Duncan's blog

December 24, 2008


Filed under: Books — duncan @ 5:11 pm
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Joe Sacco’s Palestine is a graphic novel that I’ve been meaning to read for years, and only just got around to it now.

Palestine is a collection of episodes documenting two months Sacco spent in Israel and Gaza. The trip was made for the express purpose of later creating the comic. Rather than turn it into a semi-fictional story based on the accounts of people he met, he tells his story like Nick Broomfield, casting himself in the central role. It’s less a comic about the Palestinian experience, and more a comic about his attempts to research the Palestinian experience for his comic.

The book takes the form of small chapters recounting little episodes of Sacco’s encounters with Palestinians (and to a lesser extent, Israelis). Mostly it involves sitting round drinking copious amounts of tea while listening to their stories of beatings, arrest, torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Israeli military complex.

Sacco uses a variety of comic styles to tell his stories. He often uses a fluid style, captions flowing diagonally across the pages. One chapter is told almost all in text, with just a few illustrations. One panel seemed to be done like a parody of Robert Crumb’s famous Keep On Truckin’ image. Elsewhere he uses full page illustrations to show a larger perspective. The art style throughout is meticulously cross-hatched.


Image © Joe Sacco

However the real strength is in the writing. The stories are invariably tragic, occasionally comic, sometimes knowingly ironic. I thought I knew a little bit about the Palestinian situation, but having Sacco’s first-hand experiences, and more importantly, the Palestinian’s stories, re-told through comic book form, really helped me visualise and better understand what was happening. I say was, as the book was written over ten years ago. I don’t expect the situation has changed much for the better since then. It would be interesting to see a sequel to this, to write about any changes, e.g. the construction of the West Bank barrier. Apparently he’s working on a sequel called Footnotes in Gaza.

Palestine was originally published as a series of nine comics, and later in various collections before all being collected together in this one volume. The late Edward Said provides a foreword, which is appropriate, as one of the chapters is named after him: "I like Edward Said… He’s a Palestinian-American, a professor at Columbia… His ‘The Question of Palestine‘ is one of the reasons I am here…"

The very last page left me bemused; the book ended in what seemed like the middle of a story; there was no closing panel, no witty finishing statement. At first I thought the last page might have slipped out of the binding before realising that I was wrong; I’m still not sure it wasn’t a publishing mistake.

Like the war photographers and war artists before him, Sacco shows us the reality of living under occupation. This is one of the great graphic novels, to be held in the same regard as the likes of Maus, Watchmen and Persepolis.



  1. hi,
    i came across your post from fantagraphics. I too own a copy of Palestine and found it odd that the book ended so abruptly. I never came across any material on the net that even suggested that this was an unfinished work.
    however, i do feel it might just be that because the book “Palestine” is in fact a 9-volume compilation of Joe’s stay in the occupied territories.

    Another work of his I would highly recommend is, Safe Area Goražde – on the Bosnian war from a city that is surrounded by hostile Bosnian-serbs and has survived ethnic cleansing.

    Comment by Aristarkhos — February 23, 2009 @ 7:46 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah I read Safe Area Goražde right after Palestine, but never got around to writing up a review of it. Pretty good stuff, I think I prefer it over Palestine.

    Comment by duncancumming — February 23, 2009 @ 8:20 pm | Reply

  3. Yep. I liked Safe Area more than Palestine.
    I have been on the lookout for comic-based journalism ever since i read joe sacco’s works. if you have any suggestions, do let me know. 🙂


    Comment by Aristarkhos — February 24, 2009 @ 1:52 am | Reply

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