Peace Won’t Pay the Rent
Joe Sacco’s Palestine was first published in 1993 as a series of single-issue comic books, based on the author’s trip to the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip towards the end of the First Intifada. It was collected by Fantagraphics into a single edition in 1996, at a time when there seemed to be some cause for optimism in the region: President Bill Clinton had vigorously pursued the treaties collectively referred to as the Oslo Accords, in pursuit of the great white whale of peace in the Mid-East that has consumed every president for the last four decades, and was just as aggressively pushing the Dayton Agreement, which would end the brutal war in the former Yugoslav republics through a similarly militaristic process of intervention and bargaining. By the time Palestine was finally published in its now-familiar unified graphic novel form, however, all hope had been lost. It was December of 2001, and events — burbling menacingly since the end of the Second World War, but finally spilling over at vast human cost only two months before — were about to ensure that the Middle East would remain the hellhole of conflict, brutality, oppression, and proxy imperialism it is to this day. America’s grand dreams of brokering a peace deal that would provide dignity to both sides would be exposed as the shams they were, guided by ruthless self-interest, a violent and inconsistent foreign policy, and an unwillingness to decouple from the de facto apartheid state of Israel.
Reading Palestine today, one is left with two distinct impressions: the triumph of the book as an aesthetic object and its utter hopelessness as a a political document. Sacco’s skill as an artist is still towering: he’s improved enormously as a draftsman (witness his recent work on the stunning The Great War: July 1, 1916 – the First Day of the Battle of the Somme), but even here, in the work of a relatively young man, there is tremendous distinction. He manages to incorporate background, buildings, and weather with human figures in a breathtakingly skillful way that recalls some of Will Eisner’s best work, and his capacity for putting a great scope of naturalistic business into a single tableau without making it look overcrowded is unrivaled still. One of his most understated talents is his ability to convey motion in stillness, a talent that serves him well not only as he trudges through the neglected neighborhoods of Gaza and the West Bank, but when things start to go awry and he is surrounded by the kind of buzzing rage that will eventually explode into violence. As a writer, Sacco hews to a journalistic tradition that makes on pretense of pure objectivity, for such a thing does not exist: he openly admits that his choices of what to show and what not to show are themselves a form of editorial comment, if not an elision of the truth. But it is a style of reporting, human and personal, that we would certainly do well to have more of, rather than the current pretense of even-handedness and civility that has led us to a state of affairs where the press is a professional class of no more value than a public relations agency. Perhaps his greatest redeeming feature is his gently self-effacing humor: his sense of desperate absurdity, his self-awareness in placing himself as a hardly disinterested actor in any situation, and his curious interactions with his enigmatic Japanese photographer, all grant Palestine an access of relief it would otherwise completely lack.
Sacco, too, makes no bones about where he stands in relationship to both sides of the conflict. While what ultimately emerges, and I would argue properly, is the image of a state system that has become so entrenched and blind to the lives of human beings that it destroys them despite its own intentions, he readily cops to having been raised swimming in the same soup as most Americans. He admits to having a conception of Palestinians as terrorists and thugs; he becomes easily annoyed at perceived corruption (and, more familiarly, helplessness and weakness); and he seems more easily able to relate to the Israelis, even when he finds their behavior morally monstrous, because they operate from a cultural and class background that is more familiar to him. But what finally becomes clear through his humane and difficult process of discovery is the lesson we must always take from these situations: the brutality of blind authoritarianism and the way oppression denigrates and decays both the victim and the perpetrator. We are accustomed to being told by conservatives and pro-Israel voices that the Palestinians operate in a ‘culture of death’, where they commit acts of heinous violence because they are not raised to value life. But what has made them this way? What has robbed them of their hope? As the book’s most famous scene shows, what happens to a person — to an entire people — constantly subjected to humiliation, robbed of agency, treated as less than human?
Meanwhile, as successful as Sacco’s work has been as an artistic document, it has been predictably ineffective as a spur to action. Nearly 25 years after its initial publication, and 15 years after its collection into its now-familiar form, Palestine is a record of a place, and a people, that has not only failed to improve, but has gotten much, much worse. Robbed of its international allies by further chaos in the Middle East (exacerbated by an entirely avoidable war begun by the United States), Palestine has lost its ability to fight back. It has lost some of its greatest defenders, either by age and illness or by Israel’s policy of targeted assassination. Its occupiers have become more ruthless and more brutal; the Israeli right has grown stronger and the left weaker, and even the slightest gesture of disapprobation from the UN is toothless and met with vociferous resistance. As global poverty decreases, Palestinian poverty increases, and it is now one of the poorest, most desperate places in the entire world by almost every standard — as it is surrounded on all sides by great wealth and vast resources. Once a cause célebrè, it is now lonely and forgotten as the rest of the region shakes itself to pieces under the pressure of a renewed Cold War. What happens to a nation deprived of all promise? Joe Sacco tried to show us with Palestine. We may live to see the end of his vision.