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Footnotes In Gaza
posted November 9, 2009


Creator: Joe Sacco
Publishing Information: Metropolitan, hardcover, 432 pages, December 2009, $29.95
Ordering Numbers: 0805073477 (ISBN10), 9780805073478 (ISBN13)

imageThe first good news to report about the massive, fascinating new Footnotes in Gaza hardcover is that the cartoonist is in top form throughout. If there's something that Joe Sacco's done in a previous comic that you've liked or with which you've been impressed, then that same technique or approach is likely to be on display here in a comparable or more effective way. Were you ever touched by the way he depicted the cacophony of human faces and stories with which he engages? There are dozens as lovingly drawn and given full voice here. Were you intrigued by the questions he asked? He's never been on better display as a journalist than here. Were you excited by displays of storytelling prowess that emerged through striking design? There's a page in here where a tank swoops onto a position held by a mix of reporters and protesters that themselves move away, resulting in a kind of helix design that may make you laugh out loud it's so clever and so deftly describes the chaotic scene. Do you simply like Joe Sacco as a narrator, and appreciate his human insight into what he's seeing, the way that people ask him for advice he can't give or provide him with hospitality he's constrained from refusing or the way he takes the occasional all-too-human misstep? There's a moment where the cartoonist takes to the wrong wall at night and can't stop laughing that's as memorable and endearing as any previous moment he's stumbled through in any of the places he's taken his readers to see. Everything Sacco does well is here, and it's particularly exciting to see Sacco build on past efforts at depicting certain thematic material. For instance, the subliminal effect he achieved with wood in Safe Area: Gorazde is mirrored here by the strategy he brings to drawing children. You'll have to see it yourself, and you might not agree, but I thought it very similar and the payoff fairly breathtaking. You can take Footnotes In Gaza as the sum of its many estimable parts and enjoy it as one of the best long-form comics of this decade on that level alone.

And yet one thing I wondered while reading it is if there won't be a certain amount of backlash against the book, a reaction given many different names but fundamentally centered on how strongly it makes its case. This is severe, frequently unpleasant material, driving towards a very specific point, facilitated by an artist in his cartooning prime. I can see people building an objection around some notion that Sacco should be impartial in a way that suits most modern journalistic enterprises -- an equal effort behind each political notion contained within every story -- and it's easy to imagine some people might feel closer to the Sacco from earlier efforts who struggled much more along the way, who seemed as beaten up by his stories as invigorated by his discoveries. Footnotes In Gaza doesn't have that appealing nature that comes from our finding Sacco having fallen into something. It doesn't seem ridiculous for him to be doing what he's doing, not anymore and not to us. In fact, his fealty to uncover the truth about a set of atrocities in two Gaza strip towns in 1956 is almost ruthlessly professional, and his focus on that part of the massive human tragedy which is the human cost of political struggles in that part of the world constantly lashes against the hotly expressed desires of those he encounters to discuss the troubles of right here and now. And of course Sacco is covering that stuff, too, just by showing himself on the journey he has to take, the people he encounters and takes on as guides or companions, what he encounters moving from interview A to interview B. Those two major stories and the back and forth between them provide the work with its restless energy. The results of his historical survey-taking are clearly the book's spine, a story soaked to the marrow with heartbreaking specific insights and a debilitating to one's soul body count. What makes this book both likely uncomfortable for many readers and I think Sacco's greatest work to date is the shakiness of its heart. Sacco is focused on his mission but remains more profoundly doubtful than anyone he encounters desperate for his attention that the truths he pursues are valuable. Sacco asks the hardest question of all for a historian and for the old-time reporter he at one point touchingly lauds: that even if we breach the veils of time and tragedy and distance and politics and shame, are we any closer to what we've just explored as a human experience?