Groundbreaking graphic novel on Gaza rushed back into print 20 years on | Joe Sacco

Groundbreaking graphic novel on Gaza rushed back into print 20 years on | Joe Sacco

An acclaimed nonfiction graphic novel about Gaza, which pioneered the medium of “comics journalism”, has been rushed back into print after surging demand since the fresh outbreak of the conflict two months ago.

Palestine, by Joe Sacco, was originally released in comic book form by the American publisher Fantagraphics 30 years ago, then published as a single volume by the company, and by Jonathan Cape in the UK in 2003.

The cover of 2022 edition of Palestine.

It was created by Sacco, a Maltese American journalist and cartoonist from Portland, Oregon, as a record of his own journeys around Gaza in 1991, and has since then won a clutch of awards and been included on university courses as a primer for the whole conflict. Edward Said, the Palestinian American academic and critic, said in his introduction to the book: “With the exception of one or two novelists and poets, no one has ever rendered this terrible state of affairs better than Joe Sacco.”

Gary Groth, the co-founder of Fantagraphics, said that after the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October and the subsequent bombing of Gaza demand for the book had soared.

He said, “We blew out of our inventory of several thousand copies quickly and are reprinting now. Retailers and wholesalers began ordering the book in far greater quantities than in the recent past, which indicates that every element down the chain – consumers and retailers – are expressing demand for it.”

Sacco, 63, told the Observer that when he first visited the region in 1991 he had decided to swap journalism for comics but found that his two talents collided.

A page from Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine.
A page from Sacco’s graphic novel Palestine. Illustration: Joe Sacco

He had intended to write and draw a comic book based on his experiences travelling through Palestine, but “when I was there, my journalistic training kicked in and, more than just talking to people, I started interviewing them.

“I began approaching the topic more systematically, trying to understand the actual structure of the occupation and its effect on Palestinians. So the fusion of comics and journalism was organic. I had no theory of graphic journalism. I was making it up as I was going along.”

Page 4 of Palestine
Illustration: Joe Sacco
Page five of Palestine.
Pages four and five of Palestine. Illustration: Joe Sacco

Although now considered a masterpiece of the form, when it was initially published in nine issues no one knew what to make of it.

Groth said: “Original graphic novels were a rarity back then and the book trade had no graphic novel category, so no one knew quite what it was.” He said that initially sales were poor because “so few people shopping at comics stores wanted to read about the Palestinian plight; they mostly went there to buy their weekly dose of X-Men comics.

“It was only Joe’s commitment to serious journalism and the comics form that propelled him to finish those nine issues, which have since become recognised as a great empathetic work of art.”

A cover of Palestine by Joe Sacco.
A cover of Palestine by Joe Sacco. Photograph: Joe Sacco

Sacco returned to Palestine in the early 2000s to research another book, Footnotes in Gaza. He said, “Things had seemed very bad when I was visiting in the early 1990s, at the end of the first intifada, but things were very much worse 10 years later.

“Now, obviously, the level of violence is on a scale that – if we’re talking about civilians – dwarfs what we’re seeing in Ukraine. In the first intifada, when I was working on Palestine, maybe 1,200 Palestinians were killed over a few years. Now, in tiny Gaza, that amount of dead is a matter of two days.”

Sacco is pleased the book is in demand and reaching a new audience – but that is tempered with sadness.

“That the book itself still has relevance is a sorry testament to the enduring tragedy of the Palestinians – though, in some ways, it’s also a tribute to their fortitude, their unwillingness to give in.

“I would go back, if I could get in. Thankfully, many brave Palestinian journalists are doing exemplary work despite the appalling conditions and the very real danger to themselves and their families. But the main reason I would like to go back to Gaza is to see my friends there. I hope they will make it through this.”

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