What shape does hell take? In Norse mythology she—the goddess Hel—is a girl with a face half beautiful, half rotted away. Brave warriors had a place in Valhalla, whereas Hel’s domain is for those who did not die honorably in battle. Greek mythology does not allow for such clear-cut distinctions. Death sends you to Hades: you are down, unless by some act of godly intervention your fragments are thrown skywards to settle as a constellation, not quite a god nor solely a symbol.
But what if hell could be contained within a frame—constructed on an axis of text and image? That question of containment, of framing and fragmentation shapes the genre-defying form of Orpheus & Eurydice: A Graphic-Poetic Exploration (OE), by the artist Tom de Freston and his partner the poet Kiran Millwood Hargrave. Published as part of Bloomsbury’s Beyond Criticism series, the book is a both a study of mythic narrative structures and an act of mythmaking in its own right: de Freston’s images follow Orpheus down to Hades while Millwood Hargrave’s words give voice and agency to Eurydice. Essays by academics and cultural critics are interwoven with the narrative, and just as there is no such thing as a self-contained myth disconnected from a wider network of stories, so the book is just one part of an ongoing collaborative project. OE is an exercise in world-building, using film, performances, and exhibitions to test the dimensions of the myth: the myth of the man, the musician, who entered the underworld to rescue his wife from the clutches of death.
I’m stuck on the cliché, “clutches of death.” Transmitting a myth quickly will do that to language—make it portable, acritical, squeezed into conventional structures. Who’s to say this is a myth of a man, his song, his rescue mission? By letting the story divide and multiply into frames and fragments, the book permits the myth its slipperiness; indeed, in the opening pages of the book, the narrative seems to have slipped from its template entirely.
We see a man, a painter, willing his wife back from the dead as he daubs her image across a triptych. We will know him as Orpheus, a self-indulgent slob dressed only in a pair of grubby white briefs. The woman on the canvas is Eurydice, she wears the dress she died in. And then she too, slips—her body falling until she is no longer contained by the painting which, wiped of its image, becomes a threshold to the underworld. Orpheus enters because he has read Eurydice’s poetry, which tells of a man who looks back and loses his wife forever. He sets out to remake the myth and rewrite his wife, rescuing himself in the process—and yet it seems the story is doomed from the start. A misplaced minotaur is appointed as Orpheus’s guide, a botched version of Dante’s Virgil, falling into frame in a manner reminiscent of a powerpoint presentation. Together they’ll follow the thread, down to catch a wife, a wife in free-fall through a grid of graphics.
De Freston’s images are loud: there will be scenes of screaming beasts, crashing canvases, bodies bound in kaleidoscopic contortions. Yes, Orpheus can sing—one wailing o which extends wordlessly across several spreads—but he is unable to listen, unable to exit his self-centered orbit. His story is told in soundless freeze-frame; it is Eurydice who speaks, who utters her own images of “welling mud,” “parcelled buds,” “tongue through teeth.” Handwritten on notepaper in a sotto voce script, Millwood Hargrave’s poems are placed unobtrusively between pages—and yet they are less like pressed flowers than gaping mouths, blooming wounds. Her language is the traumatic meeting between body and spirit, the temporal and eternal, lust and loss, a language that voices Eurydice’s ambivalence as Orpheus stumbles in the dark towards her. She knows that “an e is not just a broken o,” and when o aligns with e she will not come quietly.
This is a radical retelling, but its radicalism is not a matter of “reinterpretation.” It is true that we are inclined to read Orpheus more sympathetically—his role as lover and musician is enough to prove his virtue, and his actions appear to meet the criteria for the archetypal tragic hero: he risks all in an act of superhuman bravery, and loses the one he loves in a moment of human fallibility. However, for a story to be reinterpreted it must first be fixed, and it is the essence of myth to be shifting and contradictory. To set out to create a new version of a myth would be to misunderstand the nature of the medium—reinterpretation is inherent in the telling itself.
In Plato’s Symposium, for instance, Orpheus is said to be a coward who, rather than resolving to die for love, chose to save his skin and enter Hades alive. Indeed, Orpheus’s eventual end—torn limb from limb by the frenzied female followers of Dionysus—does seem ill-suited to a hero. When his fragments were eventually gathered by the muses it is worth noting that it was his lyre, not his body, that made it to the status of a constellation, and it is this ambiguity between heroism and ignominy, pure art and bodily abjection, which has made Orpheus such a fertile subject for writers and artists.
The preface to OE places the book as one part of a mythic evolution, referencing Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (1922), Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), Anaïs Mitchell’s album Hadestown (2010) and David Almond’s young adult novel, A Song for Ella Grey (2015). The writer Ann Wroe anatomized Orpheus’s shape-shifting form in her award-winning “biography” Orpheus: The Song of Life (2012), and has contributed an essay for OE in which she turns her attention to Eurydice. Looking back to the original meaning of Eurydice’s name (“wisdom” or “wide ruling”), Wroe asks not what OE makes new, but what it retrieves. “This meaning of Eurydice, dark germinating wisdom, has long been lost,” she writes. “But we see glimpses of it here.”
And so, to retell is never truly to make new—we are bound to an eternal return, a recurring backwards glance. The radicalism of OE, I would argue, is a result of placing those remembrances of the darker parts of the myth within a structure that retains volatility, that stays unstable. The reader is thereby granted not only an alternative reading of the myth but an alternative means of constructing narrative and making sense of what we see. In short, an alternative approach to reading.
Existing in the shadowy space between art and literature, text and image, graphic narratives are drawn towards those dark corners, to the parts of a story usually left unseen. There is something inherently subversive about the form, due partly to its detachment from genre, partly to the potential for dissonance between text and image. This dissonance lends itself to humor—I’m thinking of the cats that appear in Regina Doman and Sean Lam’s graphic biography Habemus Papam! Pope Benedict XVI (2012), and the phallic intrusions in Piero’s graphics for Introducing Roland Barthes (2006). Even when posing as “illustration,” as demonstrated in Maira Kalman’s graphics for The Elements of Style, Illustrated (2005), the temptation to “read into” the text can prove too hard to resist.
Whether or not we refer to graphic narratives as comics, the form has always contained elements of darkness. In their “wordless novels” of the early 20th century, artists Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward made darkness both a matter of style and content; their heavily inked woodblock prints do not shy away from scenes we might rather not see, whether a public lynching, police brutality, or a gigantic man pissing on a city. Graphic narratives are unique in their ability to combine dark humor and unflinching representations of trauma, and yet it took until 1992, when Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1986) won the Pulitzer Prize, for this quality to be taken seriously. Since then, the form has been appreciated as a powerful means of addressing political upheaval and human suffering: Joe Sacco’s Palestine (1993, 1996) paved the way for the practice of graphic journalism, and important recent publications have included Threads: from the Refugee Crisis (2017) by Kate Evans and Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq (2016) by Sarah Glidden.
In his reports of his experiences in Bosnia and the Middle East, Sacco does not pose as an authority or an all-seeing eye. Instead, he enters his narratives as a character, a diminutive nerd in blank Goggle glasses. Likewise, the graphic narrative’s style of “truth-telling” is less about revelation than disorientation: it makes darkness visible and disrupts conventional patterns of interpretation. As the narrative progresses across the page, time is represented spatially—the trouble is that space is liable to becomes unstable. In OE, the underworld is an atemporal zone with no fixed spatial footholds. The grid offers no protection against falling out of frame, and images transform—without warning—from line drawings, to digital renderings, to photographs—photographs that, with their deep chiaroscuro, appear to take on the quality of sculpture.
That restless attitude to medium and representation is a symptom of the form’s entrenched self-referentiality; whether or not a graphic narrative is evidently “experimental,” it is always a comment on the way information is communicated and consumed. As readers fill in the gaps between frames and reconcile text and image, they, we, become complicit in the manufacture of meaning; the extent to which we are made aware of this process depends on the degree of disruption to the narrative flow. We are equally complicit when sequentially connecting the words of a line of text, or organizing the the simultaneously presented elements of an image. However, by combining these two processes, graphic narratives make the act of reading manifest. They reveal it on the surface of the page.
In Nick Sousanis’s Unflattening (2015), the first doctoral dissertation to be produced “entirely in comic book form,” that self-referentiality reaches its apotheosis. As the end product of his PhD at Teachers College, the book is a radical assault on academic conventions, seeking to actively deconstruct “boxed-in” thinking with an argument that leads the reader down, diagonally, across the gutter of the page and into empty space. By allowing “the visual to provide expression where words fail,” Sousanis argues, we free ourselves from linear thought processes, creating a networked, “multidimensional” mode of thinking by combining simultaneous and sequential patterns of interpretation. “Lacking access to ‘as it is’,” he writes, in a text box surrounded by crowds of eyes, “we make do with ‘as it appears.’” Making do, in this case, is less about making the best of a bad situation than taking advantage of space between appearance and reality, and seeing what we can make it do—seeing what we will read between the lines.
It took time before graphic narratives were deemed worthy of critical attention. Now, Unflattening and OE prove that the form is a mode of critical enquiry in its own right; a recognition that, in turn, makes way for a more nuanced understanding of “creative criticism.” Such criticism does more than just aspire to artistry, throwing in a few metaphors or enacting its subject matter. Instead, it weans the reader off a reliance on the text, converting them from the role of receiver to that of critical thinker: someone who is aware of their own process of reading, whether of an image, a text, or the world around them. Good philosophy has always worked in this way, pushing beyond the literal meaning of the text to force the reader to address the question on their own terms. However, what might be achieved in philosophy through complex literary techniques—I’m thinking, for instance, of Søren Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms—comes naturally to graphic narratives. By definition, the form works beyond the level of the text, making us readers of our own act of reading. What we read into the reading, however, depends on the world we have entered. Whereas Unflattening is a utopian world of sense-making, synthesis, and empathy, OE is less interested in synthesis than the act of ripping.
In Plato’s Phaedo, to live is to be torn asunder by the opposing forces of time and eternity. OE places us on either side of the rupture, and tells us to look down. The rip, the split, the tear, become an aesthetic, a subject, and a mode of thought: this is a world where making meaning is as much about rupture as it is about connectivity, where even the idealized act of “collaboration” is a type of compromise, a separation from oneself. After all, what sense is there to be made of a world where bodies break, are forgotten, exploited, and where love can tear you in two—three—four —or fragments too small to see? In this world, the “o,” the perfect whole and empty hole, is something to be feared: it is all Orpheus has left when he exits, in one piece, from the underworld, doomed to a life of singular solitude—that is, until he is torn into multiple pieces by the maenads.
Perhaps, to submit to the ripping is the most honest way to live: to enter the rupture and look death in the eye. What we see is a living hell. What we see is the world we live in.
My generation of comics fans had a reading list. In grade school, we dug Chris Claremont’s S&M take on the X-Men and reprints of Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four. When we were 12, we picked up Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus, which dealt with the things 12 year olds think of as adult, like fascism, the military industrial complex, and the Holocaust. In either our senior year of high school or freshman year of college, a friend turned us on to Neil Gaiman, Adrian Tomine’s short stories, and, because it’s fun to see Betty Boop actually have sex, reprints of the Tijuana Bibles. A teaching assistant in a public policy class assigned Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which came with a foreword from Edward Said. There were a few other milestones that brought our interests into the literary mainstream, like Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, Art Spiegelman’s September 11 New Yorker cover, Fun Home, as well as two novels, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. We had always kept copies of Eightball next to our issues of Granta. Now the rest of the world does the same.
The roster of Drawn and Quarterly — Lynda Barry, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Jason Lutes, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, Seth, James Sturm, Jillian Tamaki, Adrian Tomine, and Chris Ware — represents at least a quarter of this high-art, high-literary comics renaissance in the Anglophone world. This summer, the Montreal-based independent comics publisher released a 776-page anthology in celebration of its silver anniversary, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels. It’s a fun book, filled with old and new work by the house’s artists and appreciation essays from scholars, fellow travelers, and novelists.Credit: Daniel Clowes/Drawn and Quarterly
A publisher’s anthology of its own work will be a hagiography. That’s okay. There are other places for brutal criticism of comics. The mainstream press is learning to develop a more discerning eye towards the form, to not declare every new graphic novel by a semi-famous artist a groundbreaking innovation. The Internet has many take-down podcasts. D&Q’s anthology reads like a high school yearbook, complete with scrapbook-level photographs. The personal essays describe career changes that are more interesting to their authors than to their readers. With that said, the book also provides an important service. The initial phase of the comics renaissance is over, and the publication of this anthology offers an opportunity for understanding what defined D&Q, what we readers were looking for in comics throughout the past 25 years, and what we are looking for now.Credit: James Sturm/Drawn and Quarterly
Chris Oliveros, the founding editor of D&Q, was smart, industrious, and he had an excellent eye for talent, but there were others before him. Fantagraphics had been around for awhile when Oliveros started his project and it published The Comics Journal, an exuberant and angry forum for comics journalism and criticism. Fantagraphics’s premiere artists, Los Bros. Hernandez, were Latino children of the punk scene. Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly edited RAW. Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb edited Weirdo. Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse had homes in the niche gay press. There were places for ferocious comics creators who told stories other people weren’t telling, but those spaces were limited. D&Q was a welcome addition to the comics world.
D&Q began in April 1990 as a black-and-white comics anthology. It fit the standard newsstand magazine size at 8.5″ x 11″. It was 32 pages long. It had a glossy cover. In its first issue, Oliveros, who was then in his early-20s, called for higher standards for the comics medium and lamented the “private boys’ club” that characterized the comics industry. The manifesto set a tone for what the company eventually became.
The magazine’s sales were based on the “direct market,” comic-book specialty stores which would buy the magazine on a non-returnable basis. It was the most economically viable option at the time, but it also limited the magazine’s reach. Soon after the first issue of the anthology, Oliveros started publishing single-artist comic books. In a few years, the original anthology magazine went to color and D&Q found inroads into Virgin Megastores (which have disappeared from North America), Tower Records (which are all now gone), and pre-monopoly Amazon. Oliveros started compiling serialized stories in quality paperbacks and hardcovers and published stand-alone graphic novels. Storeowners didn’t quite know what to do with these comics, how to sell them to the people who read literary novels. Peggy Burns, a publicist at DC Comics, came to D&Q in 2003 and in 2005 she negotiated a distribution deal with FSG. The people who published Jonathan Franzen also worked with Adrian Tomine, which was as it should be.
The essays here claim D&Q treats its creators well. D&Q allows its artists to do what they want to do, letting some of them design their books in meticulous detail, determining paper type, size, and printer quality. They are book-makers at heart. D&Q’s artists are good to their fans. They get to know them at conventions and spend a long time inscribing their books with cartoons during signings. The audience who reads this anthology has probably also read the major popular comics histories of the last few years and it knows that a comics publisher that allows creators space for their genius, doesn’t force them to hire a lawyer, and doesn’t populate its staff with misogynists is a special publisher.
No one agrees why D&Q was so good. The testimonials contradict each other.
Jason Lutes, the author of Berlin and Jar of Fools: “They were the kind of comics I was hungry for — taking a cue from the precedent set by Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine, but stepping out from under the influence of the American underground, which had overshadowed so much of ‘alternative comics’ up to that point.”
TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe on his introduction to D&Q: “From then on I only wanted to read and make ‘underground’ comics, watch and make ‘underground’ films, listen to ‘underground’ music, and basically soak up anything that seemed even a little bit subversive.”
Anders Nilsen describes the publisher’s “quiet, understated commitment to quality work.”
It’s not always clear who is on the inside and who is on the outside, what is dangerous and what is just new. Those contradictions define D&Q.
Let’s start with Kate Beaton, who uses the comic-strip format and her naïve style to take down the myths of Western high culture. In her appreciation essay, Margaret Atwood writes, “Let she who has never drawn arms and a moustache on a picture of the Venus de Milo in her Latin book cast the first rubber eraser.” In one of Beaton’s parodies of The Great Gatsby, our hero complains that the green light gives him seizures. Beaton’s work isn’t that subversive. A hip teacher would hand that strip to her students. She would smile when her students told her the strip is better than the corresponding passage in the book. Atwood goes on, “Of course, in order to burlesque a work of literature or an historic event, you have to know it and, in some sense, love it — or at least understand its inner workings.”Credit: Kate Beaton/Drawn and Quarterly
In the early ’90s, Adrian Tomine was a prodigy scribbling away at his grim mini-comics and taking notes from Oliveros by mail. His work has grown more somber and mature through the years and now he is a master of narrative in different permutations of the comics form. Françoise Mouly describes the “handsome, stripped-down aesthetics” of his New Yorker covers, which “form a paean to the poignancy of daily life in the big city.” The moments he captures in these covers are pregnant with ambiguity, and he “finds the humanity of a small town within the big one.” His stories depict human beings who struggle with their own mediocrity. Tomine’s work is even-keeled. The lines are careful. The page layouts and panel organization don’t invite any confusion. He has a gentle, classical style and he can bring you just to the edge of tears.Credit: Adrian Tomine/Drawn and Quarterly
Jonathan Lethem describes Chester Brown as a “citizen of the timeless nation of the dissident soul, as much as Dostoevsky’s underground man. At the same time, he’s also a citizen of a nation of one: Chesterbrownton, or Chesterbrownsylvania, a desolate but charged region he seems to have no choice but to inhabit.” Brown’s subjects veer between the respectable and the borderline subversive. His best-known book Louis Riel is now a staple of Canadian public schools. Paying for It is a memoir of his life as a john. The anthology includes “The Zombie Who Liked the Arts,” a tale from 2007 about a zombie’s infatuation with a human female. These are stories about lonely men, a would-be revolutionary who fights madness, and lovers who dislike their own bodies. Brown’s connection to the underground may be less tenuous, but unlike the folks at RAW and Weirdo, unlike Fyodor Dostoevsky for that matter, he doesn’t hide his polish.Credit: Chester Brown/Drawn and Quarterly
Are these books threatening? In his 2005 book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, Charles Hatfield noted that the appeal of the comix underground in the 1970s required the medium of the traditional comic book itself, and the ironies that involved using a medium associated with the “jejune” to discuss illicit, “adult” topics. “[T]he package was inherently at odds with the sort of material the artists wanted to handle, and this gave the comix books their unique edge.” I don’t know if the packaging still matters in the same way, if the placement of Tomine’s mature, sad stories within the firm pages of a graphic novel causes such a disjuncture.Credit: Julie Doucet/Drawn and Quarterly
My special edition of Julie Doucet’s exploration of sexual insanity Lève Ta Jambe Mon, Poisson Est Mort! comes complete with a lithograph of a nude belly dancer on the frontispiece and a rave review from ArtForum on the jacket cover. Sean Rogers describes Doucet’s “beguiling forays into an untrammeled imagination, rich with fantastic displays of menstrual flow, severed unmentionable body parts, and inanimate objects forced into service for pleasure.” Doucet is one of D&Q’s more anarchic writers and it may be true that this finely crafted hardbound edition cannot contain her sexuality. But I don’t know if it’s any more scandalous to read Leaves of Grass or Portnoy’s Complaint in a Library of America edition.
The packaging of these books matters for other reasons. Eleanor Davis, the author of How to Be Happy, explains why:
Loving a book containing prose is like loving a cup filled with a wonderful drink: the cup and drink are only connected by circumstance. Loving a comic book is different. The content and the form of a comic are connected inextricably. The little autonomous drawings are held tightly in the pages of the book the comic is printed in, and they cannot get away. When you hold the comic book, you hold those worlds. They are yours.
Drawn and Quarterly publishes extraordinary comics. And because they are an extraordinary company they know to make extraordinary books for these comics to live in.
It’s not irony that makes the fine hardcover editions of Beaton, Tomine, Brown and Doucet so good, it’s the craftsmanship that marries the content comfortably with the medium, a craftsmanship that understands that a small, standard, novel-size hardcover is appropriate for the spare intimate melancholy of Brown’s I Never Liked You, and that a large, flat, Tintin-like edition is appropriate for the grim fantasy of Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray. The various forms of packaging in D&Q’s catalogue simply offers an added texture to each of their creators’ distinct voices.
After 25 years, the D&Q artists’ formalist methods, their wry sense of humor, their careful delineation of human emotions, their firm grasp of the comic book/graphic novel as a medium have become not just familiar to comics readers but also the standard for quality comics. Their content, for the most part, is not shocking, and even the subversive voices are much less threatening now than they were before. Brown’s discussion of prostitution is no more provocative than Dan Savage’s. Doucet’s frank discussion of female sexuality was more shocking in the early ’90s than it will ever be again. These artists were never revolutionaries. They were never reactionaries either. They are Burkean liberals of the comics form.
For all its self-congratulation, the anthology does have a sense of humor about itself, the comics industry, and comics celebrity. The book contains a new story from Jillian Tamaki about a D&Q intern who finds fame and fortune after Oliveros fires her for writing a blog post critical of the company. It includes a handwritten note from Spiegelman to Oliveros declining the editor’s request. “I’m a big fan of Julie’s work and I can probably be bullied into giving a quote but would appreciate being left off the hook only because I’ve had to write so many damn blurbs recently. I dunno.” The book begins with a short strip by Chester Brown, “A History of Drawn & Quarterly in Six Panels,” which depicts Oliveros’s advance from youth to middle-age. In the final panel, Oliveros stands alone on a cold, quiet Montreal street.
Oliveros is retiring this year. Peggy Burns, the publicist who moved to D&Q from DC Comics, will now head the company. This anthology stands as a monument to Oliveros and what he accomplished. He discovered extraordinary talent, he widened the audience for non-superhero comics, he created a minor Canadian institution, and he published forgotten comics that would otherwise have been left to the archives. (D&Q has a secondary role as an NYRB Classics of comics, publishing reprints of vintage American comics creators like John Stanley and translations of classic foreign artists and writers like the Finnish author Tove Jansson.) With those accomplishments behind him, the message of Brown’s strip is ambiguous, but I take it to be this: The comics industry doesn’t really change anything. Most of the world is indifferent to your work just as most of the world is indifferent to poetry. This art form of comics will not bring you any closer to enlightenment and it will not bring you any great happiness. It won’t bring you any misery either. Comics makers and comics readers will grow older and come a little bit closer to death, the same way they would if they followed another vocation or indulged in another pastime.
Some of D&Q’s comics may have educated a few minds, but most of the publisher’s craftsmen embrace their own irrelevance. When I was young, I read Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns because they were about mass death, because they were strange, because they treated violence in a way that I thought was real. I still have them on my shelf and thumb through them now and again, but their appeal has changed. Watchmen, I realize now, is a comedy. The Dark Knight Returns is pretty funny too. Maus is as much about the horrors of the present as it is about the horrors of the past. I read Beaton, Brown, Tomine, and the rest because, in every well-placed line, in every well-told joke, they remind me that monotony has its own pleasures and comics don’t have to be important.
The following interview with Joe Sacco, the comics journalist best-known for his accounts of the war in Bosnia and life in the Palestinian territories, could be called “How to Draw an Atrocity.” His work is layered in well-earned details. Safe Area: Goražde depicts a besieged town sealed off from the world by the Balkan conflict. In the midst of a civil war, one young woman asks Sacco to get her some nice jeans from Sarajevo. In what is so far his magnum opus, Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco researched a forgotten massacre of Palestinian civilians during the Suez War in 1956. There is no photographic evidence of the massacre, and so Sacco was left illustrating the testimonies of older Palestinians, filling in the physical details based on his frequent trips to the Middle East’s Soweto. It’s not clear if he broke any unwritten rules concerning the way an atrocity should be depicted. He may be inventing rules of his own.
In his new collection of short pieces, Journalism, he chronicles poverty in rural India, the training of Iraqi security forces, and the recent wave of African immigration to Sacco’s native Malta. (Sacco was born in Malta and remains a citizen of the island nation, but he spent his childhood in Australia and the U.S. and has mostly lived here for about 40 years.) I met Sacco on an August afternoon in his studio in his house in Portland. We began by discussing one of the stories in Journalism, “Trauma on Loan,” about two ordinary Iraqis who were tortured by American soldiers during the early days of the Iraq War. I pointed to one moment in the piece in which Sacco illustrates the story of one of the Iraqis with a point-of-view shot from the perspective of an American soldier.
The Millions: This is something that’s very hard to do in prose journalism. If a victim is telling a story it’s very hard to see it from the point of view of the victimizer. But you, as a comics journalist, can create something like this image.
Joe Sacco: The whole point is to be able to recreate things from different perspectives. I have to give myself that freedom. I’ve always said drawing is a subjective act. Does that absolve me from an accusation of manipulation? Perhaps not in some people’s eyes. You could tone it down, I guess. I could have drawn it in a different way. That’s true. But I chose to draw it this way.
The words themselves are accurate quotes. It says, “One of the detainees was in front. His actions were like a dog’s.” I’m not going to draw a guy who’s just surly, holding back…I have a dog. And the way a dog acts, it begs and is excited. I’m just trying to visualize that.
TM: In your last Comics Journal interview you said that there has always been a grotesque quality in your work. There is some sense of the grotesque, of the strange, of the uncanny in your figures, even though you have this very journalistic desire to show something that’s real. How does this problem manifest itself when you are drawing sympathetic people like these two [Iraqi] gentlemen and this less-than-sympathetic American soldier?
JS: When I’ve said that I’ve tended toward the grotesque…what [I’m] saying is that I can never draw as beautifully as Craig Thompson (Habibi, Blankets). It’s just not in my hand. Even people who look good in real life never look good the way I draw them, not through any desire to make them grotesque but through a certain inability. I just don’t draw beautiful people beautifully. I would rather draw a good-looking woman as a good-looking woman, but I don’t have quite that ability to get it right. So my stuff tends in that direction anyway.
If I’m going to draw some American soldiers taunting an Iraqi prisoner, I’m not going to make their expressions neutral. If you’re taunting someone, you’re taunting someone. And if you’re getting a kick out of it, you’re getting a kick out of it. The action itself is grotesque. The action of doing that is grotesque. And so that’s reflected in the drawing.
TM: There’s a claim that a good novelist has sympathy for all of his characters. [Do you have any such sympathy] when you draw these bullies?
JS: No. Not always. When you’re drawing you have a lot of characters who don’t have speaking parts. A novelist generally deals with a set amount of characters. And you can flesh those characters out. But [when] a novelist is describing getting on a train with a hundred people…[he or she’s] not fleshing out all of those characters. I have to draw them. So it presents a problem.
I have a difficult time drawing the eyes of people when they’re committing atrocious acts. It’s not like I don’t do it if I’m sure they’re sadistic. In this case I probably could have done it. Because in this case, [with] a soldier taunting someone, I can imagine their sadism and I can understand a sadist’s face, or I have the pretense of thinking I can understand a sadist’s face…
Think of it as acting. Think of it as [being] a film director, because, ultimately, that’s what you’re doing. You’re saying to yourself, “How is this person going to be looking if you’re an actor?” And every time you draw something, much like acting, you have to get into the role on some level of what that person is thinking or feeling. It’s easier to draw a sadist. The more difficult thing is to draw ordinary people doing atrocious things. Someone throwing a cigarette to taunt someone is a sadist. Or anyway that’s a sadistic act. And maybe that person isn’t always a sadist. [But] I’m going to draw a sadistic expression.
I had more trouble in the book Footnotes in Gaza with this sort of thing because I didn’t think all those people [Israeli soldiers] were sadists. I think there were sadists among them. But to me, this is a case, generally speaking, of ordinary human beings killing other human beings and perhaps not even out of a sense of hatred.
I couldn’t understand the psychology of doing what they were doing. As I was drawing I didn’t draw their faces exactly because I didn’t want to presuppose their intentions or their psychological state, which is why I very seldom [draw] their eyes.
Doing [Footnotes in Gaza] in particular is when I realized I didn’t understand how to draw certain things because I didn’t understand the psychology of the moment. It’s easier to understand fear. I can draw fear. I can draw sadism. But an ordinary person doing something like this is a very difficult thing to understand. I’m not going to pretend I understand it. It was easier to hide the face.
TM: But when you are giving this level of individuality to these Israeli soldiers, these Serbian genocidal killers, these American soldiers, does that allow you to imagine a kind of individual intelligence behind them that you just described to me?
JS: I think about it all the time. I think, “This one’s gesture is going to be more aggressive. This one’s going to be aggressive but not as aggressive.” …There’s a range. Not all of them are the same. They’re not all going to behave the same way. But then you think, “Well their officers are there and they’re being told to do this. Are they going to do it?” There might be a moment too when you’re doing it and these people [victims] might be sniveling and crawling in front of you and it helps you, because they’re humiliating themselves which makes you despise them. These are things I think about. But they’re not necessarily things I understand. I’m going off in a different direction with my new work because of these very questions.
TM: What’s this new direction?
JS: I’m interested in psychology and neuroscience and understanding human nature. It [came from] the problems I had doing this [Footnotes in Gaza]…With journalism I can explain [events]. I can even explain the history behind [them]. What I couldn’t explain to myself is the individual relationship to those events. That’s why I’m telling you I had a hard time drawing this stuff.
TM: What are you working on now that is dealing with this new direction? I don’t know if you’re comfortable announcing a new project.
JS: It’s hard to describe what I’m trying to do. I want to grapple with the concept of human nature, how we develop societies, our relationship to authority, starting from the primate level on. [It] sounds like a huge huge undertaking and it is and I don’t know if I’ll be able to figure it out. I don’t know if it will make for good comics necessarily. I just want to concentrate on this story about Mesopotamia and the development of the first cities — even before the first cities — of how hierarchy developed, how central authority developed, how our role as people under central authority, this relationship, developed. It all interests me. That is enough. And that could go on for years. And I’ve been interviewing archaeologists in different places…
TM: Your books are very easy to read. And many of your contemporaries have moved to making comics difficult. Art Spiegelman, when he made his book about 9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers, designed the format so you don’t know where your eye is supposed to go at any given point. Chris Ware does that a lot as well. You have a linear method. When I read your books I usually feel I know where my eye is supposed to go.
JS: Well if you don’t it’s very intentional. There are cases where you are supposed to be a little confused about how to read things.
TM: Did your journalism training make you think you had to make your work as clear as possible?
JS: I think so. I think that’s it. Journalism is a constraint, on some level. I don’t even like drawing representational-y very much. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it to be honest. It never feels completely comfortable. And I’m not even sure if I drew in a cartoon-y fashion if that would be comfortable.
This is not your New York Times kind of journalism which is often really boring. The difference between reading the standard New York Times writer — there are some exceptions — and someone like Robert Fisk of The Independent is like night and day. I feel like I’m there with Fisk, you know. That’s the tradition I’m more interested in journalistically speaking. Yes, I want the situation to be [as] clear as much as possible because I also think often the subject matter itself is difficult for people. It’s not pleasant. I don’t need tricks. I don’t want tricks. It’s mostly pretty standard. You’ll see in my first journalistic work Palestine that there were a lot of different angles and all that. That was fun to draw, [but] it didn’t necessarily help the story along.
TM: I was thinking about the power of the short form versus the long form. I found Footnotes in Gaza impossible to read in one sitting. I felt reading it that there was a circularity to the narrative in which we kept returning to the same problem and that [this circularity] is reflective of the subject matter. So when you see the atrocities in Footnotes in Gaza they stop having the same shock after awhile. But with something like this, “The War Crimes Trials,” which is a total of six pages, there are just these few panels that have, for me at least, far greater shock.
JS: To me that’s very subjective because I’ve heard many people say very different things about Footnotes in Gaza from what you just said as far as its power to shock them. But I’m not even sure that I’m going for shock. I’m just trying to represent things in a way, even in a dull way somehow. I’m not Joe Kubert, may he rest in peace. I’m not going to draw everything spectacularly with explosions and people flying though they look like they’re in a ballet somehow. That’s not how I think of things.
If you look at the scene that you’re pointing to, maybe some of its power comes from the fact that you’re not seeing anyone getting his testicle bitten off. You have to imagine what it’s like. Would it have been more shocking if I had shown it? Maybe on some level. But it would have been cheaper and not as effective. You can be shocking and also not be effective.
TM: When you have to draw these horrors, does it affect other elements of your life?
I was miserable. And I don’t want to do it again, really. There are reasons for going off and doing other projects that aren’t journalistic in the way I’ve done them before. Partly I want to learn something new. I feel like I’ve gone about as far as I can go looking at these sorts of incidents. Which aren’t the same incidents. They’re very different kinds of things. But when you’re involved in [them] they begin to look the same. That’s one of the reasons in that Journalism book I tried to do something different than massacres. I wanted to do [things] about human migration or poverty. And even those are tough things to do. But they’re physically not as hard as drawing dead bodies over and over.
TM: I don’t know if you’ve been told this but you don’t have an identifiable accent. I would have no idea where you’re from unless I was told you were from Malta. It’s not clearly American. It’s not clearly Australian. It’s not clearly anything. Now you mention that you feel some responsibility as a Maltese citizen when you write about the plight of African immigrants in Malta. And that you feel some responsibility if not as an American citizen than as an American taxpayer for the American government’s support of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories. But in some ways — I don’t know if this is insulting — you are a man without a country.
JS: Why is that insulting?
TM: I don’t know. I’m telling you that in some way you have no fixed background. I don’t know if that helps you when you travel.
JS: Culturally, I feel more American than [anything else]. This is where I spent a lot of my time. I also have a cultural upbringing that is Maltese. So I’m not going to shake either of those things. Nor do I want to. You are who you are. I’m relatively comfortable with who I am. I don’t feel vested in any particular nationality or in any national project. I live here because I live here and I’m comfortable here. I like being here and there are things I like about living in the United States. But I don’t feel I owe anything to the United States, or to Malta or to Europe or Australia. I might feel more responsibility based on where I am for what the United States does or what happens in Malta on some level.
[As for] Bosnia…I don’t think I have a dog in any fight, in a certain way. But I certainly don’t have a dog in that fight. It’s just humans and other humans.
This transcript represents selections from a 90-minute interview. Special thanks to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for assisting in this interview’s preparation.
At the end of the year lots of newspapers and media outlets release “best of the year” lists. It’s nice to have a record of the year’s literary highlights, but the lists do not represent the experience of any real readers. Sure, we may read handful of brand new books each year, but these are likely to be outweighed by older books – books that we are finally getting around to or books that we have just discovered, books two years old and books 200 years old. All these books taken together represent a year in reading, and as a counterpoint to all of those “best of” lists, I’ve asked authors, bloggers and readers to send along the best of from their year in reading.For today, I asked Pete from Pete Lit to share with us the best books he read this year and he sent back a nice list. Chicagoans may notice that Chicagoans are well-represented here. Says Pete:My top choice is An Unfinished Season by Ward Just. The writing is just beautiful, and Just wonderfully evokes a bygone Chicago era.Runners-Up:William Trevor, A Bit on the SideJoe Sacco, PalestineAlex Kotlowitz, There Are No Children HereHonorable Mention:Stuart Dybek, I Sailed With MagellanKirby Gann, Our Napoleon in RagsIan McEwan, SaturdayDavy Rothbart, The Lone Surfer of Montana, KansasNick Hornby, The Polysyllabic SpreeJohn McNally, The Book of Ralph