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posted June 26, 2012


Creator: Joe Sacco
Publishing Information: Metropolitan, hardcover, 208 pages, June 2012, $29.
Ordering Numbers: 9780805094862 (ISBN13)

I only just finished reading Joe Sacco's new Journalism collection the morning this review appears, so I'm not exactly in the best place to provide a long, ruminative piece. I wanted to rush something into circulation, though, because this book is very, very strong, even by the high standards established by Sacco's previous work, and it's got a lot of what may potentially cure the summer, comics-reading blahs. I want to recommend Journalism because I had more fun reading this book than the supposedly fun comics I've read recently, and found it more exciting than the comics I'm reading that are supposed to provide thrill after thrill. I'd like to suggest that you read Journalism as a comic book.

Journalism collects approximately 200 pages of Sacco's magazine work in the field for which he's best known: engaged, first-person journalism. What gets reprinted is in every case very seriously-intended work, well-executed in a way that makes Sacco's comics stand out from a lot of the journalistic pieces being done right now. He gives a clue why in the preface, when he talks about the unique ability comics to get at a grander truth, and how this both obligates and frees him from a sense of the literal and especially the balanced. Sacco employs a dense, textured style that makes his comics rewarding just watching him play with his visual approach's outer edges. The flourish he uses of blocks of text that wobble back and forth on the page, for example, is a minor tool for Sacco in the overall array of effects he brings to bear, but the way it sends us skittering across his panels and provides his voice with an almost imperative rhythm, that's the kind of thing that's invaluable to reading someone in depth and at length over a large period of time. It's pleasurable reading Sacco's comics, and I don't think that can ever be underestimated as a factor in his appeal.

Journalism also provides value, if you insist on seeing comics in that light. It's the proverbial good buy. I just spent four days off and on with this book, something I'll keep as long as I have books, something to which I'll return both in the near future and years down the line. Journalism costs as much as a pile of pulp adventure comics that might take me 17, 18 minutes to read in total if I try to extend the experience for as long as possible, comics about which I may never think a single thought ever again. I understand why forgettable, ugly comics get more attention: a lot of people genuinely enjoy such material, some in a variety of complicated and very human ways, and the force such works have in the marketplace makes it important we talk about some of them whether we feel they're good for us or not. At the same time, it would be a wonderful thing if we could open ourselves a bit to more conversations about the content of what we read over orienting ourselves to a response based on wider market acceptance. It's the comics themselves that thrill in a work like Journalism, not the work's identity as a signpost in the development of some fantasy character, or as a facilitator for and industry discussion, or as a trigger for nostalgia, or as a successful entity or not in how you describe the world of comics. Content that challenges the way this work does should count for something.

The three short pieces in Journalism that made the most significant impression on me on this first read were "Complacency Kills," "The Unwanted" and "Kushinagar." "Complacency Kills" is one of the weaker pieces in Journalism, and one for which I didn't particularly care when I read it upon its initial publication in The Guardian. And yet with Sacco's follow-up notes on how he took the opportunity to learn something about U.S. men's and women's soldiers, his hilarious admission he added nothing to the body of work on such matters, and the way this still-complete portrait of men attempting to do a difficult job then presses against and informs the other Iraq pieces, the story becomes greater than the sum of its panels. "The Unwanted" shows Sacco in his native Malta applying his skill-set to a problem -- the massive influx of African refugees into the Mediterranean island country -- that seems like it could thwart what it is Sacco does. This is not a problem where merely exposing the issue and bearing witness to it will carry weight. It has to be prodded and cajoled. At one point Sacco drops everything and drags us through the entire journey taken by one man from his country to this one, in a way that you feel there can't be another moment of misery and exploitation before turning the page and finding this is so. It's a brave decision by Sacco and one that pays off by providing a structural dimension to the man's plight: we feel what he went through in a way that reinforces what we learn of its details. "Kushinagar" is more of a classic Sacco piece in that he finds the most horrific example of human degradation the situation he's covering provides and then makes sure it's front and center in our minds. In the case of this study of small-town corruption so thorough the people harmed are routinely left scrambling after basic necessities, that horrifying fact is entire groups of people, all ages, stealing food from rats by literally digging into the holes where the rats live and swiping their food. The widespread exploitation Sacco reveals is hard to pin down save for examples like that one and how much his attempts at learning more are arrogantly frustrated. It's deft work, great comics working from very little reporting, and reaches at a truth that would either slide past or be beyond a lot of cartoonists in the same position.

You don't need a lot of the books you'll be told you need to buy this summer, but I think Journalism is one of them where you can make a case for its usefulness and not have to qualify anything first, not have to imply some sort of value beyond what's right there between the covers. These are compelling comics from a first-rate talent and kept me desperate to return to its pages between readings. That's a summer comic, all right.