Fat Books & Thin Women


Joe Sacco’s Journalism
September 27, 2012, 11:07 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Comics, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

One of the pleasures of coming back to the States after a three-year absence has been finding how busy the comics journalist Joe Sacco has been. In 2009 he published Footnotes in Gaza, and this year Journalism, a collection of short pieces previously published in magazines.

Journalism is a near-perfect addition to Sacco’s work for those who are already fans, and a perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with his work, or with comics journalism, or with comics altogether. For those not ready to make a commitment to one of Sacco’s longer works, like Safe Area Gorazde or Palestine, Journalism acts as a handy introduction to his style and intentions. Sacco includes a short preface and some written background on each of the comics, and although I’m a longtime fan this was my first time reading his thoughts on his work. Sacco raises some pressing questions about the state of journalism and about how comics journalism fits into the idea that journalism should be objective. It is, after all, hard to argue the objectivity of a form which can so readily reveal its maker’s thoughts on the people he deals with. As Sacco writes, “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful” (xiv).

On to the comics: Journalism collects pieces published between 2001 and 2011, ranging from just a couple pages to forty. The comics are divided into sections based on theme or location, but what unites most of these comics is their overarching concern with, as Sacco writes in the introduction, those people who are seldom heard. This includes everyone from American soldiers and Iraqi trainees in Iraq to the members of India’s very lowest caste to the overwhelming numbers of unwanted African migrants who land each year in Sacco’s homeland of Malta as they struggle to make their way to Europe.

Sacco’s comics are uniformly excellent, with his notes (describing everything from why he decided to focus on a particular story to problems encountered while reporting to disagreements with the publications that commissioned the comics) adding another layer to the reading. As ever, the only truly cartoonish character in these strips is Sacco himself, with blank eyes behind his glasses, mouth half open, the stylistic differences between his renderings of himself and those he interviews serving to reinforce the fact that he is an interloper here.

Somehow, the risk of taking advantage of a subject seems more acute when they’re represented visually, but by making his relationship with his subjects so clear, Sacco never does so. The moments when he chooses not to represent something are striking, as when a woman shows Sacco a photo of her dead daughter. Having shown so many other aspects of this woman’s life, Sacco leaves the photograph unknown, drawing nothing more than the outlines of the photograph (p. 68):

Sacco records his own impressions of his subjects’ lives along with his images, and it is this that makes his comics so powerful. Sacco never pretends to be an impartial observer, to be recording these stories in some objective way; and he seeks, again and again, to remind us of this. When Sacco draws his subjects speaking directly into the frame, as if to the reader, he occasionally draws a partial view of his own face, listening, to remind us that these stories have been interpreted. He includes panels in which he sits across from a subject, and others in which his notepad is visible, another reminder of how subjective the work of journalism is. (Below, a panel from page 97.)

One of Sacco’s (many) talents lies in giving the reader a sense of just how overwhelming these stories are. Frames overlap one another, and chaotic scenes are often given the bulk of a page, as the narrative unfolds in frames placed at the margins of this central image. Sacco shows, too, a certain claustrophic nature to the journalist’s work, as in the panel below (p. 137). Interviewing detained refugees, Sacco is surrounded by women trying to share their stories, as he drips with sweat. Images like these remind us of the degree to which Sacco curates these stories for us, sharing, as he writes, those that he wants to tell.

Sacco’s Journalism is that rare book that is just as pleasurable for the long-term fan as it is for the first-time reader. Journalism is a wide-ranging collection that manages to feel cohesive even as Sacco shifts continents and tells stories as different as those of American soldiers and female refugees from Chechnya. A fantastic collection, whether or not you’re a comics fan. (Though you probably will be after finishing.)

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed



Tina Fey’s Bossypants
September 7, 2012, 4:04 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

New back in the country, suffering from a constant if low-level anxiety about job hunting at a terrible time for job hunting, and trying to catch up on three years of American culture (Bieber to Jersey Shore to…oh god, I know that even these references are out-of-date and passe)? You couldn’t ask for a much better book than Tina Fey’s Bossypants.

Yeah, I know. I am the last person in America to read this book, and there’s not even really a point to reviewing it because…everyone beat me to it. But still, I wanted to jump in here and set the stage for forthcoming reviews; thanks to my “review” of Bossypants it should be clear that my brain spends most of the day hovering anxiously about three feet above my head, scanning job boards, and that a solid 50% of what I write in coming weeks will make no sense. (Much like this post.)

So, on to Bossypants! Tina Fey’s style is so conversational and welcoming that even if you are the most distracted person on earth (me) you will find yourself quietly dying (of laughter, or a generalized worry that you are in for a rude awakening re: the American economy) as you read stories about her father, Don Fey, “one boss, bold, bladed motherfucker” (48).

Bossypants covers a lot of ground, and can roughly be divided into sections of family anecdotes, stories about running 30 Rock, and explanations of SNL skits. The first two were my favorites; some of the SNL sections simply felt tacked on for length and way too long, with complete transcripts of skits. I imagine that this book on the iPad could just feature the videos instead of these transcripts (can they do this sort of thing for books on iPads? I am guessing yes, but, let’s face it – as with most new technology, I have no clue), and it would be vastly improved by the substitution. It’s vaguely interesting to read about the birth of some of these sketches, but over thirty pages of such description comes off as an attempt to pad the book.

Bossypants suffers from a lack of focus, but I expect as much when approaching a collection of essays and skits written by a comedian/writer of bits for comedians. The faults in Fey’s book were not enough to keep me from being that weirdo bursting into laughter every few pages, and using my iPhone (yes! I have an iPhone now! I am truly an American again!) to find videos like this one.

·

 Subscribe to the Fat Books & Thin Women feed