Friday, April 27, 2018

Joe Sacco's Palestine and What Makes it So Good

Joe Sacco combines journalism and comics to create his graphic novel: Palestine. Palestine is a collection of stories put together by Sacco to represent the issues in Palestine. One distinct aspect of Palestine is how the characters are drawn. Most characters drawn in Palestine are very different from each other. The way Sacco drew the people could be described as using a 2-D shape to depict a 3-D object. This description is applicable because many characters' faces are drawn using rounded or flattened versions of regular shapes as seen below in the picture of the second page of the graphic novel.

However, Sacco contrasts this by drawing himself in a completely different manner. While focusing on every detail in the faces of the people he draws, he gives himself very simple features that consist of a rounded head and a very plain face. This is Sacco's way of distinguishing himself from everyone else during the comic.

It is clear throughout the comic that Sacco wants to separate himself from the rest of the people he puts in the novel. Sacco does this to avoid inserting his own personal bias on the political matter in Palestine. By making Palestine a story filled with other people's stories, Sacco avoids pressing his opinions on the reader. He spends the entire novel relaying what others tell him, and does not show his full reaction to the person's. Sacco shows the reader that he considers himself an observer in the artwork on the cover.

On the cover, we see Sacco drawn in all black and placed away from the refugees around him. This is to show the separation of his thoughts and bias' from those of the people around him. In doing this, Sacco allows for the reader to go through, understand, and form their own opinion on each story without being persuaded by Sacco's thoughts.

By focusing on everyone but himself in the novel, Sacco gives an unbiased representation of the matter in Palestine. This allows for the reader to form their own opinion and it also makes the graphic novel seem more fact-based and serious; however, Sacco's use of cartoon-like art lightens the mood of the novel and makes reading the novel a less daunting task. From Sacco's unbiased representation of Palestine to his cartoon-like art style, Palestine is a great graphic novel to read for any inexperienced or veteran graphic novel reader.

-Aidan Steineman, Fritz Souweine, Charles Steenstra, Eden Maxey, Spencer Donohue

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Full Picture: Journalism in Joe Sacco’s Palestine

Journalists want to show you nothing short of the most breathtaking, violent moments in conflict. Things that don’t make a coherent, interesting story should not make the cut in newspapers, magazines, and online articles. In Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Sacco destroys these norms of journalism by documenting every detail of his journey in Palestine using his unique graphic novel format.

In most articles, images are used to stimulate emotions in the reader, not to really contribute to the story. Time described the death of an infant on the West Bank in 2014. They share an image that reflects the clashes occurring, but it adds nothing to the story:

Joe Sacco, on the other hand, uses the graphic novel to tell the story with a combination of words and images. As a journalist, he takes photos in a similar scene to the one above, but places them in succession and narrates the scene with small snippets of text:

 He articulates that a single image cannot honestly describe a scene on its own, and neither can a full body of text with no images.
Where online journalism only captures the moments of highest violence, Sacco’s graphic novel captures people behind those moments. The long story format of Sacco’s novel to follow his journey all the way through Palestine offers stories that a single article would never highlight. The destruction of a field of olive trees does not seem like an emotional, story-worthy subject, but Sacco turns it into one by capturing his full conversation with a man who experienced it.

The successive word bubbles illustrate the emotional bursts of speech that come out of the man’s mouth. Deep lines on his face help to emphasize his suffering. Violence may hold a reader’s attention longer, but Sacco realizes that the lives of people behind the front lines are what matter most.
However, Sacco’s novel easily loses its place in the real world when compared with actual photographs. The cartoon drawing style that comes with a graphic novel format vastly differentiates Sacco’s work from the traditional works of photojournalism which accurately portray their subjects through photography. As a cartoonist, Sacco portrays his subjects in a caricatured manner, as can be seen on page 20 during an anti-settlement protest:

The exaggeration of the protester’s facial features, such as their oversized teeth, thick lips, and bulging eyes reflects more of Sacco’s comical and cartoony style than it does his reporting style. As a result, this leaves the reader with a more comical impression than it does a serious one, which reduces the overall gravity of his journalism. This aspect of Sacco’s journalism draws away from its authenticity and fidelity similar to how a caricatured drawing fails to preserve the reality of its subject’s appearance. Unlike most works of photojournalism which portray the Israel - Palestine conflict with severity, Palestine seems to provide a unique, comical visual perspective on the conflict through Sacco’s drawing style.

On the other hand, Sacco’s drawing style does not prevent him from managing to capture the brutal nature of the conflict in Palestine. During Firas’ story of being shot during his time on the Popular Front, he describes how he was beaten in the hospital by soldiers, and Sacco effectively depicts this violence:

In contrast to his depiction of the anti-settlement protesters, Sacco does not caricaturize the characters present in these panels. Instead, he emphasizes the brutality of the soldiers, illustrating how they mercilessly beat an already-wounded child and harming hospital employees. It seems that Sacco erratically chooses his drawing style for the scenes he illustrates, switching between a comical and a serious style.
In fact, when asked about his drawing style during an interview about Palestine, Sacco replied, “When I started drawing the Palestine comics, everything I drew was very cartoony; everything was exaggerated. That was the only way I knew how to draw. At some point I realized, this is serious material, I need to be as representational as I can be, which isn’t that great, but I just sort of left my own character behind.” Clearly, this struggle between needing to be comical and needing to be authentic is evident in the unpredictable drawing style of Palestine.

In Palestine Joe Sacco’s unique use of short phrases of journalistic content creates a full story that is both entertaining and enlightening. Throughout the novel, Sacco writes, in text boxes, many different observations that he notices of each scene and scenario. This use of note-taking shows information to the reader that might be difficult to perceive without having been in the actual scene.

This page details a peaceful march in East Jerusalem. The block text boxes give extra information in short bursts that depict the importance of such an event. Because the boxes are short, they give critical information about the march that triggers an emotional response from the reader. This type of box is found all-throughout the novel. The text boxes show retell to the reader, from a someone with first hand recollection, what it was like to be there at the time.

Despite the caricatured style of Sacco and the people around him in his graphic novel, he remains very faithful to the unbiased story. Pictures describe what is truly happening in the scene, not simply what is the most extreme capture of a group of photos. Text is placed in such a way that it articulates its proper sequence, but also portrays the emotions of people he interviews and encounters. In this way, Sacco is able to describe the full picture of the situation in Palestine to his, and to anyone’s best ability.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less: A Memoir or a Documentary?

In a small author’s note, Glidden refers to How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less as a memoir. However, this might not be quite the case. Instead of a memoir, we have a sneaking suspicion that HTUII60DOL is actually a documentary.
For example, Glidden uses textual voice overs, which are a major component of documentaries, to explain the backstory behind the conflict. Memoirs often rely on the author’s emotions or how they change over an event. While a novel might seem like its only ever a voice over, Glidden’s usage of the graphic novel makes it more so. On pages 52 and 53, every panel has voice over text boxes explaining the history of the location where she stayed for the night. Rather than express her opinions about how she felt, she remains neutral when presenting facts, which is another key characteristic of a documentary.
One of the larger differences between a memoir and a documentary is the latter’s usage of interviews, specifically indirect interviews. Unlike direct interviews, indirect interviews don’t follow any prearranged questions and consequently, are more organic and free flowing. Often the subject is unaware that they are even being interviewed. Glidden indirectly interviews a handful of characters including Frank (who doesn’t believe in marriage), Matt (her cousin), Gil (their tour guide), and most frequently, Nadan Feldman (the Israeli group leader). Through their conversations, Glidden is able to portray more opinions on the Israeli-Palestine conflict and other topics than by sticking to her own. Nadan especially helps to put Glidden’s opinions into a greater perspective. This in turn portrays Glidden as a more trustworthy and objective narrator.
Another large element of documentaries is their usage of reenactment, to give a visual of the past as it happened. Glidden uses this in several points, such as on pages 87 and 88, when she tries to reason through the conflict over the ancient city of Jaffa. She draws the various major stages of conflict throughout history, with narration running throughout. This is a common feature of documentaries and forces the reader to really see her point rather than just taking her word for it. Many other scenes that depict characters who are no longer living further demonstrate her usage of reenactment.
Another common element in documentaries is the use of a montage sequence to convey ideas visually by putting them in a specific order. Montages are mainly used to create a juxtaposition that adds additional insight to the storyline like Glidden uses in page 107 to portray Glidden-the-character’s inner thoughts. The panels have minimal to no words, another feature of montages, and really pushes the reader to understand the contemplation that Glidden is under: is or isn’t birthright brainwashing her? Furthermore, a constant backdrop (which is used in most montages) of a courtroom really highlights the intensity of Sarah’s conflicting thoughts especially when the judge in the scene uses the word  “versus.” This entire scene is a perfect portrayal of the techniques used in documentary montages, rather than the traditional narrative, stylistic choices of a memoir.
Most memoirs often tell a story about a significant turning point in a person’s life. However, Glidden doesn’t make it clear whether or not she truly changed or gained a new perspective after her experience in Israel. In the end, on page 203, she remains unsure about her stance on the controversial topic despite her intentions of gaining clarity on the issue. Because Glidden does not reach a resolution in her conflicting views, the novel becomes more of a documentary rather than a memoir. Glidden’s use of a graphic novel to tell her story also makes it more of a documentary, because the visual illustrations place a greater emphasis on the surroundings and geography of the location rather than the story at hand. She spends a substantial section of the book describing the landscape and scenery of Israel instead of focusing on her personal growth and changes such as on pages 24, 50, and 54.

Perhaps, we’re being too nit picky here about the specific differences between memoirs and documentaries. Who cares as long as the story was good? If you’re only reading the book for the surface level then yes, these differences might not make a difference to you. However, depending on your approach, the book changes what you’re supposed to take away from it. Documentaries make an argument, trying to persuade you to one side or the other. The question now is did Glidden accomplish that?

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Two completely different books, two opposing sides of a conflict, two starkly contrasting artistic styles - both Americans writing about the Israeli-Palestinian relations, both appropriate. Sarah Glidden’s reflective memoir, How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, describes her Birthright trip to Israel and, throughout it, her difficulty in understanding and taking a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. In Palestine, Joe Sacco recounts a collection of stories from Palestinians detailing their problematic encounters with the Israelis living in Palestine. Even though they are referring to the same conflict, their different approaches and representations of the conflict are reflected through their respective art styles, which are both fitting and complementary to their narratives.

Glidden’s How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is organized neatly and painted with soft watercolors, giving the impression of a gentle memory. Sacco’s Palestine opts for unsettling, even chaotic, structure and characters in black and white. These two styles could not be more different, or more fitting. Glidden is reflecting on the past of her trip to Israel; Sacco is in the present, illustrating the stories with all the emotions and thoughts that come with it in the moment.

Throughout Glidden’s comic, the light hues of color are contained within the organized rectangular panels. Open How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less to almost any page and you will find three neat rows of panels painted with watercolors and evenly-spaced gutters. There are no breaks in style except for the chapter title pages, which are full-page bleeds of maps. The soft watercolor paints give the impression of a memory, which these are. The organization alludes to reflection, that Glidden spent time thinking about her trip and considering what she learned from it. Glidden’s art style invokes a tranquility with soft watercolors, fitting for her overall yearn for peace between the two groups.

Sacco’s Palestine lacks the structure and organization of Glidden’s comic, depicting harsh pictures in black and white. He rarely uses borders; he fills each page to capacity with pictures and/or words. His characters sport unproportional lips and features in a way that unsettles the reader, matching the unsettling nature of the stories he is recounting. He scatters word boxes precariously around the pictures, slanting at different angles -- page 72 of the comic is a great example of his creative use of word boxes, with the boxes following Sacco’s path as he walks through the scene. This apparent disorganization coupled with the fragments of sentences invokes a sense of a stream of consciousness. Page 17 shows a juxtaposition of thoughts and words integral to having the reader experience the events described to Sacco as the experiences were described to him.

They are both outsiders to the conflict; neither of them live in Israel or Palestine and neither are directly affected by the conflict of the two countries. Glidden’s softer artistic style is more fitting given the time separating her and her time in Israel. Throughout Glidden’s trip to Israel described in her comic, her previously strong opinion on the conflict is disturbed and she realizes there is no clear solution to the conflict. While her soft organized style may appear to contradict the inner turmoil she felt during the trip, she has had years to reflect on her trip by the time she created How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. There is no time separating Sacco and his stay in Palestine in his comic. Sacco is in Palestine, living with them through their experiences with the Israeli as they recount the events to him. He is staying true to their stories, including the same rush of emotion and jumble of thoughts as felt in the moment.

Both Glidden and Sacco are putting what they know into their respective graphic novel. Glidden embarks on her Birthright trip already with an opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian relations which she is prepared to defend, even though on pages 117-119, Glidden is talking to one of the Israeli boys about the conflict and he makes a point that shakes the foundations of her beliefs. The comic itself, however, is merely Glidden, years later, sharing her thoughts and experiences from her trip. Sacco, on the other hand, is more in the moment, retelling the chaotic stories of these Palestinians as he hears them, emotions and thoughts and all scattered across the page.

Through His Looking Glass: Joe Sacco's Palestine

Palestine is a daring exploration of journalism and comics. Joe Sacco fills his pages with intense and quite human tales and tragedies using an exaggerated caricature-like style. Faces resemble shapes that vary from each other in distinct ways more than in real life (such as ovals vs rounded rectangles vs flat heads) and noses seem to crowd out the rest of the face so that the eyes are diminished and the mouth is sort of attached above the chin. His character is alien in comparison to the Palestinians, Jews, and Muslims he talks to and about, giving almost a Scott McCloud-esque sort of look with blank glasses and exaggerated but simple features. If you squint a bit, Sacco almost resembles a monkey, so amidst his varying, crazy stories of very real events and bloodshed and tragedy, Sacco stands out as The Foreigner™.

And why wouldn’t he? Sacco takes a very particular role in Palestine, he is the observer. While we say it’s “his” story because he drew it, we still have to consider: a) is it really a story? and b) he retells others’ stories. So is it a story? In a sense, no. It’s a collection of stories. There isn’t any overarching plot, instead we get a collection of Palestinian stories told to us through Sacco. But in a different sense, these stories that we get through him of refugees and soldiers and desperation are the story of Palestine. While Sacco is our correspondent throughout the story, he really takes a back seat to the real struggle of the region, and that’s a major aspect to the book. Take a look at the cover to Palestine, taken from the Refugeeland chapter:

(image from Amazon)
Sacco is only visible as a silhouette looking at the Palestinians through a window, probably of a bus. It’s almost symbolic of how he is seeing the story as an outsider, and how we as readers are seeing Palestine through his given window. You can even see his distinctive glasses.

Sacco utilizes his McCloudian glasses as a purposeful barrier between himself and us. Faithful to the craft of journalism, he is well aware of the effect his personal biases can have on the stories he’s been tasked at conveying to a more than likely ignorant audience. He distances himself from us without disappearing from the narrative completely. For example, through his numerous interviews, he deducts that a major reason the conflict has not made much progression is the passed down hatred and racism from each generation. At the same time, he doesn’t let his opinions as an outsider undermine his interviewees experiences and feelings. For example, when Ghassan recounts his brutal torture by the Israelis, Sacco refuses to sugarcoat in neither narration nor graphics.

His lack of sugarcoating makes for an interesting dilemma of how to portray his stories. He seems to resolve it quite appropriately by creating this unique format which reads like some mix between a journal and a TV news broadcast. It feels almost like an attempt by Sacco to be more faithful to his stories by being a sort of news reporter. To a point it works by letting him separate the image from the text, allowing the text to exist as an independent element much in the same way the audio of a standard news broadcast does. A great example of his style in action is the first page of the comic which almost feels like a camera gliding through the streets of Cairo picking up short bits of conversation on its journey.

(image from Fantagraphics)

Yet in some ways this style fails us. It feels almost too fast and too rushed. The text can often be hard to follow and hard to read while still trying to interpret his imagery. It overloads the reader with more information than they can possibly hope to process.

Although, it might be Sacco’s exact intentions to initiate this proverbial content bomb. When looking at his intentions as a whole in the book Sacco seems less like a reporter and more of an investigative journalist whose job is to find the facts and relay them. He has no regard for how much he is relaying to the reader his sole job is to find stories and collect perspectives, which is exactly what he does. While his biases can be obvious at times, it seems inevitable in his attempt to relay as best as possible his experience of what is happening in Palestine.

The Troubles of a Nation

In this week’s installment of Dr. Michael Hancock’s esteemed Reading Comics, we will jump into the rabbit hole of Joe Sacco’s Palestine, considered by author Daniel Worden (Book Here) to be the pioneer of a “new kind of journalism.”  The graphic journal chronicles the tale of one of the most confusing and deadly ongoing international conflicts. Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Art Spiegelman has commented on the pioneering nature of Palestine, saying: "In a world where Photoshop has outed the photograph to be a liar, one can now allow artists to return to their original function – as reporters."

Unlike other works that tell stories about tragic world conflicts, like Spiegelman’s Maus, Palestine destroys both stereotypes and over-simplifications of the Israeli-Palestine conflict. Unlike the animal based characters of Maus, Sacco’s caricatures are the polar opposite: they are real, rendered in all their humility, disgrace, and joy. Ultimately, Palestine is so remarkable because of the powerful stories Sacco so eloquently transcribes onto paper.

Sacco’s caricature-based art shows people and highly detailed backgrounds. We can see how Sacco uses this art medium to amplify the emotions of his characters when a man explains how grieving families had to bury their loved ones:
The man in these panels is clearly going through a rough patch here — a shame for someone of his age. Such an emotional portrayal is something only comics are capable of, as the singular photographs found in photojournalistic works are only capable of capturing a single moment, a single emotion.

Sacco’s caricatures also highlight his own personal bias, since he comes from an outsider’s perspective. His art is doused in sprinkles of his own bias on the conflict because what he portrays and how he portrays it ultimately lies on him. That is why most of the characters are drawn in a grotesque manner. His outsider perspective can be found in his writing, as his American upbringing has clearly influenced his depiction of the conflict. Sacco even draws himself in the comic in an exaggerated caricature, like he is an outsider, possibly due to his idea of how Palestinians view people like Sacco. This shows how Sacco perceives himself in the situation, which could not be shown in just ordinary photojournalism. A comparison of how Sacoo looks in real life and and his comic is shown below:

However, despite Sacco’s bias, he acknowledges it very early on in the novel. On pages 6-8 he underlines and emphasizes “I” numerous times, indicating he understands how his American background may influence his recounting of his experiences in the Middle East. Sacco takes responsibility for his opinions and his take on the issue. Even if the information presented seems to be bias, it is still his opinion and he acknowledges that. Pretty respectable, right?

Ultimately, Sacco cannot imitate the realistic feel with comics journalism that is present in photojournalism. Sacco himself acknowledges that by making the art as abstract as he does and by recognizing and taking responsibility for his own bias. Photos and videos have the essence of objectivity, since they capture reality as it is within a time frame. As such, despite what Spiegelman says about how they can be manipulated, they naturally induce trustworthiness within readers and viewers due to their ability to provide an objective view. Sacco recognizes this, so he does not attempt to swindle readers by drawing realistically; instead, he draws twisted caricatures of both himself and the people he meets, inserting his subjective perception of the situation and allowing readers to view the situation from his own perspective.

-Mosope Kusoro, Tommy Nguyen, Connor Rhodes, Jesse Yan

Conflict in Watercolor: Sarah Glidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less

What's immediately striking in Sarah Glidden's work of graphic journalism How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is Glidden's light, bright illustration style. Ethereal watercolors on top of simple ink drawings dominate the work's artistic makeup. Sometimes this entails sweeping vistas, richly colored and flowing behind the gutter and between panels:

Other times, this takes the form of a simple, pale wash of color as background to the dialogue:

Throughout the work, this style invokes a sense of comfort, tranquility, and ease, despite the tumultuous nature of both Israel's situation and the author-protagonist's state of mind. Even the design of the characters adds to this feeling of comfort; soft and round, the depictions sit somewhere between real people and big ol' pillows. This subversion of what would be expected from a book about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to me to parallel the way the Birthright trip's presentation of the situation in the region: cozy and easy to digest, but hinting ever so slightly at something more complex behind the bright, gentle veneer. This parallel, whether intended or not, allows readers to become more deeply involved and invested in Sarah's emotional journey, as we walk through it too, trying to pull back the curtain alongside her.

Similar to the graphic novels medium itself, style can be used to mask a comic’s more sinister themes and even draw in audiences that wouldn’t normally be attracted to such serious or tragic stories. To most uninitiated people comics are about brightly colored super humans in spandex saving the day from the villain of the month. Sarah Glidden takes advantage of this and writes a story detailing her personal experiences with Israel and the complex history of its politics and conflict. She leaves everything on the table and writes about her ideas and understanding of the country as well as controversial and at times mildly racist thoughts on the matter.  When faced with such a different product than what is expected it makes the mature content stand out even more. The work makes great use of its status and aesthetics to enhance the content and messages it has to offer. In some ways its similar to Maus in how it revolutionized the medium by being the one of the first comics to show truly horrid imagery in a way that allowed it to become so popular. But I would argue How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less has more in common with cult classic manga and anime Madoka Magica. Madoka advertised itself as another cutesy kids story about little girls saving the world with magical powers even to the extent of adopting character designs and an art style mirroring that of popular kids shows at the time. It was not until a quarter of the way through the series that it showed it true fangs by gruesomely killing off one its main characters and taking up a tragic and oppressive atmosphere. By the end of the story they had killed off nearly the entire cast and introduced a philosophical aspect to the story in which it questioned the very meaning of existence all the while cementing itself as one of the top 50 most popular manga to date. Overall How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less uses a similar approach if not as direct to entice and interest readers that would not typically find themselves reading this kind of material.

-Cameron Longfellow, Gunnar Bergmann, and Adric Mosher