstream comics, overloaded with faux mythology and mysticism suitable to Seventies rock. Eisner and Spiegelman, like Bob Dylan and the Beatles during the Sixties, had experimented with grown-up themes and complex modes of expression in efforts to take their art form out of the realm of junk, whereupon a legion of less-gifted imitators reduced the notion to baroque parody.
With few exceptions, the creators of the graphic novels published in recent years have been ignoring Eisner and Spiegelman’s innovation, which was not one of scale, but of kind. The thick covers, the extra pages, and the heavy paper stock—even the highfalutin “graphic novel” label—are secondary. Both artists’ breakthrough works in book form were a significant departure from comics tradition in being nonfiction at their heart. In A Contract with God, Eisner rendered his personal memories and family lore in intimate vignettes, and in Maus Spiegelman illustrated his father’s oral history of the death camps (which the younger Spiegelman had recorded on cassette tape) with bleak veracity. Spiegelman changed nothing in his father’s account other than the participants’ species. Jews became mice, Germans, cats, but only nominally so.
How could the comic book, whose very name is a pejorative synonym for the outrageously fantastical, do any justice to the real world? Can a medium so good at depicting the overblown and the infantile really pare itself down and grow up?
Joe Sacco, a Malta-born writer and artist who lives in New York, has taken nonfiction comics onto untested ground. He is doing journalism—first-hand depth reporting on hard-news subjects—in ink drawings and word balloons. There is virtually no precedent for what he does, aside from the rare newspaper editorial cartoon drawn in the field. (In the early 1940s, a comic-book series called “London” portrayed events of the Second World War as they happened, but its artist, a Columbia University student, Jerry Robinson, was working in Manhattan from news clips. The “true” crime comics that dominated the candy-store racks in the late 1940s and early 1950s were hack sensationalism, like the pulp magazines that bred them.) Among comics artists, a society of ostensible iconoclasts mostly imitating one another, Sacco is legitimately unique.
His two books, Palestine (1996) and Safe Area Gorazde (2000), are similar in conception. Each has as its subject a group of people enmeshed in ageless, intractable ethnic and political conflicts: in Gorazde, Muslims in a village of mixed ethnicity in eastern Bosnia, during several years immediately after the Bosnian War, and in Palestine, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories near the end of the first intifada of the early 1990s. In concentrating primarily on Muslims in both cases, Sacco has entrusted his sympathies with the side he considers underrepresented in the mainstream American press and television. “I’ve heard …the Israeli side most of my life,” he argues in an internal dialogue in Palestine. “It’d take a whole other trip to see Israel…. I’d like to meet Israelis, but that wasn’t why I was here.” The people in his books, as he portrays them, are disempowered—the worst fate imaginable to the super-powered populations in conventional comic books. While their Serbian neighbors are forewarned of military intrusions in time to organize and vacate their towns, Muslims, whom Sacco interviewed, find their phone lines dead and hide in their homes, watching machine-gun fire from their bedroom windows. In Palestine, Israeli soldiers chop down the olive trees in a Palestinian area, eliminating its residents’ main source of income.
Sacco, who studied journalism in college, immerses himself in the lives of his subjects as a participant observer (like Orwell with a sketch pad, down to the anticolonial politics and the absorption with the underclasses), and he has a clear eye for detail. In Gorazde, the more intimate and vivid of his books, we follow him (or, rather, his stand-in, a self-caricature who is a homely, awkward version of the man with the piercing glare pictured in his author photograph) as he talks, eats, and travels with Muslims in the divided town of Gorazde who have survived the ethnic-cleansing horrors of the Bosnian War. He takes us to a makeshift dance club with a group of disarmingly Westernized Muslim young people, and we witness their obsession with the banalities of American popular culture (Levi’s jeans, basketball, the Eagles). We walk the dirt streets still cleaved with Serbian tank tracks, and we see in the passersby the pallor inflicted by not enough food and too many cigarettes. In Palestine, much the same, we walk with Sacco as he shops at the street markets, earns his subjects’ confidence (greeting a wary vendor with some practiced Arabic), and visits Palestinians’ homes and refugee camps to conduct his interviews. Bags of stones hold down sheets of plastic on rooftops, and stains on the exterior walls mark floods from overflowing sewage.
More a diarist than a journalist, Sacco presents us with an essentially declarative record of his experiences and conversations. He lets his interview subjects talk, often at great length; we get their views and recollections largely unfiltered. “Too much has happened, too many family members killed,” rants a Bosnian Muslim woman, scowling angrily:
I used to have many Serb friends. I had a close friend named Miro, and it’s possible he was a sniper shooting at my daughter, that he was one of those people who raped and slaughtered… I can never trust those Serbs again, that’s obvious, and not only that, my relationship with Serbs who remained in Gorazde has changed, too… Things can never be the same.
Sacco’s point of view comes across mainly from the facial expressions he draws on his cartoon self, which veer from sympathy to alarm. Almost a quarter of both books is devoted to pictorial recreations of events which Sacco’s interview subjects describe: in Gorazde, descriptions of methodically executed atrocities by Serb forces, dramatic escapes, street fighting, and submedieval conditions in ravaged Bosnian hospitals; in Palestine, accounts of street fighting and of harassment, detention, and interrogation of Palestinians by Israeli hard-liners. Dedicated to providing a forum to those he considers unjustly neglected, Sacco clearly sees himself as something of a liberator of his subjects’ stories. As such, he’s the superhero in his comics, the person with powers beyond those of everyone else, who hides behind a mild-mannered façade.
Much as the protagonists of his books feel at odds with their surroundings, displaced or unsettled, Sacco renders his subjects and their environments as if they occupied sep- arate planes, like the moving characters superimposed upon stationary backgrounds in animated cartoons. Heavy brush lines outline the human figures. Their status as occupants of the land beneath them is an artful illusion, Sacco seems to be reminding us; they could be torn away as easily as sketches on a tissue-paper overlay.
The only literally comic element in Sacco’s work is his treatment of faces. His use of caricatures avoids the more realistic portraiture one might expect in books presented as journalism. Love-starved young Bosnian girls ogle at Sacco with ballooning fish eyes. The nose on a Palestinian man is bigger than another character’s head. (In mainstream comics, there is little caricature, but only exaggeration; everything is enlarged equally and indiscriminately in a childish glorification of the idea of bigness.) Most of Sacco’s characters are a bit grotesque, but funnily so—except for political leaders and his subjects’ antagonists, whom Sacco renders with cold, meticulous contempt. Indeed, the comical ugliness of a character is visually a measure of Sacco’s affection for him. In this, he suggests the world of male adolescence, where boys express their affection for fellow males in the code language of outrageous ridicule.
Traditionally, the physical settings have been incidental to character in the comics—so much so that bylined artists would frequently not bother with it at all; they would ink the figures zooming and flexing, and the task of filling in the frame with, say, Clark Kent’s office furniture or Wonder Woman’s jungle house would be left to uncredited apprentices called “backgrounders.” Sacco, by contrast, is not merely attentive to the backgrounds; particular settings occupy the thematic foreground of his books. Both Gorazde and Palestine are principally concerned with the loyalties of his characters to their homelands. People describe how the wars have felt from their sides, and Sacco shows us the evidence in meticulous specificity: in the streets of Gorazde, laundry hangs from the frames of missing apartment-house windows, and kids play with toys made from the parts of burned-up, abandoned cars. In the West Bank, shards of cloth dangle from barbed-wire fences. Unlike the characters in Sacco’s books, who are drawn in strong, thick cartoon lines, the streets and buildings are sketched in delicate, reverential, occasionally tentative lines. Sacco treats places as their residents talk of them, as something sacred that human meddling can too easily destroy.
He works in black ink and adds no gray half-tones or colors, at once connecting his drawings to the centuries-old tradition of political cartooning as well as to the radical underground comix of the 1960s and their progeny, the low-budget independent or “alternative” comics of recent vintage such as Weirdo and Drawn and Quarterly. Their stark black-and-white line drawings signal that Sacco’s books are serious and they aspire to be art. Created by one person with a sensibility evident in both drawings and text, these words and pictures are works of personal expression, as opposed to the glossy commercial comics generated by production-line teams of writers, pencilers, inkers, letterers, and computer colorists.
All comic-book panels are cinematic; they look like cleaned-up and primped versions of the storyboards that directors use as guidelines for film production. Being a kind of visual journalism made in black and white, Sacco’s books have something in common with documentary film. However, they are composed and paced more like feature movies, particularly films of the studio era, prior to the rise of television, video games, and the Internet. Sacco’s approach to graphic sequencing—his “shot language”—is disciplined and traditional. Images follow one after another gracefully, as they do in a film by a Hollywood craftsman such as Howard Hawks or Michael Curtiz: landscapes put the subjects in perspective; figures are often shown at full length and in groups, so we can see their body language, watch their interaction, and examine their relationships; the close-up is used sparingly, for impact. Once the common vocabulary of film as well as comics, these principles now tend to be seen as old-fashioned in both forms, where barrages of close-ups and jump cuts are taken for stimulation.
By the comic-book conventions of today, making language so high a priority is an archaism as startling as using title cards for dialogue in a movie. It has become commonplace for comics artists to generate complete stories, leaving empty word balloons in the panels; only when the art is finished does a “writer” come in, filling the blanks with dialogue to accommodate the imagery. Sacco is so detached from the stylistic orthodoxy of his medium that his books actually have lengthy passages of text handwritten in columns and books, as well as in word balloons—transcripts of interviews, usually—with drawings added for amplification.
Beyond the journalistic terrain Joe Sacco has been pioneering, there is another realm of nonfiction in contemporary comic books: a subgenre of confessional memoirs and intimate, quasi-fictional realism. Once again, the work has a parallel in popular music, in which young singers and songwriters have been recording modest, gentle tunes about quotidian goings-on. The big hit among them is twenty-three-year-old Norah Jones’s trifle “Don’t Know Why (I Didn’t Call),” which recently won five Grammys, and it exemplifies the category. Jones, talk-singing in a pretty wisp of a voice, tells us that she never got around to doing something which she doesn’t seem to have been particularly intent on getting done—specifically, dialing a telephone number—and she doesn’t know why not. It’s a song about virtually nothing, an anthem of inconsequence and impassivity.
In comics, a group of artist-writers of Jones’s generation such as Adrian Tomine and Matt Madden has been poking around the same territory, making prosaic autobiographical books about hanging out with friends, developing crushes (generally unrequited), doing temp jobs, or “whatever.” The Internet has displayed a related phenomenon, the open diaries called “blogs” (from “web logs”), which put their writers’ daily lives up for public display in numbing detail.
The comics artist and writer Daniel Clowes would seem similar if his taste for the mundane were not so refined. He is the prolific author of short pieces, some of them autobiographical (“Art School Confidential,” a story about his college years which he is currently adapting to the screen), most of them drawn from his own experience (“Immortal, Invisible,” inspired by his childhood memories of trick-or-treating, or “Like a Weed, Joe,” in which his frequent stand-in, Rodger Young, suffers a dreary summer with his grandparents), others more fully imagined. In a sort of noirish magical realism set in mall society, “The Gold Mommy,” a character who happens to look exactly like Clowes forgets to bring money to the barbershop and ends up murdered for no good reason.
Clowes has written several graphic novels which combine these different veins (most notably, Ghost World, which was made into a film in 2001). Throughout his work, Clowes’s strength is his wry, affectionate way with the trite minutiae of everyday life (theme restaurants, licensed-character toys, frozen snacks, sitcom reruns) in a culture infused with commercial artifice. He has as sharp an eye for atmospheric detail as Sacco does—under the table at a yard sale in one sequence, we see the TV actress Patty Duke’s long-playing album “Don’t Just Stand There,” an obscure artifact of Sixties plastic culture (wherein an adult who portrayed a teenager on television was repackaged as a pop singing star, thanks to studio wizardry)—and the landscape Clowes renders so acutely, commercial America, is despoiled and impermanent, too. Clowes’s characters, like Sacco’s, can’t help but love it just the same, because it’s all they’ve ever known.
Ghost World, Clowes’s most affecting book, is a languid story about a pair of teenage girls, best friends, during the summer after high school. They wander about the middle-class neighborhood of their childhood, killing time, jaded and fearful of losing their cool and each other. One of them might go to college and then again might not, and the other may follow her there. It’s a warm, human book set in a landscape of vulgarity and falseness. Clowes has described the relationship of the protagonists, Enid Coleslaw and Becky Doppelmeyer, as the conflict between the id (Enid, whose full name is an anagram for Daniel Clowes) and the superego. Indeed, Enid is mercurial and lost, Becky more social and solid, although both characters are more nuanced than that—and they develop over the course of the book: breaking out of their childhood interdependence, Enid leaves town, while Becky turns to the boy they both loved.
Clowes, who is in his early forties, understands the confused identities of young people on the cusp of adolescence and adulthood. “If you were to wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me how old I was, I would probably say I was eighteen,” he told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. No wonder he excels in graphic novels, a medium teetering on the line between juvenilia and adult literature, too sophisticated for children but too closely associated with youth for the average grown-up.
Ghost World, like most of Clowes’s other work, is drawn in black-and-white brush lines, the figures rendered in the self-consciously awkward style that many alternative comic artists employ to impart a quality of anti-commercialism—yet some of Clowes’s drawings, particularly the close-ups of Enid, have a tender delicacy, suggesting that he might be a more skillful draftsman than he lets on. His art looks naive, while also conveying a sense of hidden potential, hinting again at the tension between youth and maturity. For this book, Clowes shaded his drawings with a pale aqua tone, making everything look as if it were a reflection of television, as most everything in the media-infused world of the book is.
Although it is a comic book, fictional, and absorbed with the ephemera of popular culture, Ghost World is ultimately concerned with the real world—that is, the peculiar reality of artifice as a defining force in a society dominated by the media and marketing. Enid loves a TV comedian who has adopted a forced “weirdo” persona because she considers him authentically phony. Her favorite restaurant is one of a chain of paltry recreations of 1950s joints, which she calls “the Mona Lisa of the bad fake diners” because it is so pitifully unconvincing.
In a throwaway gag within one scene, a man perched on the second-story window ledge of a building overlooking a crowded sidewalk announces the television character whom each passerby resembles: “You look like Eddie Munster…you look like Homer Simpson…you look like Julie from the Mod Squad…,” echoing the theme of the dominance of television, but it’s wholly inappropriate to Enid and Becky, because they themselves are nothing like characters from TV sitcoms, cartoons, or other comic books. The people they do remind me of are my daughter Victoria and her high school friends: real young people struggling to find their place in the adult world.
I asked Victoria if she had read Ghost World, Joe Sacco’s books, or any other graphic novels, and she was insulted. She’s seventeen, she reminded me—why would she read a comic book? It was exactly what someone in Ghost World would say.
August 14, 2003