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Joe Sacco

Page history last edited by Rebecca C 12 years, 3 months ago

Born: October 2, 1960 in Malta


Joe Sacco’s work received international recognition with his two comics, Palestine and Safe Area Goražde. Palestine won the American Book Award in 1996 and Safe Area Goražde won the Eisner Award in 2001. His work is classified as comics journalism. Since he uses the comic form for journalistic story-telling, the comics genre has gained more exposure and acceptance. In particular, Sacco’s work has given new life to alternative comics, which had their roots in the underground “comix” movement of the 1960s and 1970s. By proving the capacity of comics to handle weighty subjects, Sacco is sometimes dubbed a pioneer of the genre; he is often compared to Art Spiegelman who revolutionized the comic book industry with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus




Joe Sacco was born in Malta in 1960. Shortly after his birth, his socialist parents, who lived in Malta during WWII, left the country because they disliked being under the restrictive influence of the Catholic Church. Sacco was raised in Australia and the United States (Los Angeles and Portland). While growing up, war was often a topic of discussion. His parents often talked their experiences in the war with friends in Australia. Hearing their stories propelled Sacco to become a reporter. Sacco received a journalism degree from the University of Oregon in 1981. A self-described war junkie, he frequently travels to war-torn regions to gather material for his books. Sacco currently lives in Portland, Oregon.




After graduating from the University of Oregon, Joe Sacco faced a tough job market. In an interview, he said, "(I couldn't find) a job writing very hard-hitting, interesting pieces that would really make some sort of difference." Sacco started working for the journal of the National Notary Association; he was exceedingly bored by this job so he decided to pick up his old hobby: cartooning. He moved to Malta and wrote one of the first comics in the Maltese language entitled Imhabba Vera (“True Love”). By 1985, he had moved back to Portland and founded an alternative comics magazine called Portland Permanent Press, which lasted less than two years. When the magazine proved unsuccessful, he relocated to Los Angeles, became a staff news writer for The Comics Journal, and created a satirical comic magazine called Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy


Sacco quickly tired of the desk job and travelled throughout Europe. He worked on a comic series called Yahoo from 1988 to 1992. While writing the series for Fantagraphics Books, his style changed significantly. As he describes in a interview with LA Weekly, “I went from short, satirical pieces that were supposed to be funny, to more involved autobiographical pieces, to autobiography mixed with politics, and then eventually to telling the story of my mother’s experience during World War II.” During this time, Sacco travelled around Europe with a rock band and worked for German record labels and concert promoters in Berlin.


Sacco first became interested in the Middle East in the early 1990s while living in Berlin; he believed the American media had not portrayed the situation in the Middle East very accurately. So, in late 1991 and early 1992, he spent some time in Israel and the occupied territories; his nine-book series called Palestine was published during 1993 to 1995. The series was a flop. In an interview with the Guardian, Sacco admitted that he knew that writing about Palestine would probably be “commercial suicide.” The dismal sales of Palestine confirmed his fears. Despite lack of commercial success, he continued writing. His next book, Safe Area Goražde, describes his experience in Goražde, a Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia surrounded by hostile Serb-dominated areas; in the book, Sacco condemns the badly planned U.N. operations that took place. Safe Area Goražde was a commercial success and won critical acclaim; Palestine also sold widely when it was republished as a single volume.


Following Safe Area Goražde, Sacco received the Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001. He continued writing about Bosnia. The Fixer, published in 2003, explores life in Sarajevo following the Balkan War. The story centers on Neven, a former sniper turned “fixer.” As a “fixer,” Neven helps war correspondents like Sacco find and sell the tragic tales of war that news editors love. Following this book, Sacco worked for the Washington Monthly as a for a year and some of his earlier works were published as collections. Sacco’s most recent work is Footnotes on Gaza, which was published by mainstream publisher, Metropolitan Books, in 2009. Footnotes on Gaza, which covers the 1956 massacres of Palestinians in Rafah and the neighboring town of Khan Younis, received the 2010 Ridenhour Book Prize. 




Joe Sacco tends to handle the multiple production tasks (writing, pencilling, inking, lettering) himself. He gathers material for his books through personal observation but he also relies heavily on journalist devices - eyewitness accounts, documents, and interviewing. Therefore, each book often contains two narratives: his own and the stories of others constructed from interviews.


Sacco does not hide the constructed nature of photojournalism or journalism in general. In fact, Sacco highlights the problems of the field in maintaining objectivity. He tries to create some distance by limiting his first-person voice in the comics. Often, his presence is signaled textually instead of visually (even though he is a character in the story). Sacco’s drawings are often rendered realistically and in black-and-white; these choices give the images a documentary quality and highlight the bleakness of the subject matter. Sacco adapts devices of broadcast journalism to the form of comics (as seen in the framing of interview subjects and the extensive use of captions).


A major theme in his works is: the difficulty in distinguishing truth from fiction. The people he interviews omit parts of the truth or manipulate their answers for political or personal reasons. Inability to reproduce events exactly as they happened can also be unintentional (as memory is not always reliable). Though Sacco tries to downplay the creative process and draw attention to journalistic devices he uses, it is clear that faithfully reproducing actual people, places, and events is very difficult in comics (and mainstream) journalism. As Amy Kiste Nyberg observes, “journalistic storytelling is an interpretive process, no matter what its form.”




  • Palestine 
  • Safe Area Goražde
  • The Fixer: A Story of Sarajevo
  • Notes from a Defeatist (contains theYahoo stories)
  • War’s End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96 (contains Christmas with Karadzic and Soba)
  • But I Like It
  • Footnotes in Gaza




  1.  Amy Kiste Nyberg. “Comics Journalism: Drawing on Words to Picture the Past in Safe Area Goražde” in Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, ed. Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan. New York: Routledge, 2012.
  2.  Kristian Williams. “The Case for Comics Journalism: Artist-Reporters Leap Tall Conventions in a Single Bound.” Columbia Journalism Review. March/April 2005.
  3. http://www.fantagraphics.com/artist/sacco/sacco_bio.html
  4. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2003/oct/23/comics.politics
  5. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/nov/22/joe-sacco-interview-rachel-cooke
  6. http://motherjones.com/media/2005/07/joe-sacco-interview-art-war
  7. http://www.laweekly.com/ink/04/06/features-mckenna.php


Further Reading



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