I’ve wondered what Joe Sacco was doing with himself recently. He hasn’t published a major work since Safe Area Gorazde in 2000, and not even any new minor work since The Fixer in 2003. Well, now I know: for the last eight years he’s been working on Footnotes in Gaza, the most important comic of 2009 or 2010. (Depending on how you count it. It’s listed with a publication date of December 2009, but I’ve only seen it in stores beginning two weeks ago.)
Back in 2002, during the lead-up to the Iraq war and in its earliest days, Joe Sacco was in the southernmost part of Gaza, close to the Egyptian border, interviewing survivors of two events from the war between Israel and Egypt in 1956. One of these, as reported by survivors, was a simple massacre: many of the men in a town and adjoining refugee camp were lined up and shot. The second is more complicated. Israeli soldiers gathered all the men in a second town and refugee camp and selected those they thought were fighting for Egypt to be bussed to a prison. During the course of the day some men were shot for not following orders or beaten to death.
Interwoven with these accounts are Sacco’s observations of life in Gaza as he travels around those refugee camps conducting interviews with old survivors. It’s a sad, cramped place whose residents are not only angry at Israel, for shooting at them and bulldozing their homes, but also at the Palestinian Authority, for selling them out, and often at Hamas and other militants for attracting Israeli guns, tanks, and rockets to their neighborhoods. (2002, remember, was considerably before the Bush administration egged the Palestinian Authority into the armed conflict with Hamas that lost them all control over Gaza.) We see the same neighborhoods in their 1956 incarnations, as fairly new UN refugee camps, and in their much more built-up and crowded 2002 aspects, filled with teenagers who have never lived in a normal place and have nothing to do but follow Sacco around and make trouble.
There is nothing intrinsically important about the two events that have drawn Sacco’s attention. They are two small war crimes in a 50-year war full of crimes on both sides. But consciously or not, by reconstructing events from eyewitness testimony Sacco echoes every Holocaust documentary since and most especially including Shoah. It is jarring to see young Jews, some of them surely child Holocaust survivors or the children of survivors, conducting roundups and lining up men against walls barely ten years after World War II.
There is no way a book like this could avoid being an accusation against the state of Israel, though Sacco does include un-cartooned interviews and documents in appendices to provide Israeli perspectives on the past and current events he depicts. And there is perhaps no way to recommend it as strongly as I would like to without taking part in that accusation. But my own reaction, for what it’s worth, was closest to the perspective of John Sayles’ Men with Guns: it’s true that there are two sides to any conflict, but they aren’t the two sides fighting, they are the men with guns and the people without. All young men grouped and trained to kill are monsters.