February 8, 2010 | Graphic novels
Joe Sacco has already won the highest honour comics have to offer, along with a renowned fellowship and various other awards for his stirring work as the world’s foremost comic book journalist.
His latest effort, Footnotes in Gaza (Metropolitan Books, $35.95, 432 pages), is complex, compelling and worthy of becoming just the second graphic novel to win a Pulitzer (after Art Spiegelman’s Maus) — though he’d likely settle for turning the spotlight on what he believes is one of the least fairly represented places in the world.
As with past works such as Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde (for which the Guggenheim Fellow won an Eisner Award for best original graphic novel), Sacco fully immerses himself in the turbulent world of his subjects for his craft.
In this case it is a world where entire homes are routinely dispatched by bulldozers with the ease of someone shovelling snow off a driveway; where the closing down of busy streets for the funeral procession of slain children is altogether too commonplace; and where a journalist delving into the tragedies of the past is mocked for the perceived futility.
After all, what’s the point in worrying about something that happened over 50 years ago when there’s an inordinately high chance you could be killed tomorrow?
Following up on a story he first learned of while working for Harper’s Magazine in 2001, Sacco, along with his guide and interpreter, Abed, slowly pieces together the details of two incidents that took place around the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis that resulted in the deaths of almost 400 Palestinian men in the southern Gaza cities of Khan Younis and Rafah.
Deftly darting back and forth from the past to the present — perfectly highlighting how little has changed in this war-torn region over the past 60 years — Sacco uses gripping, and often heart-wrenching, first-hand accounts of witnesses to the incidents in 1956 and of those still struggling to survive as perpetual refugees.
The survivors, family members of the victims and other Palestinian witnesses help the American creator to illustrate a consensus account of what transpired in ’56; how after eight years of escalating border conflicts that saw many casualties on both sides, the Israeli army used the crisis as cover to both search for and eliminate not only suspected Fedayee (freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on which side you’re on), but also hundreds of other able-bodied men.
Noticeably absent from this book is a truly balanced perspective from the Israeli side, although the Palestinian accounts are supported by UN documents on the incidents, which confirm 275 deaths in Khan Younis on Nov. 3, 1956 and 111 in Rafah on Nov. 12, 1956. Israeli government documents from the era, included in an appendix, suggest many of those killed were looters and armed Egyptian soldiers.
No matter which account of these incidents is closest to the truth, what Sacco discovers is that they helped plant seeds of hatred in Gaza that continue to blossom to this day.
The product of almost six years of intensive researching and lavish illustrating, Footnotes in Gaza is a feast for the eyes, with a staggering level of detail displayed in Sacco’s delicate black-and-white art.
The artist continues to push his work to new heights, most notably in the amount of detail on the faces of his numerous subjects, helping complete a work of illustrated journalism more poignant and impactful than any 10 traditional books on the same topic.
(This review was first published in the Toronto Star)