Joe Sacco wins Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature

It was announced yesterday that Joe Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” won the Oregon Book Award for Graphic Literature this year.  It’s a great work, but honestly, all the nominees deserve recognition.  “Footnotes in Gaza” is a serious documentary, as well as a stunning work of art and narrative, but how do you compare it with the other nominees?  Each seems to be in its own category.  For example, Sarah Oleksyk’s “Ivy” is a young adult reader, telling the story of a teenager who’s struggling to find her identity.  Graham Annable’s “Book of Grickle” reminds me of a short story collection, with odd characters finding themselves in odder situations.  Aidan Koch’s “The Whale” is more of a “graphic poem” than a “graphic novel.” It captures the melancholy and feelings of a woman after an accident takes the life of someone close to her.  Meanwhile, Greg Rucka takes the city of Portland and transforms it into a noir landscape in his mystery thriller “Stumptown.”

Each book deserves to win, but it depends on what the judges were looking for. Out of all the books, “Stumptown” is the one that oozes “Oregon” from each page.  “The Whale,” however, could benefit from a boost in distribution – it was only available at Powell’s Books, and there was only one copy left.  The artwork in “Ivy” is great, and the work strikes a chord with some people.  I’m sure that there are many younger readers who identify with the character and the story, so if the goal is to promote reading, or a newer artist, this would be the obvious choice. The “Book of Grickle” is perhaps the lightest work of all of these, but it’s so much fun that it’s hard to ignore it.  And of course, Joe Sacco’s massive work is fully deserving of the honor.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter: how can you compare these works that span genres when the category is grouped by medium?  Comic books are a medium, like film, or novels. So when you’re asked to nominate the five “best” comics how do you choose to evaluate “best?”  Steve Duin makes a good comment about the “Graphic Literature” category that it’s a biennial award, which casts the net even wider.  If anything, the categories should be made narrower, spreading the awards and the spotlight on the various genres of graphic literature that are produced in Oregon.

Speaking of spreading the spotlight, if you really want to see what’s happening right now in graphic literature (aka comic books) in Portland, I’d recommend that you check out the Stumptown Comics Fest. It’s a showcase of graphical narratives from local and national creators that’s a lot of fun, giving both creators and readers a chance to shine.

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"Footnotes in Gaza" by Joe Sacco

"History is a weapon. History ideally strives for objectivity above the battle....But historians, like everyone else, are prisoners of their own experience and their own times....The selection of facts from the past involves an interpretation, a sense of priorities, a sense of values as to what matters." - Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

"History is written by the victors" - Attributed to Winston Churchill

Joe Sacco’s "Footnotes in Gaza" is a massive work on a footnote in history.  It’s massive both in size, over 400 pages long, and in scope, attempting to bring a narrative to a series of conflicts in the murky Middle East that span the past seventy years. His focus is on a single bloody event in 1956 when the Israeli army moved into the Gaza strip, ostensibly looking for instigators in the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah, and eventually killing at least 386 Palestinian refugees, possibly more.  The story is told with painstaking care, peeling back each level as if it were sunburned skin, picking out the details, the facts, the myths, the emotions, and compiling it into a "comic book."

Which also point out the massive effort behind the work.  Sacco’s commitment to his book is evident in the fine print on each page.  On the first page he’s signed it "J. Sacco 3.05". The final page of artwork is signed "4.09." Over four years spent drawing each page, not to mention the time invested researching the subject in libraries and in the field in 2002 and 2003.

To unwind this complex story Sacco has to bring context to so many things: the landscape, political forces over time, key actors in events, and even to address why so many eyewitnesses have unreliable accounts.

"This is the Gaza Strip, 40km long by no more than 12 km wide, one of the most densely populated places on the planet. In 2002-3 when I visited, 1.3 million Palestinians lived on about 70 percent of the land. The rest was the domain of 7,500 Jewish settlers who set up their enclaves after Israel seized Gaza in 1967 and the IDF soldiers who protected them."

The key actors can be divided into categories. There are those recognized by history, such as Moshe Dayan, Egypt’s president Jemal Abder Nasser, as well as the countries of England, France, Russia and the US.  Then there are those who were alive during the incidents of 1956, some participating in Sacco’s project, some long gone or missing who have left only artifacts. And finally there are the characters from Sacco’s present - himself, his guide Abed, the aging mutarad fighter Khaled, a Palestinian resident of Gaza named Ashraf, and the endless stream of the Palestinian refugees who form a sort of Greek chorus, echoing the events we see as they cross the stage.

Gaza has always been a bit hazy in my mind.  I knew, in general, that it was in the Middle East and was involved in the Palestinian / Israeli conflicts.  But I never understood how it came to be, or what life was like for the refugees living in the strip. The most effect it had on my life was when the video group that I work with did a documentary on Rachel Corrie, an NGO representative who was killed while protesting the destruction of homes in Gaza.  Corrie achieves a chapter in "Footnotes in Gaza," not because death in Gaza is unusual, but the death of an American in Gaza brings more attention.

Sacco painstakingly renders key events that made Gaza what it is today: the 1948 declaration of independence by Israel, the refugees pouring into Gaza, the evolution over time from tents to shacks to towns, the institutionalization of this status.  He explores the conflicts and machinations between Israel trying to expand and enforce its borders, Egypt trying to modernize and create a united Arab state, and the creation of  the Fedayeen fighters of the 1950’s, as well as more current events of the 80s, 90s and 21st century.  Sacco doesn’t hesitate to draw the dead and dying in his work, showing the suffering without embellishing it.  But he has also put human faces to events that would otherwise be bloodless, nameless events - "incursions", "shootings", "conflict."

I found a reviewer on Amazon who pointed out a weakness that some might find in "Footnotes in Gaza." "FOOTNOTES' major drawback is its one-sidedness. Sacco provides the official Israeli accounts of the Rafah incident and the home demolitions, but these appear--ironically--as a footnote, relegated to the back of the book. Entirely absent are first-person narratives from Israelis who were there. Since the Israeli documents paint a very different picture of what happened, such narratives would have added credibility either by telling a conflicting side of the story or by confirming the Palestinian testimonies. They would have also allowed readers to glean something about why these shootings happened."

The work that this most reminds me of is Crumb’s "Book of Genesis." Not just because of the content - set in the holy land, full of conflict. But the massive size of this work, and the attention to detail, the composition of the frames. It’s a documentary rendered as graphic literature.  The cartooning style makes "Footnotes in Gaza" much more approachable, and also helps to bring faces and places to history, to a story that has always been confused in my mind.

Sacco has a skill for capturing faces without making them stereotypes or caricature.  Each player in Gaza is identifiable, and shows their humanity in traits such as the way they hold their mouths, a mole or missing teeth, a shock of hair pushed to one side.  I also liked the way that Sacco made the hands so expressive -showing disgust, frustration, anger, or even power.   When drawing himself he seems to be slightly smaller with opaque round glasses. He’s the narrator who stays out of the way, but not enough to fool us into thinking he’s invisible.  Instead he’s there to bring context to the story - much like a TV reporter appears in a news story.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of "Footnotes in Gaza," especially considering the quote by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and the one frequently attributed to Winston Churchill.  The Palestinian conflict has gone on so long that’s simultaneously happening, and forgotten history.  Sacco explains to the people as he interviews them that he’s interested in the events of 1956. In one scene a father shows what the destruction of housing and fighting in the Gaza strip is doing to his family: bullet holes in the wall, tanks rumble by, the kids are afraid to use the bathroom that’s on the outer wall of the house.  "Every day here is ’56!" says the man, disgusted by the situation.  Yet, if history is a weapon, this book, "Footnotes in Gaza," is Sacco’s way to bring freedom to the way he sees the Palestinian story, a way to provide a context, a sense of values as to what matters: seeing the Palestinian refugees as people, and treating them as people deserve to be treated.

Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel by Joe Sacco has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award in the category of best "Graphic Literature."  In February of this year it was announced that the book is also slated to be made into a movie.  Joe Sacco doesn't appear to have a website, nor is he on twitter.


Springfield = Portland? Sort of...

The Simpsons when made their first TV appearan...
The Simpsons when made their first TV appearance on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In my review of Greg Rucka's "Stumptown" I mentioned how The Simpsons's Springfield is loosely based on Matt Groening's home town of Portland, Oregon. In a bittersweet moment, I have to admit I was wrong. 

In an interview with the Smithsonian magazine Groening finally comes clean:
Springfield was named after Springfield, Oregon. The only reason is that when I was a kid, the TV show “Father Knows Best” took place in the town of Springfield, and I was thrilled because I imagined that it was the town next to Portland, my hometown. When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name. I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, “This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.” And they do. 
Ok, I led you astray. But the names of a lot of the characters were inspired by Portland.  Kearney, Terwilliger, Flanders, even Mr. Burns(side) are street names in Portland, Oregon.

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"Stumptown" by Greg Rucka

Lately it seems that Portland has bubbled into popular culture. Or maybe it’s not lately – starting all those years ago with the Simpsons, when Matt Groening loosely based his fictional family in Springfield on his real family and hometown.  More recently IFC’s “Portlandia” is more obvious example showing P-town town as an omphaloskeptic society bent on proclaiming rights for bicycles and with residents interrogating waiters about the heritage of their lunch.  In both cases, Bridgetown plays along in a wacky sort of way, glad of the attention, sort of like a bachelor uncle at the family gathering.

But Portland isn’t always the happy-go-lucky uncle. Sometimes there are murders, kidnappings, and police car chases, just like in Chicago, LA or New York. OK, not exactly – we have a couple beautiful snow-covered volcanoes in the background, and some of the cops ride mountain bikes.  But there’s also a dangerous and ugly underside to the City of Roses, and it’s in this culture that Greg Rucka sets his graphic novel “Stumptown.”

As Matt Fraction mentions in the foreword, “Stumptown ” is vaguely inspired by “The Rockford Files.” It has a subtitle, appearing at the end of the chapter as if it was the name of episode:  “The Case of the Girl Who Took her Shampoo (But Left her Mini),” done in 70’s style Cooper font.  It has the angry chief, the rough and tumble locations: a bar, a casino, the hotel parking lot, a shooting under a bridge. And central to the story is the tough, independent PI named Dex Parios, who hangs her shingle as “Stumptown Investigations  503-389-2135”

“Stumptown” has all the trappings of an early 70’s detective show, yet Rucka has cleverly twisted everything to make it fresh, and wrapped it around a world he’s envisioned so completely it’s almost tangible.  The cheap bar Parios uses as a meeting spot, the Ringside, actually exists as a Portland landmark, known mostly for the steaks and onion rings, and it’s not really cheap.   A meeting in Mt. Tabor Park is rendered by the comics’ artist Matthew Southworth with sufficient chiaroscuro to portend danger, unlike the actual park I’ve visited with my kids.  And my favorite twist is the minor chase scene / standoff inside and outside the Heathman Hotel.  I could see Jim Rockford in a similar scene, but only Dex Parios would be in this one.

Dex Parios showcases her messy car, bad ass style & bad luck
Speaking of Parios, I’ve often read that Rucka writes “strong female characters.”  I’d have to say Rucka doesn’t write strong female leads. He writes strong leads who sometimes happen to be females.  Dex Parios needs to be strong. She has some luck, both good and bad, but she’s mostly determined.  Taking the case of tracking down the granddaughter of a missing Confederated Tribes casino manager isn’t all her idea – she owes the casino $18,000 – but she works it like a professional. Between that and taking care of her mentally-challenged brother, gambling too much, and probably eating too much take-out and sleeping on the couch in front of the TV, she’s a classic flawed character.  And just like Philip Marlowe, another detective, the sign advertising her detective agency is on the window of her office, but in another twist her office is in her house – a Craftsman bungalow.

Bottom line: Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth have taken the 70's LA detective TV show, breathed a new life and story into it, and steeped it in Portland culture, and poured everything into a graphic novel.  I hope to read more Stumptown investigations in the future.

"Stumptown" by Greg Rucka has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award in the category of best "Graphic Literature."  To learn more about Rucka, check out his blog at www.gregrucka.com or his fan page on Facebook. On twitter he's @ruckawriter.  Or, if you need a detective, here's theStumptown Investigations website, or call 503-389-2135.