Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books, 2012

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City
Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly, 2012
Photo -  Sacco coverUAVs can sweep across the terrain, from miles above or merely a few hundred feet, collecting information that can be viewed safely from another continent thousands of miles away. The intelligence gained is immediately current but informs us only of what people are doing at a moment in time. A man is beheaded. On the next pass there may be no sign of the head, the body, the executioners, or the crowds. There is no clue as to “why.”

The why may well be gleaned from a more accessible and unexpected source – comics. The output of journalists has long been recognized as a source of human intelligence, or HUMINT. But it might surprise some to think of “comic” or “graphic” journalism such as that of Joe Sacco and Guy Delisle as an insight into the mindsets of actors throughout some of the world’s hotspots.

In Journalism, Sacco serves up a menu of published “graphic reports” of some of the better and lesser known regions of conflict. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry begins another round of negotiations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Sacco gives us glimpses of life in Gaza and Hebron that do more than most newspapers to inform us of the likely outcome.

“Hebron: A Look Inside” first appeared in Time magazine, March 12, 2001. “Gaza Portfolio” accompanied an article in Harper’s magazine in October 2001. “The Underground War in Gaza” was published in the New York Times magazine on July 6, 2006. These three graphic reports serve to illustrate the range of Sacco’s work in this medium and the true nature of sentiment on the ground. Some drawings cover two full pages; others are small inserts inside a larger drawing, with word and voice boxes to provide further explanation.

The workings of India’s caste system in a remote village is covered in three graphic reports that first appeared in the French magazine XXI in January, February and March 2011. The comic format conveys so much more than mere words or even accompanying photos could. Issues with immigration from Africa to Malta are outlined in two parts in the Virginia Quarterly in 2010 under a title that says it all – “Unwanted.”

Sacco’s three reports on the Iraq war provide a graphic view from the perspectives of American soldiers, the new Iraqi Army and the people whom both are supposed to serve. Two of these reports were published in The Guardian Weekend, (26 February 2005 and 21 January 2006) and in Harper’s magazine in April 2007. And with the Sochi Olympics almost upon us, his graphic account of “Chechen War, Chechen Women” in I Live Here (Pantheon Books, 2008), is sure to be of interest, especially in view of Russia’s recent anti-gay laws.

The opening report on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) attracted me as I have testified in four different trials in The Hague. This collection was published in Details in 1998, before Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic were brought to trial, but Sacco introduces it with a manifesto of sorts: “I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing.”

The Canadian author, Guy Delisle, provides HUMINT of a different classification in his Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. As I spent six months myself in Jerusalem, I found much to connect with in his more traditional comic strip format journalizing his stay in the Holy City. Delisle was accompanying his wife, who was on a year’s assignment with MSF. This book provides graphic insight into the daily life and feelings of people who live in this sacred location.

Delisle truly “chronicles” his time in Jerusalem from the perspective of a Western male babysitting a young toddler. While lacking the immediate impact of Sacco, his comics lightly touch on some of the sentiment that underlies the posturing of politicians of all sides. He has also drawn similar chronicles in book form while accompanying his wife to China, North Korea and Burma, all countries about which little is known of those who live there.

Drawings by Sacco and Delisle serve to bridge a language barrier in such countries. They both give the “viewer” a glimpse of something that no UAV can provide, insight into the why ordinary people do what they do in the midst of conflict or closed societies.