Footnotes in Gaza
By Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books, available now
Joe Sacco is the most groundbreaking and inventive graphic journalist working today, and Footnotes in Gaza is by far his most ambitious work to date. A 400-page re-creation of the all-but-forgotten Israeli-led massacre on Khan Younis and Rafah in November 1956, Footnotes explodes previous ideas of how to write history, journalism and graphic books, and creates a new language—both visual and verbal—with which to approach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even if you think you'd rather jump into a barrel of wolverines and razors than read any more about this hopelessly intractable war, you should pick up this book. Sacco's brilliant rendering of memory, prejudice and desperation bespeak not only his talent and the strength (and vulnerabilities) of the people he interviews, but it also emphasizes the shortcomings of so many other books about the region.
For one thing, the awful specter of "the solution" does not haunt this book, which is a huge relief. If the book market is any indication, we are deeply uneasy discussing this conflict without providing a clear explanation of how to fix it: Jimmy Carter's We Can Have Peace in the Holy Land: A Plan that Will Work (2009) and the many books like it represent noble goals, but the weight of such unparsed idealism sinks them immediately. There is a second, perhaps more honest breed of book, exemplified by Edward Said's Peace and its Discontents (1996), which does not take the goal of peace as necessarily attainable or even self-evident, but these books' defining arguments are still a reaction to—and thus dependent upon—a cripplingly optimistic insistence that lasting peace in the Middle East is possible.
Despite spanning decades of the region's history, Footnotes is unfettered by this forced grander objective. Sacco is interested in revisiting the 1956 massacres (overshadowed at the time by the Suez Crisis), collecting witnesses' stories, and creating the most accurate oral history he can. The narrative flits between past and present, which allows the reader to confront the similarity in attitudes despite the 50-year gap.
But most impressively, through his detailed renderings of facial expressions, and through his commitment to journalistic objectivity (along with his occasional breaks with it) Sacco easily acquaints us with the refugees he meets, and our empathy is quickly with them. Though he is annoyed with the pesky, brash Palestinian teenagers he encounters, when he draws one shyly asking him "Do you like us?" he makes a deeply personal and yet subtly political point in the same panel. Footnotes is filled with careful crossover moments like this, painting a realistically human picture that is often neglected.