Graphic history in 'Footnotes in Gaza'

  • Article by: TOM HORGEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 2010 - 5:40 PM

Beauty and violence mark this detailed, painstakingly reported book, which brings to light a footnote of history.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

On a sunny Monday morning in November 1956, Israeli troops rounded up every Palestinian man of military age in the refugee town of Rafah and herded them like cattle onto the local school grounds. Many were beaten with clubs, more than 100 were shot dead. One survivor said, "It was like Judgment Day." Just days earlier, 275 Palestinian men were executed in a neighboring town. The acclaimed cartoonist Joe Sacco says this little-known massacre has become a mere footnote in the grander narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Footnotes, he writes, are often "dropped to the bottom of history's pages, where they barely hang on." His new graphic book, "Footnotes in Gaza," transforms this forgotten passage into a living, breathing 400-page epic.

In the comic book world, Sacco is a Howard Zinn figure and the leading voice in a subgenre called comics journalism. Since the early 1990s, he has traveled the map seeking out refugees, rebels and the everyday people who have survived the brutalities of modern warfare. He turned his trips to Bosnia and the Palestinian territories into the award-winning "Safe Area Gorade" and "Palestine."

With an old United Nations report as his starting point, Sacco returned to the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2002 to track down survivors of the 1956 massacre. This patch of land on Israel's southwestern border is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with more than 1.5 million Palestinians nestled between heavily fortified Israeli checkpoints. Moving around is difficult, but Sacco found many elderly Palestinians willing to relive those awful days. This particular episode of Israeli aggression was part of the 1956 Suez Crisis, when Egypt was attacked by Israel (with Britain and France). Israeli records blame the civilian deaths in neighboring Gaza on a disorderly populace. To others, it looked like ethnic cleansing.

Sacco's stories unravel like travelogues as he depicts himself traversing bombed-out neighborhoods in search of interviews. He has a lot to say about the news-gathering process and the complexities of objectivity. While he's sympathetic to the Palestinians, he is quick to point out hypocrisy. "Palestinians kill civilians too," he writes, "and with a human weapon more accurate than the laser-guided bombs of the Israelis."

Sacco is obsessed with detail, sometimes to a fault. The half-century of Israeli-Palestinian conflict he pours into "Footnotes in Gaza" is a complicated cauldron of battles, betrayal and political posturing. At times, this can bring the narrative to a simmer, but it's always shocked awake by bloody violence. Sacco is an expert at the minutiae of brutality (he shows every clubbing, every gun wound). For the reader, this can be a tough read.

But there is also great beauty in the book's black-and-white vision. Faces seem to pop off the page -- a result of Sacco's hyper-detailed line work and his knack for embellishing key physical features, such as bushy mustaches and sunken eyes. In Sacco's hands, even the word balloons contain a visual dynamism. These boxes of type tilt and shift on the page, as if they've become unhinged by the constant Israeli shelling (Sacco is shot at several times). "Footnotes in Gaza" showcases a master at the peak of his powers. All he asks is that we pay attention.

Tom Horgen is the nightlife reporter for the Star Tribune. He is at 612-673-7909

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  • Footnotes from Gaza by Joe Sacco

  • FOOTNOTES IN GAZA

    By: Joe Sacco.

    Publisher: Metropolitan Books, 416 pages, $29.95.

    Review: One of comicdom's true titans is in top form with a devastating new graphic novel about a little-known chapter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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