The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

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OCT 2010 Issue

Drawing the Disasters

Guy Delisle
Burma Chronicles
(Drawn & Quarterly Press, 2008)

Three books out recently report on situations in dangerous or repressive countries, using the comics medium: Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles reports on daily life for ex-patriots and aidworkers in the country now generally referred to as Myanmar; Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza provides an exhaustive account of two massacres that occurred more than 50 years ago in two Palestinian settlement towns; and David Axe describes the high-adrenaline life of a war reporter in his short book War is Boring, drawn by Matt Bors. Each approaches its topic and the comic medium in very different ways. While the question of whether comics are able to engage in nonfiction narrative is largely settled (thanks to Maus, Persepolis, and others), the question of what advantages comics have over other media for certain types of reporting is something with which each of these books tacitly engages, some more successfully than others.

Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles, first published in hardcover in 2008, is the third in a series of travelogues set in repressive countries, and published by the very excellent Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly press. Delisle tends to title his chronicles simply, naming them the place where they’re set: Shenzhen was his first book and Pyongyang was his second. Delisle is an animator and cartoonist by trade—he travelled to Pyongyang in order to work with foreign cartoonists. But in Burma Chronicles, he’s accompanying his wife, who works with Médecins Sans Frontièrs—or Doctors without Borders, as it’s known in America—and taking care of their new baby. As such, his perspective is very much that of a tourist, not a historian or a reporter, and his travelogues offer a deliberately personal perspective of the country. Delisle focuses on daily life: his struggles, confusions, humorous moments, and the strangeness of his experiences.

Instead of attempting to tell a giant, grand narrative of his time in Burma (which he deliberately refuses to call Myanmar as a way of refusing the legitimacy of the dictators), Delisle writes many small stories, first of their travel and attempts to secure housing, then explorations of Rangoon (or Yangon), the main city, a local director’s child’s first birthday party, mundane events such as trying to locate proper ink for drawing, or a haircut gone awry. He covers such local customs as chewing betel nuts and the water festival, a multi-day event in which Burmese soak each other with water for good luck. Each episode is often only a couple pages, sometimes no more than a couple panels, and they are drawn in a distinctively cartoonish style: characters sweat in big drops that fly off their heads, air swirls visibly out of air conditioners. Delisle’s style is distinctive, and it lends an undercurrent of humor and pathos to the scenes, but the strongest effect is of Delisle’s subjectivity. One is always aware that this is a subjective account. Some stories are stronger than others, but Delisle has the ability to make even a walk through the neighborhood both surprising and funny.

What’s missing in a story such as this, of course, is context. Though the effects of the political repression, poverty, and social injustice make small forays into the book, Delisle tells little about the regime, and nothing about how they came to be or what they’re doing, besides censoring newspapers. For instance, although the government actually changes the capital while Delisle is there—leaving Rangoon, where all the embassies and foreign organizations are based—and relocates to Naypyidaw in the center of the country, Delisle gives it much less attention than he gives his efforts to get a membership to the Australian Club, which has such unheard-of luxuries as a swimming pool and grills for barbecuing specially flown-in Australian beef steaks.

Joe Sacco
Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel
(Metropolitan Press, 2009)

In fact, Delisle is more fascinated with the cultural differences—the way Burmese people eat, carry their umbrellas, or receive mail—than the power dynamics between, say, the military junta and the border population of Karen refugees to whom his wife is trying to provide medical service. This is not a criticism. Delisle’s highly personal account of his travels is hardly the authoritative account of a seasoned reporter, but for Westerners interested in politically and geographically remote areas, with the primary information about a place coming from daily news, it can be easy to forget that most of life is lived elsewhere as it is here: outside the political arena. Delisle’s short tales depict the strangeness of Burmese life to an outsider, whether that strangeness takes the form of censored news or prayer trees. Delisle gives readers a humanizing sense of the world the Burmese inhabit, which is ultimately a political act.

By contrast, Joe Sacco is clearly first and foremost a journalist: any sense of Palestinians’ daily life is presented in terms of its greater political context. Footnotes In Gaza is his latest effort in a strong collection of war-reporting and investigative journalism that uses the comics medium to intense, almost overwhelming effect. Sacco uses a highly detailed, heavily crosshatched and shaded style, reminiscent of Crumb, but without much drifting into caricature. In the story, Sacco depicts himself as constantly carrying a camera, a tape recorder, and a notepad, taking photos for more accurate reproduction of both faces and scenery, to be as precise as possible, not only about who is speaking and what they say, but what they are wearing, their facial expressions, their rooms, buildings, the areas of the city where things take place. Sacco is equally concerned with exactly what was said, by whom, and when. This thoroughness leads to amazing feats of artistic prowess, such as when he devotes three pages to depictions of one of the Palestinian refugee camps, first in 1948 and then in 2005, from the exact same perspective, allowing the reader to turn a page and see the transformation of temporary camps into permanent structures. The effect is startling.

All this detail takes time, and Sacco works slowly. Examining the minuscule dates he places on each of the pages, it’s possible to see that Footnotes took about four years just to draw—from about March 2005 until about April 2009—and that he averaged a few pages per month. Given the detail, a few pages each month is a steady pace, but the downside to this method is that it’s nearly impossible to report on anything timely. The bulk of Footnotes focuses on two days in 1956 when Israeli Soldiers invaded Khan Younis and Rafa and massacred those towns’ male civilians.

Roaming around modern-day Gaza, Sacco describes his efforts at tracking down witnesses and looking for first-hand accounts, even as he is berated by young Palestinians for not covering what is, to them, the much more pressing current injustices of their houses being torn down. He is also rebuffed by older Palestinians who balk at being asked to relive the horrific experiences of their youth. But slowly Sacco perseveres, and he interviews and reports verbatim the stories of many different men and women who lived through the killings. By burrowing deeply into two almost-lost events—footnotes, as it were—Sacco re-humanizes a place where the sheer onslaught of violence can easily leave the casual newsreader numb from oversaturation.

While Sacco makes a number of efforts to speak to Israelis, and goes to great length to get official documentation of both incidents, it’s clear that he is on the side of the losers in both these situations, and his primary sources of information are all Palestinians who witnessed or survived the shootings. And yet, it’s hard to say that his objectivity is much compromised—he gives over a long section early on to a confessed member of the Fedayeen, who describes his guerilla-war tactics killing Israeli soldiers, and gives time later to another wanted rebel who has committed similar atrocities. Never in Footnotes does violence look redemptive or effective. Still, the brunt of the loss in these stories is taken by the Palestinians, who are variously massacred and tortured, and have their homes and land taken from them.

David Axe and Matt Bors
War is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death in the World’s Worst War Zone
(NAL Trade, 2010)

Sacco’s careful and generous drawing method offers much to the close reader; pages are imbued with a thoroughness of detail that carries into the stories themselves. Sacco has interviewed hundreds of men and women about the two events, and he often lets the interviewees speak in their own words, stepping in only to note contradictions in detail. This lends the book a type of authoritative inaccuracy: with little in the way of official records, and with nearly 50 years of atrocities having passed, it becomes impossible to determine exactly what happened on that day in 1956, or why, but Sacco’s wide range of storytellers are clearly presented in hopes of getting closer to the ever-elusive objective truth of the massacres of Khan Younis and Rafa. Footnotes, then, becomes the official documentation of these massacres.

This is an approach that works more or less perfectly with Sacco’s medium, and it is the comics form that, incongruously, gives Footnotes such gravity. Though most often used for keeping official records, words alone must overcome their own inherent abstract qualities to make something as potent and tragic as these massacres real for a reader. And while it’s altogether too easy to trust in the authority of a photograph, with its ability to instantly capture the image of people in a particular place or time, those images can easily be misleading. They mislead because they at first so easily convince.

Sacco’s drawings take strength from both these formats. By remaining primarily visual, Sacco is able to give readers a relatively precise view into the world of Palestinians in Gaza—their careworn faces, their broken homes, the blood on their clothes. And yet, because these are not pictures, they relinquish a certain claim to reality: the drawings remind the reader that they are first and foremost a product of Sacco’s own mind. It is impossible to mistake even his careful depiction of an aging Fedayeen’s face for that man’s actual face. And so Sacco must work to convince readers of the truth and accuracy of his reporting, without leaning on the inherent authority of his camera. He must give names and dates to each part of his work. He must be as open and clear and accurate as is humanly possible. And it is a testament to Sacco’s skills both as a reporter and as an artist that he is able to find some clarity, and some level of accuracy, in the poorly recorded, barely remembered events of 50 years ago, which until this book was made mostly existed as the personal tragedy of those who survived.

Footnotes in Gaza is long, and difficult to read. Each page is so filled with detail that it can take minutes to really absorb it. The story’s pace is glacially slow, as it is beyond complicated. It is also terrifying and depressing; the struggle to understand exactly what happened in Khan Younis in 1956, trying to understand why the Israeli army rounded up and shot 256 unarmed men, seems beyond hope. It is barely possible to understand what they did and what happened, much less to try to piece together some of the ways this single event has helped to shape the Palestinian refugees and camp denizens for the past 50 years (and it has—that much is clear). Readers looking for comics as genial storytelling or escape fantasy will find little here: the book lacks even the anthropomorphic mouse-people that (slightly) leavened Spiegleman’s seminal comic history, Maus. But in many ways, that’s the best part of Sacco’s work: having removed all traces of what is traditionally comic’s modus operandi, Sacco has produced a book that reveals exactly how powerful and relevant this format can be.

David Axe’s War is Boring: Bored Stiff, Scared to Death In The World’s Worst War Zones, drawn by Matt Bors, is a story that seems to combine all of Delisle’s subjective storytelling with Sacco’s danger-location reporting, to unfortunately ill effect. Axe is interested in the excitement of being in war zones, but appears to be much less concerned with understanding or doing much about the injustices that are occurring there. In fact, the book’s focus is squarely on Axe as he moves from war zone to States to war zone, trying to understand why he likes being shot at so much. “Sharon,” Axe says, at one point, bursting in on his publisher at McGraw-Hill, “I need a war. Any war will do.” Once he’s there, however, Axe is alternately bored by the lack of shooting, high off the adrenaline of being shot at, or self-involved over his sense of being “haunted” by the tragedy he’s worked so hard to witness. The trouble is, he doesn’t care to relate much more than the images of dead bodies to show us how haunted he is: there’s no context, no sense of interest in or concern for those being shot at, or for those doing the shooting. His biggest moment of righteous indignation comes out when he’s required to attend a “fucking trade show” and endure the crass commercialism of arms dealers, who seem to draw his ire for their promotional hucksterism more than for their actual moral turpitude.

What gets lost on Axe may seem readily apparent to readers almost immediately: his interest in war reporting comes from the adrenaline rush. He enjoys being near danger. But instead of skydiving or skiing black-diamond trails, he points his camera at armed men in war zones. This ethically dubious behavior would be tempered a bit if Axe also offered evidence that he used his infatuation to accomplish something worthwhile for those dispossessed people most broken by the wars he enjoys witnessing, but Axe makes it clear that he couldn’t care less. “A little oil, a lot of corruption, Thug politics,” he says, describing a stint in East Timor. “That was all I knew going in, and pretty much all I knew when I left, two weeks later.”

Perhaps it’s honorable for Axe to be so blatantly clear about his motivations, but it’s unfortunate that he chooses to dig no deeper into his soul, or attempt to change what he so clearly doesn’t like about himself: “You embarrass me,” a girlfriend tells him. “I embarrassed myself,” he tells the reader. It’s easy, when witnessing the overwhelming violence in Darfur, East Timor, or Iraq, to become cynical. But the hard work of pushing past that easy cynicism, of finding the human stories, and working to reveal the humanity of both oppressor and oppressed, is vital to any kind of in-depth reporting. And, as Delisle and Sacco show, it’s a particular strength of the comic medium to be able to depict these dangerous and distant events for readers. Too bad, then, that Axe got all the way there and chose to suffice himself with being bored.


Christopher Michel

CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2010

All Issues