S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: I’m sure he thinks the way people see them, when people see someone on the street who is alcoholic or is homeless, they make assumptions about that person. And so I’m taking it from that point of view where you make a judgment about people, you’re seeing the effects. It’s only when you scratch a little deeper, you talk to that homeless person, you begin to understand the systematic reasons why they might be there.
S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Ramona, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler. Isaac, we just heard the voice of Joe Sacco, who’s your guest this week. Let’s talk a little bit about Joe. He’s someone who I think of as a journalist, as indeed he is, but he’s also more than that.
S4: Yeah. Boy, Amy, right to Joe Sacco is a comic book journalist, which the does not mean he’s a journalist who covers the comic book industry, although we could use more of those. He is a journalist who publishes his journalism in the form of comics, and he is for my money, one of the great writers of nonfiction working today. If there’s a uniting theme to his books, it usually has to do with him traveling to contested spaces and learning the stories of the inhabitants of those spaces in a way that sort of gradually accrues this real complexity and then often leads to questions of our own assumptions about those stories and what they should be like.
S1: That’s such a great way of talking about Joe’s territory as a journalist. He’s sort of, you know, if you go to Bob Woodward for like the political dish from the very top of the power structure, if you go to Vanessa Grigoriadis for a way of thinking about celebrity that feels fresh and irreverent, it’s useful to think of what it is you go to Joe Sacco for.
S4: Yes, absolutely. That’s absolutely. You know, you’re going there to see a sort of ground up perspective on these sites of enormous conflict.
S1: I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about paying the land, which is Joe’s new book that was published this past summer.
S4: Yeah, sure. So in paying the land, it really fits in with that kind of thematic body of work. Joe visits several indigenous communities in far northern Canada because he’s interested in the stories behind and the dynamics around resource extraction on their land, in particular fracking. You know, he’s really interested in what’s going on, on their land with fracking and how do they feel about it. But once he gets there, he discovers this very rich and complex history and it becomes impossible to really talk about fracking without talking about that history and about the DNA way of life and how they relate to the land and which is very different from how we relate to the land. And on top of that, it’s just this astoundingly gorgeous book. It is his sort of most detailed, biggest scale drawings that really pull you through the whole thing. I mean, I’d regularly have to kind of just stop and marvel at what I was even looking at before getting to what the story was that was being told. It’s a really impressive work.
S1: Was this a subject that you had a handle on before you came to pangolin? Did you have and do you feel like you now, having experienced this book, have some command over these issues?
S4: I don’t feel like I knew anything about this story at all. I mean, I vaguely knew that resource extraction happens on lands that belong to indigenous peoples, you know, for example. But the most I knew about kind of conflicts over resources in the north was probably being made to watch the 1983 film Never Cry Wolf over and over and over again in lower and middle school, because that was the kind of school I went to. I don’t know. But I definitely feel like I know a lot more about it now. And it’s a story that I understand on a much deeper level.
S1: Right, because it’s a book that makes you stop and marvel at its physical beauty. But the endeavor of the book as the endeavor of journalism more broadly is to teach you something, to sort of impart something to you.
S4: Yeah. And I don’t think that physical beauty is there for its own sake. And you’ll hear Joe talk about that, about why, you know, he sort of worked so hard on what the imagery of the book was going to be and how that relates thematically to the subject matter.
S1: Before we get started, I’m curious whether you read a lot of comics and I know that you have a kindergartener in the house, and I wonder if she’s discovered the particular joy of the graphic form. Like, I think it’s really a thing for kids today in a way that it wasn’t when I was a child. But I still think there is some lingering snobbery about the genre that like maybe reading a graphic novel, which many kids do, especially kids your daughter’s age and like my younger sons age, that maybe it’s not the same as reading a book that’s just comprised of words with the occasional illustration.
S4: Yeah, that’s snobbery drives me nuts. At the same time, you know, Iris is just learning to read. So we haven’t quite like made the jump to a lot of graphic novels. There’s a couple that we’ve read with her, but I’m very much looking forward to her doing so because I love comics. I love them. I don’t have as much time to read them now as I used to because of how much reading I just have to do for various jobs. But, you know, I was really lucky in this respect to graduate from college in 2001 and to be working in a bookstore a couple of years after that, which was during this real boom time. I was almost a speculative bubble of graphic novels and comics works for adults. You know, you could think of, you know, Chris, where doing major work during that period, Dan Clowes, Alison Bechdel, you know, a lot of Kyle Baker, a lot of important artists were doing really fascinating, groundbreaking work. And Joe was absolutely one of them. His most recent book, Before Paying the Land Footnotes in Gaza, is really, I think, kind of like the crowning achievement of that moment of the market has changed since then. It’s very different. But but no, I absolutely love comics.
S1: Before we get to the interview, I do want to mention that our Slate plus members are going to hear a little something extra for your conversation about Joe’s influences as an artist. Now let’s get to this conversation with Joe Sacco.
S4: Joe Sacco, thank you so much for joining us today on working.
S2: My pleasure. Great to be here.
S5: So when you meet someone and they ask you, you know, oh, Joe, what is it that you do? How do you like to answer that question?
S2: Hmm? I generally say I’m a cartoonist. And I mean, if it was at a party, I just would leave it at that and they’d have a little giggle and say, like Garfield. Right. But if it was in a work situation, I would explain that I’m going to be telling people stories through through my drawings and through my comics. I usually bring a book along with me to show, you know, the people I’m talking to so they get an idea of what I’m trying to do. Yeah, totally. And that’s a good idea because sometimes I ask a lot of visual sort of questions.
S5: Yeah, there’s not that many folks out there doing journalism in comics form. How did you discover that that was what you were going to do with your life?
S2: Well, you know, I studied journalism, so originally I wanted to be a hard news writer. And, you know, I have a degree in journalism. And after school, I couldn’t find a job in a newspaper at all. So I sort of fell back eventually. I mean, over the years, I sort of fell back on comics art drawing, which is something I’d be doing as a kid. And I was living in Berlin doing rock posters, album covers, T-shirt designs and doing a series of comics that were kind of autobiographical. But, you know, because I study journalism, I did so because I’m quite political in my outlook. I think a lot about what’s going on in the world. And I decided to go to the Middle East to do a series of comics, which I thought would be sort of autobiographical in a way, or let’s say travelogue. And it turned out when I got there, I just began asking questions and I realized this journalistic thing just started kicking, you know, kicking me into sort of this this shape of how I was approaching the subject. And I found myself behaving like a journalist and asking questions like a journalist looking for the story. And so you could basically say it was accidental. I mean, that’s what I’m that’s basically getting it. I never came up with a theory about it. I mean, you know, I accidentally had myself as a character in my early work because I came out of the autobiographical tradition. It wasn’t that I was analyzing. Well, what does it mean to have your, you know, draw myself in a series of comics that are journalistic and approach? I wasn’t thinking it through. Later on, I realized that was quite good because it lets the reader know that you’re seeing this through one person’s eyes, that it’s not necessarily an objective viewpoint.
S5: I feel like maybe I’m wrong about this, but paying the land, your new book length work you’re in, it may be the least. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it felt like literally you visually appear in it less frequently than you do in your other books. Is that true?
S2: I think that’s true. And I think each book requires some fine tuning of your of your schtick. Let’s say that. And in this particular case, I realized, you know, I’m talking to indigenous people who have these really sort of deep reflective stories to tell. And I wanted as much as possible to be I wanted it to be their interpretation of their own world and their critique of what had happened to them. I didn’t really need to be in it.
S5: How did you figure out how to draw yourself? Maybe for viewers who aren’t familiar with your work, this might sound strange, but to those who are, Joe Sacco does, in fact, have eyes. I am able to see them on the zoom call, even though, you know, when he draws himself, it’s always with opaque lenses, you know, how did you figure out, like, sort of how you were going to portray yourself in the work?
S6: Well, it’s something I thought about too much, except I don’t have a background in art. I never studied drawing. So my comics, which I’ve been doing since I was a kid, were always very cartoony. And that’s that’s what I’m most comfortable drawing. When I started doing journalistic work, I realized if it has sort of a pretense to nonfiction or to or to journalism, I need to draw me more realistically. And so basically over the years forced that into my hand. It’s not natural to me even to this day. Drawing, realistically, is not how I would prefer to draw. It’s a bit painful, to be honest. I’m always working with an eraser in one hand. So this this whole cartoony approach, my my figure in the early books was very cartoony, just like everyone was cartoony. When I decided to draw more representational, I did that or tried to do that. I just basically ignored my own character, not because intentionally it’s just something that had become such sort of a signature for me that I hadn’t even I didn’t even think of the implications. Of keeping myself a bit more cartoony than than everyone else. It’s only actually later, like about two years into this process that someone said, why do you sell yourself that way? Everything else is more realistic. And I actually didn’t have an answer for them.
S5: Right. But you did say that you deliberately kind of had to work to draw more realistically as your body work went on. How did you learn how to do that? Were there particular artists you were studying or was it just looking at the photograph and trying to reproduce it? Or how did you develop those technical skills?
S2: Well, it was a lot of trial and error.
S6: I mean, if you you can actually see a progression of how I’ve my drawings over time. If you look at the very first issues, because Palestine came out as a series of comic books before it was put into a graphic novel, you’ll see that it’s very, very cartoony. I had to sort of learn to work that out of my my drawings. And that was just by looking at the drawing and saying, no, this isn’t this isn’t good enough. Just keep trying. I could never get into I could never be photorealistic. And I’m not sure if that’s even a good thing to be photorealistic.
S2: I’ll always be glad I have some cartoony elements to my work, but it’s just been it’s just been over the years, just learning little by little.
S5: Well, I mean, one reason why I ask is that the level of detail in the drawings of paying the land is extraordinary. I mean, you know, sometimes you’re looking at a drawing of dogs pulling a sled and it feels like you can see every hair on that dog. Clearly, part of the decision in this book was to push that level of detail further. I feel like and I was wondering, you know, what it was like to try to include such such a large amount of detail in your drawing, particularly compared to past work or I think all my drawings have been I’ve always tended toward detail and there have been times I’ve even tried to remove that from my drawing.
S2: But I cannot I mean, it’s just in my hand and it’s sort of what comes out the most comfortably, but particularly in this book, Paying the Land, it’s about indigenous people who say that the land owns them and they are part of the land. So in a way, drawing them as accurately as possible, drawing their clothing, drawing their tents, their dogsleds correctly, and drawing the land itself in detail was kind of my way of honoring their own vision of what they think of the land and what they think of themselves in the land. It had to. I wanted to sort of reflect that love of the land that they feel.
S4: How did you find the story for this book? How did you wind up in remote Canada reporting on an indigenous people and their their relationship to the land?
S6: Another accident in a way. I mean, like a lot of people, I started thinking about, you know, a book about climate change. Maybe I should do something about this interest everyone, I think. And I thought I would do a book about resource extraction and where does that happen? It always happens on the peripheries. It always happens around in where indigenous people live. And at first I thought of doing a comparative study different places. And it just so happened that a few years before someone had contacted me from Yellowknife and she’s a character in the book, Señor Morgan, the one who helps me, drives me and everything, introduces me to communities.
S4: She had contact takes takes part in an exploration competition at one point, right?
S6: Yes, that’s right. She’s a real outdoorsy kind of woman. She’s kind of the super heroine of the book. If you could say she had contacted me and said, you know, if you ever want to come up here, there’s a lot of interesting things going on with indigenous people, you know, et cetera. And that was that had been three years in the past. And I was thinking, why didn’t someone contact me from the Northwest Territories and tell me about indigenous people? And so I thought I would start out this comparative study that I wanted to do on maybe a number of continents about indigenous people. I thought I would start out in Canada, which I thought would be easy. And the reason I thought that would be easier, I figured, well, most people speak English, it’s relatively close, I won’t be really leaving the continent. And all those things were I was disabused of that notion. It was a very complex story, so complex that I thought I cannot just do a 60 page piece from out of here. I was finding out so much I realized that the level, the depth of what had been going on there was was sort of extraordinary. And I I needed to do a book about what was going on in Canada. But the reason I chose that was, again, it was someone contacting me and sort of accidentally sort of falling into just sort of going with that flow, basically.
S5: Many of your book length projects take a very long time, right? I mean, you spent, I think, four years making paying the land, if I remember correctly, and footnotes in Gaza was even longer than that, at least going by the dates on the sides of the pages that you write in. Is there a moment when you’re chasing a story where it just clicks and you’re like, oh, this is something I want to spend this amount of my life doing? How do you figure out that you’ve found a story that is worth investing that much of your life in?
S2: I mean, it has to hit me in the gut. Basically, I have to feel not something rational, but something inside me that’s telling me that this is going to be worth several years of work. It has to be something that really pulls me in, because, as you said, they take years and years and it’s it’s a difficult process. But this book, other books, there’s always this feeling. And I’m not saying I won’t say it’s a moment exactly, but it’s sort of a cumulative feeling until I realize, oh, this is really worth the effort in this particular case with this book, it was doing a 60 page story for a French magazine about the subject and realizing I hadn’t done as good a job as I thought I could do that. A lot of doors were beginning to open up and I need to make another trip back and go deeper because I realized it was a quite a complex and deep story. And it was in this particular case, it was just feeling that the story was owed something more. And then you asked that question, do I want to spend years of this of my time doing it? And if the answer is yes, you just go ahead. You always kind of have a mid project crisis. I always kind of do about two years or three years into it. I’m always kind of almost overwhelmed by, you know, you get older and you realize, oh, boy, I’ve still got two more years to go. Finances get a bit tight because you’re not making the advanced runs out a lot quicker than you would hope it would. But you always you always listen to what who you were when you made that decision. You always say that younger me decided to do this. And I’m just going to listen to whoever that was back there. And you just keep going then, and that gets you over this hump. And then it’s OK.
S5: You know, in all of your books, you know, people are telling you some really heavy shit. You know, they’re talking about very, very painful things, sometimes inherited traumas, griefs that go back generations that they’ve been living with their whole lives. I mean, in this book, just to give some examples, there’s, of course, the experience of being ripped away from their parents and sent to residential schools. There’s drug and alcohol abuse. There’s physical and sexual abuse, there’s deep rifts within communities, etc. and so forth. You don’t always think someone is, of course, going to just give a random guy the story. So not that you’re a random guy, but you know what I mean. So I was wondering. Yeah, how do you go about making sure that subjects know that they can trust you with what they’re giving you?
S2: Well, often that takes that that starts with who your guide is. In this case, Shauna Morgan, she’s a Western. She’s not indigenous, but she’d worked a lot in the communities. And so there were people who trusted her. And so if she introduced me to them, that was an advantage then. That’s true in places like Gaza. I always looked for someone who wasn’t necessarily a professional translator who could speak English well enough. The main thing for me was always was this person trusted in the community? And you have to think of what in a way, what was the person standing in the community with a family well respected. And if my guide was trusted and had sort of paid his own dues in the community and he was introducing me around, then that reflected on me. And so that part has always been interested. The other thing is sort of learning to listen is something I’ve learned over time and even in the case of paying the land to listen in a different way, because I was told and this was really, really good advice is when people start speaking the culture there is you let them speak, especially elders. Elders have to be. Expected in many ways, and one of those ways is just to let them you ask a question and let them sort of unwind and tell the story the way they want to explain something in the way they want to explain it. That was sort of unusual for me because I’m I look back at my older interviews and a more interrogative where I’m cutting in and whatever, but I’ve gone through some of my old interviews and I realize how many times I cut people off before they got to something really interesting, because sometimes I wanted to demonstrate my knowledge of the subject. Do you know how it is? Sometimes you just sort of throw things in that don’t need to be there and sometimes it’s just better to keep your mouth shut. And over time I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut better.
S5: And particularly in this book, you know, it sounds like how do I put this? Your books and I mean this as a compliment are so carefully composed, the final product is so, so carefully structured and put together that to some extent I think it might be surprising for some people how intuitive your process is and how much it’s about being open to where the story goes and what happens and everything like that. So when you’re on the ground doing the actual reporting, are you trying to kind of stave off ideas about what the eventual book might be so you can just be kind of open to what’s happening in front of you?
S2: Yeah, I mean, I might go in with preconceived notions of what the book might be about or the story might be, but you absolutely have to have your antennae out and just let things flow the way they’re going to flow. You know, I did that book Safe Area Garage about a town in eastern Bosnia. I never when I went to Bosnia, I thought I was going to go to garaged. It wasn’t really a plan of mine. It just you could get on a convoy and people were going, I thought, well, I might as well go and just see. And then it just became the subject of the book because I kind of fell in love with the place. So I’m constantly letting myself I’m letting myself be sort of go with the flow. Now, when I get back and I have all the material. Then I do become very, very organized in how I structure it. I’ve really learned to do all those things that I couldn’t have imagined when I started out, which is basically index all my notes. It takes weeks. I transcribe all my own tapes because I want to rehear things I’ve learned over time that it’s just better to have a real solid structure to what I want to do. I write an entire script and I mean so from the point from organizing all my notes, indexing and all that stuff to actually completing the script, I can take it can take weeks or even it can take months. Actually, it usually does take months. Then I start drawing and what I don’t do, what I do to keep things fresh is I never storyboard. So which is in my script, it’s just it’s just words. There’s no there’s very few times do I sort of indicate what I should draw. Like I’ve had a brilliant idea for the future. I might put it in, but there’s no indication of what I should draw and I allow myself the creative part. To me, the spontaneous part is every day I get the script, I look at it and I say, well, I’ll try to draw this section. I will just invent on the page what I’m going to draw. And I let I let that be the spontaneous part because the process is so rigid otherwise.
S5: But when you are actually in the process of drawing, are you sort of like outlining and then filling in or trying to do kind of like each composition one at a time as you go through, like each page Pushtu is close to finished as possible and then moving on to the next one?
S2: Well, what I do is I usually design two pages that are facing each other. The left hand in the right hand pages I usually do to those two pages together. I will pencil both of those pages than ink them because I want to see what they’re going to look like when a person opens up the book, because sometimes you draw, let’s say, a big scene that’s showing the background and, you know, an aerial view with a lot of people in it. You can show it on one page and you know how the eye works. It’s looking at its reading on the left, but the it’s being informed by peripheral vision of what’s on the right. People’s eyes might move back and forth even if they’re reading the book, you know, left to right. What’s on the right before you get to it is still important. So I’m thinking of those I’m thinking of those things. And what I do, I compose pages pretty quickly. Initially, I sort of pencil off of this panels here, this panels here, these panels here. And what I do is, I mean, this is literally what I do. I cut out words.
S5: I cut out the captions for for the listeners at home. There’s a little there’s two circular pieces of paper with words on them in pen that Joe’s holding up to the camera.
S2: Yeah. So what I do is I will write the word balloons and the captions. I’ll lay those down first before I really start drawing anything. And because where the words go and how the eye is being led is very important to me. And so the the placement of the words comes before the drawing. And I don’t know, it’s hard to say why that developed that way, but I just found that I was constantly drawing words and then thinking, oh, that doesn’t I shouldn’t go there, that you go over here because I’ve already drawn this over here. I don’t want to cover that person’s ear, you know, so I learn to sort of draw those right out the words and cut them out and then put them down. You know, where I need to put them and change them around. Hmm.
S5: Your early work often takes you earlier work, I should say, often takes you to densely populated urban areas, or at one point in Palestine, you’re in the most densely populated place on earth. If I remember correctly, you know, you’re often in small, cramped rooms. This is, of course, a story of huge vistas, wide open spaces, big mountains, forests, and not a lot of people. I mean, you see a lot of people in there, but the population density is low. Did that change how you approached drawing the project?
S2: Well, an editor at The New York Times I did I did a piece once for the Sunday magazine and its editor said, you know, you’re always you’re pretty good at drawing backgrounds and landscapes. Make sure you use the geography itself as a character. And I always liked the way he put that. And it made it clear, you know, clear to me that giving the reader a sense of a place is is absolutely important, particularly in a book about the Northwest Territories, where, again, you know, the people’s idea of the land is so important you have to honor the land by drawing it. And that was part of me. I have to admit that thought. Oh, great. A landscape in snow. It’s just going to be a lot less detailed. But it just it just doesn’t work that way because you can draw one one drawing that snowy and with a few trees poking out. But then you realize there’s a lot more going on. It wasn’t exactly drawing a lot of snowy vistas all the time either. You know, you have to draw the summertime, you have to draw rivers. You have to draw people’s lives on those rivers, and then you have to get into the detail. Then you have to really learn what things look like.
S5: And how do you do that? I mean, you obviously have photographed a lot of things, but some of what you’re drawing is decades old.
S2: That’s correct. In Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories, there was a very good archive with photos that you could you can access online. So I would look up tents and it would give you the year of the photograph so you could sort of judge what tents look like in the 40s, the 50s, the 60s, a lot of little details, even like dogsleds, all that stuff. There’s so much photo archival material. I also asked a lot of people like the visual questions. And then I was a little worried about this because it is an indigenous community and you really have to I mean, especially these days, I think you have to be particularly aware that you don’t want to mess things up if you if for no unnecessary reason. Certainly. So in this particular case, you know, the story opens up with a one man named Paul Andrew telling me about life in the Bush growing up, you know, before they lived in communities. And I sent those pages to some indigenous people and it made its way into his hands. And then he basically told me what he thought of it. And so that was very helpful.
S5: I mean, it’s interesting because, you know, because your work is reportage and people are telling you their life stories, there is an imaginative component to it in that you have to draw something that you do not yourself see. You have to draw their memories, your imagination and research have to kind of meet the subject. And I just would imagine that would be a really nerve wracking thing to do.
S6: Sometimes it is because you realize it’s a real responsibility. So as much as possible if people are telling me a story.
S2: You know, they would tell me about a residential school and they would mention the residential school, I knew the names of the residential schools they went to, I would look I would try to research those particular residential schools on the Internet. And every now and then you’d find some quite good pictures. And so every residential school I drew, I want to draw the right one. They often look alike. But there’s enough of a difference that I think if someone went to that particular one, they would see, yeah, the windows were like that. Sometimes you have to like if they’re if you’re talking about inside scene with the cafeteria, there are no pictures of something like that. But then you look at the windows and you say, well, at least I can get the windows correctly from the inside looking out the shape of the windows. And you try as much as possible to. You just have to be as accurate as possible when it’s possible to be accurate. That’s how I think of it. And I mean, I think there’s always going to be a tension in comics journalism between like quotes which are accurate in the in the journalistic sense and the drawings, which are obviously really subjective. You know, you are composing things out of your head based on what people said, based on your research, but ultimately subjective. And then I sort of think of myself as a director of a movie like, you know, we get people like, you know, I was the director of Saving Private Ryan. What’s his name? Steven Spielberg. Even Spielberg. We give him a lot of room. And of course, he’s trying to get the uniforms right. He’s trying to get the landing craft right, all that kind of stuff. And you you think of the things in the same way. You think that, OK, I’m I’m the director. I’m the costume designer. I’ve hired all the extras that are going to go in this. And you just sort of let yourself do that. And you recognize there’s a tension, there’s a subjective tension in the work. And that’s OK. That’s part of its charm.
S5: For our listeners who don’t know about the residential schools, can you explain what those are because they loom very large in the story?
S2: Well, I mean, you could sum them up by saying that was the the method by which the Canadian government sought to. Destroy people’s culture and its connection, indigenous people, its connection with the land, because ultimately Canada wanted to control the land because of the resources. So you have to sort of you have to formalise the relationship over the people and break them from their traditions. And that’s exactly what they tried to do in the residential school. So what they did is they plucked children away from their communities, away from their sometimes their encampments along rivers and along the lakes took them and flew them places that even the parents wouldn’t know where they were, split up siblings and sending them to different schools in some cases and basically wouldn’t let the children speak their indigenous languages, would beat them when they when they did so. These places were kind of places where there was a lot of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and they regimented the kids. They took an indigenous, strong indigenous communities and really sought to destroy them. You could say that. I think that’s absolutely fair. When these kids went back to their communities, they they found they in some cases couldn’t even speak to their parents or grandparents because they could no longer communicate properly and they didn’t no longer fit in. They had to sort of relearned themselves if they could. That led to a severe alcohol problem and to taking the traumas that they they learned in the residential schools and inflicting them on their own people.
S5: One thing that I thought was really interesting about paying the land is you hold the story of the residential schools in reserve. It’s almost at exactly the halfway point that that you see it. We’ve sort of learned the effects of the schools. And then there’s a moment where you’re like you sort of overtly pause the narrative and say, I want to talk about this thing that’s actually overhanging everything you’ve just read. When did the idea of putting that story out there, instead of telling the story in sort of a more strictly chronological way, come about?
S6: It came about sort of organically, I realized at some point I realized the first story had to be Paul, Andrew talking about life in the bush and how strong the communities had been, how strong people felt, their sense toward the land, their sense toward their families and towards themselves.
S2: They were very strong individually and very strong communally, though gradually you show you show the conflicts within the communities about resource extraction. You begin to show what happened with their their problems, with negotiating with the governments, their internal problems. And then you show, you know, their internal problems come about because they have individual problems. And I’m showing I’m showing things the way people see them. When people see someone on the street who is alcoholic or is homeless, they they make assumptions about that person. Usually it’s that that person didn’t have it together enough to get by this often. There’s often a judgment made about people. And so I’m taking it from that point of view where you make a judgment about people, you’re seeing the effects. It’s only when you scratch a little deeper, you talk to that homeless person, you begin to understand the systematic reasons why they might be there. It’s not often their fault. They fell through cracks that were made wider. So that’s what I’m trying to do in this book, you often see effects before you begin to you can keep passing through and just say, oh, I saw this, I saw this this effect. But now what are the causes? And that that way you can you can pull it back to the foundational problem, which was not just the residential schools, but for most people within their modern memory, that’s what it was. You could go back even further, really, to first contact and what happens. And and, of course, you go back to treaties. But, yeah, the result which you do in the book. Yeah, I do also. Yeah. To me it’s all connected. It’s all connected. I went I really went up there not looking for a story about residential schools. I was told don’t ask about it, but it was always the elephant in the room. And that’s also reflected by the structure of the book. It’s like something you’re kind of not you’re avoiding because people told you to avoid the subject. It just would float around, though. People would it would come in and out of conversation. And at some point you just say, so tell me a little. Do would you mind telling me a little more about that? And people were not they didn’t hold back. They might have held back some things personally, but they told me as much as they wanted to tell me. And eventually I found people who were willing to tell me more.
S5: Do you think that there had been that truth and reconciliation process maybe made that a little bit easier? You know, that that some of these folks had already told those stories that you weren’t the first stranger. They were. They were speaking to you about it.
S2: Yeah, I think I think the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did have a big impact in Canada, obviously, in allowing people to tell their stories. And when you hear even if you haven’t told your story before the commission, you’ve heard other people say things that are that are quite similar. But what I wanted to point out in the book, too, is as valuable as the work was of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And we have nothing like that in the United States. We’ve never even approached anything like that. I think what what you’ve done in Canada was what people didn’t encounter was great. But you cannot pretend that when you issue a final report and you’ve tied off the bow of colonialism and said, OK, now we’re finished with colonialism, let’s move on. We’ve paid out some damages and now we can continue on with our merry Canadian way. It’s not like that colonialism sort of on spalls over time. And you’re and people are going to live with the effects of colonialism for a very long time. You know, you have you have wounded communities that I think they’re very resilient, but they have been wounded. And we I would say we I’m saying euro Westerners need to understand that things that you think happened a long time ago, even if they did happen a long time ago, they still unschool over time. And with Canada, in Canada’s case, the residential last residential school closed in the 1990s. It’s not that long ago.
S5: Yeah, that was wild. When when I learned that in the book, I was like, wait, the 1990s.
S4: Yeah, it was being it was being phased out during Pearl Jam’s recording career. This has happened.
S2: Yeah. I mean, that’s within within the modern grunge era. I mean, you know, it’s it’s mind boggling to think about. But that’s what was interesting to me. Speaking to someone like Paul, Andrew, people my age and I’m 60 now, but people my age in the Northwest Territories, indigenous people, a lot of them had grown up as children in Bush camps. They had a memory of living like that, and that is pretty much gone now.
S5: That is gone now. The story you tell in the book is is partially, I think, one of unschooling complexity, the complexity you found when you first thought you would go up and get 60 pages of a book, and then it turned out to be a actually a 300 page book or, you know, whatever. Managing complexity for the reader is a huge challenge in nonfiction, I feel like.
S2: That’s always a hard one, I mean, that’s sort of I think of myself as a as sort of an average educated person in a sense. I I read non-fiction that’s pretty complex without the advantages of images that allow you to identify characters. Again, often I’m reading stories that are sort of these meta meta oral histories of something and I keep forgetting who the character is and I no longer pay attention. I just read what what happened to them. But I forget the 15 pages ago this happened to that same person, at least with comics, with drawings. You can have the face. You know, someone is reminded, oh, that was that person, because, you know, I remember that face. So there’s some advantages sort of inbuilt to comics. But, yeah, I mean, especially when I was getting into the land claims there are different territories in different regions in the Northwest Territories and and they each have a different agenda. And then communities within those particular regions also had different agendas and are sometimes in conflict with one another. How much level of detail? I sort of tried to be as clear as possible, but I don’t want to do the the the material a disservice by flattening it or bringing it out. So I will take it to a certain level of complexity and then in my own mind say, OK, this might be a little too much, just sort of get to the point. You don’t even though you found this out and took you a long time to find this little nugget out, you know, you’ve got to cut the throat of your beautiful swans and just cast them aside, right?
S5: Yeah. One thing I really admire about your work, and this might sound strange, but one thing I really admire about your work is that you are not shy about the emotional component. And learning these stories is a very emotional process for the person reporting it out. I mean, how could it not be right? And I was wondering about how you think about that as part of your creative process when you let your emotions in or how you handle them as you’re developing the work?
S2: Well, in some ways, I guess you could narrow it down to two phases. When I’m doing my field work, I tend not to get emotional. I mean, there are exceptions, but generally speaking, I’m pretty cool and collected and so I can hear a lot of difficult stories, sometimes a number in a day. And the whole idea in journalism is to get the story, to stay out of the way of the story and get it properly. And you don’t want your emotions to get in the way of the story. You want the person in front of you is telling a very difficult story. And as much as possible, you have to keep that person on track and you have to take something from that person without damaging that person. All those things are in your mind and that makes you behave sort of very professionally and very clinically.
S6: Let’s say let’s say like a doctor working with a patient. That’s kind of almost how I think that’s pretty much how I think about it. The difference is the change is. When I’m back home and I’m drawing, then you you no longer distance yourself from the story you have to get inside that person because you’re drawing that person and drawing someone is sort of like it. I imagine it’s what an actor is trying to do and they’re trying to be a character. You have to inhabit that person that you’re drawing. If they’re in a very difficult moment, you can no longer shy away from that. You have to draw it.
S2: And in some ways, you have to be you have to let your emotion has to now resonate with their emotion. And hopefully that comes across well in the in the books. It doesn’t come across as it being about me. It’s about them, obviously, that you you sort of you sort of see it for what it is then. And actually that’s when it affects you the most. I’m more affected drawing something than I am by hearing it or seeing it.
S5: Well, Joe Sackett, thank you so much for joining us on working and talking about your process. It was a real pleasure. Thank you, Isaac.
S1: Isaac, I happen to know that you’re in the midst of a book project of your own, so I wonder if you were struck as I was, by the way, that Joe talked about the particular crisis of reaching the middle point of a project. You know, he talks about this new book being born with a magazine assignment, a desire to make something bigger. And then he found himself, you know, running out of money, losing steam in the weeds. Joe mentioned the imperative to listen to who he was when he made that initial decision to pursue this book, to listen to his younger self. I think that is so interesting.
S4: Yeah, man, I was like taking notes when he said that. I am you know, when the listeners are listening to this episode, they listen to it the day it airs. I’m like three weeks away from turning in of the first full draft of my manuscript to my editor. As as you are listening to this and you know, I’ve been working on it for a couple of years and sometimes it feels like my book and I are in like a real big fight. And one of the big adjustments I had to make in switching my focus from directing for the stage to writing books is this kind of sprint versus marathon thing. You know, in directing, you do a lot of preproduction work. You may have developed the script with the writer for a long time, but the actual rehearsal process is like four weeks. Right? And here it’s like a very intense, deep engagement over a series of years. But, you know, as soon as he said that, I was like, I should really reread the book proposal because I you know, because of the book proposal, I actually had to write down why I wanted to do this. And it’s right there. And I and I could go find it and get reinspired. So I thought that was really good, really good advice. Does that happen to you with with your novels?
S1: Yeah, absolutely. It’s very easy to get lost in a big project, especially one that unfolds over a long stretch of time. That particular advice to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. It sounds very basic, but it’s very useful that like if if you want to turn it into a metaphor that the journey of a book is like a trip to the grocery store and you’re taking all of these side routes, but your fundamental goal is to get to the grocery store. And it’s sort of useful to remind yourself of that fundamental goal, that big aspiration when you’re in the weeds. You know, I think that’s really useful. I also found so much good advice in here for the journalist, you know, that is never a noun I use with respect to myself. I have too much respect for people who really do journalism, but maybe it’s even bigger than that. Maybe there’s something to learn, not just for what we do on this show, but that applies to what anyone does in their work, which is to listen to people, whether you’re interviewing them or you’re working below them, don’t cut them off. Don’t try to perform your own knowledge of a subject. Just listen.
S4: Yeah, and and I loved how that came out of kind of what he had been told about what respecting your elders meant to that community and how to do that. So many different craft level and creative decisions in paying the land came out of actually the subject matter, which I think is fascinating, that some of it’s like listening to the subject matter. I have had to learn not to interrupt people during interviews the hard way because, you know, when Dan and I reported out, the world only spins forward. We talk to like 250 people between the two of us. Right. But it’s an oral history. So if I interrupt someone to summarize what they’ve said, then they might not say it. And if they don’t say it, then I can’t quote it in the oral history because our questions aren’t in it, you know? And so it became part of the formal thing that I really had to to restrain myself. I don’t think it’s always about proving how much you know, or that kind of insecurity. Sometimes it’s that you’re really excited by the subject and you’re geeking out on it a little bit, but you really do still have to restrain that impulse. And sometimes when you’re interviewing someone, you don’t actually want to demonstrate how much you know, because sometimes it actually is better to play dumb and to let them teach you. And if they’re the kind of person who enjoys teaching people, they’ll give you a lot more. If that’s the dynamic.
S1: I just I like that he’s still learning that at this point in his own career that he’s still able to find a lesson in the work that he’s engaged in and sort of remind himself of what he’s trying to accomplish. Yeah, absolutely. I cannot draw and I truly wish that I could. I think it is one of the most extraordinary talents. But I found it really illuminating to hear Joe talk about his own approach to art in which he doesn’t actually have any training, that he doesn’t storyboard because he wants to keep things fresh, that he’s attentive to, like how the whole spread of a book looks because your eye kind of naturally wanders from left to right. That way of thinking about what he’s doing felt very surprising to me.
S4: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s lessons there for people like me and you, you know, desperate wretches who can’t draw to save our lives that, you know, if you abstracted out that that having a plan can actually encourage creativity, that you’re not going to hamstring your spontaneity or get rid of those impulses simply because you have a plan. However, you can also determine where you’re going in advance, that you can actually kind of paralyze yourself. And then it’s just not fun. Like like when you’re doing these long term projects, you have to find a way to keep it fun because there’s always your phone or your television or something tempting you with distractions. So you have to keep yourself interested and finding that sweet spot of planning, how much and how little to do it can even change over the course of one project.
S1: Joe is really and truly a writer because he used this turn of phrase, I’m going to, quote, cut the throat of your beautiful swans. That is a really good quote, he’s just talking about the importance of being a rigorous self, Ed, but I think it’s such good advice no matter what you’re doing.
S4: I know. And even in that quote, I mean, it was just astounded by because even that quote contains a different layer of advice, because what he’s really doing in that moment is avoiding cliche. And so making you hear the advice in a different way because normally we say kill your darlings. Right. That’s the that’s normally the writing class script. Punch up meaning cliche. Oh, you’ve got to kill your darlings. You’ve got to kill your darlings. But it actually makes you hear it again when he says, cut the throat of your beautiful swans and you’re like, yes, I have to plan a swan massacre. Do you send out do you send out invitations for that? How does that work? You know, and and avoiding cliché is another really important part of rigorous self editing. And I’m about to be going through that process. And it was just a a good reminder to go through and weed out all the dead language and replace it with something more expressive.
S1: I really enjoyed the fact that the two of you discussed the particular challenge of managing the emotional aspects of his work. Right, when you think about photojournalists whose job it is to capture horrific scenes, to stand on the sidelines, to document the worst of the world without participating, without helping, this comes at a cost. You know, drawing is not photography, of course. But in his role as a journalist, Joe Sacco is looking at the world and it’s not always pretty.
S4: One reason why I asked him about that is that footnotes in Gaza like that dynamic is really at the forefront, the kind of like heds. What I’m doing helping anyone. What am I doing here? I’m dredging up these people’s pain. It’s very difficult for me to hear this, you know, like that. That is part of the dynamic of that book, less so in pain land. But, you know, it’s clearly there in his work. You know, there’s there’s I mean, paying the land. One of the things it’s talking about is cultural genocide. One of the things footnotes in Gaza is talking about, ah, two massacres, two actual massacres of Palestinian civilians, you know, and I felt something similar in my own work, you know, in hearing people’s stories of the AIDS crisis when doing the world only spins forward often. I would, you know, hang up the phone for the interview and I just burst into tears or, you know, I have this show that’s that’s streaming now called called Real Enemies. And there’s a chapter of that that’s about doomsday cults, all of which ended in these sort of spectacular acts of either murder suicide or both, you know, watching those home videos that like the Heaven’s Gate cult made. I mean, it made me feel physically ill for the month and a half that I was researching that section of the book. So I totally feel it. And I do think, you know, I have a therapist. That’s how I deal with it. Right. Everyone’s got to figure out their way to to deal with the emotional cost of the work they’re going to do. I mean, Ramon, your work comes out of the imagination. It’s fiction. But I have to imagine when you’re writing about difficult things, even if you’re making them up, it still must affect you in a certain way, right?
S1: I think it does. And I think that that’s part of what the fiction, especially with my new book is very interested in, is like the world as it truly is, not as we wish it were. And there’s an imperative to confront that. But there’s also an imperative to kind of relax and to afford to give yourself pleasure. Sometimes I usually counter it with art, right? Like I look at art and it brings me pleasure. I watch film and not dark film, but like enjoyable film as a way of reminding myself of aesthetic pleasure, which is like one of the great things that the world offers us. And the truth is that it’s very important that we have work like shows. He’s capturing something that’s very important that we know about. I wonder if you find in paying the land and Joe’s other work something else, illumination or beauty, that like to offset the tough history you’re reading about that there’s some other promise of something beautiful.
S4: It is a tough history. The history in paying the land is is really hard to read about. But because Joe is centering his indigenous subjects and rendering their lives with such attention and care and beauty, you wind up with a really complicated point of view on that history and learning all sorts of different responses to it, including, you know, there’s there’s there’s plenty to be inspired by in it as well. There’s a really inspiring section where he kind of takes you through the history of political organizing in one of the towns that he’s talking about. And it’s very, very moving, as is the perseverance of its of the book’s subjects. But, you know, even if all that wasn’t true, even if it was just like a super depressing read, the creation of art is on some level a fundamentally hopeful act. You know, and one of the things that art can do, it’s not the only thing it does, but one of the things it can do is enlarge our souls and open us to the world around us and each other in new ways. And sometimes that process of being opened up is is quite painful. Sometimes it’s quite pleasurable, sometimes it’s both. But it’s always worth it. And it is always something that’s of value and of meaning. And I and I really, truly believe in that. And I believe that that’s part of why art is so important to us as a as a people, as a as a human race.
S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed the show, if you have remember to subscribe wherever you got your podcasts that you’ll never miss an episode of.
S4: Thank you to Joe Sacco for being our guest this week and to our amazing producer, Morgan Flanary, we will be back next week when June Thomas is talking to a living legend, Jane Lynch.
S3: Until then, get back to work.
S4: And now welcome back. Slate plus listeners, I am here once again with Joe Sacco talking about his process. Joe, earlier on you mentioned Steven Spielberg and thinking of a movie director, and that just got me wondering, you know, what are the works that have influenced you and what you do? And I was wondering if there are other comics or other works of nonfiction or is it or is it mostly movies since it is such a visual medium you work in?
S2: I would say movies are the least of it, but there was one director who had a big influence on me, and that was Sergio Leone. His tendency for these really incredible close ups, he he he didn’t see the world as a beautiful place somehow. And I think I always have carried that with me somehow. And how I look at things, there are a lot of things over time that have influenced me. I mean, you could say influenced me as a person. Music listening to Devo, if you remember the band Devo, their take on American suburbia or or watching Monty Python or reading comics, the old Mad Comics, Bill Elder’s work, all those things that that sort of gave you permission to do things in a different way and not to be so straight, because sometimes you you see what’s accepted and what does well, as is a man in the mainstream. But then you hear something that just resonates with you a lot more. And you said, oh, that person or that group or that writer, whatever, gave himself ourselves theirselves permission. To do something quite different and to go against the grain and those are the artists that have always been and the writers that have always been influenced by so in drawing, I’ve always been influenced by Robert Crumb. I mean, I think it’s pretty clear when you look at my work that you see Crumb in it. I’ve been influenced by a fine art painter, Peter Breugel, the elder. What I learned from someone like that now this is a Flemish painter from the hundreds is when I look at his paintings, I see what life was like in a Flemish village. Even if it’s a a biblical allegory, he’s telling or whatever you see people harvesting or doing what they’re doing. And there are some paintings that are that are just sheer paintings of village life. It’s like a window into that time. And I realize I want my my books to be a window into a time and a place. It was very influential just in the the outlook. Then there were writers that have influenced me. And I mean, I think it’s obvious, especially my early work, that Hunter S. Thompson was a big influence. But it wasn’t just sort of the gonzo nature of the stuff. It wasn’t kind of that wild, wild autobiographical telling underneath. If you look at Hunter S. Thompson, you realize he really knew his subjects fear and loathing on the campaign trail. He knows electoral politics. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb and saying it’s probably the best book about American politics ever written, because he’s he’s not taking any quarter. He’s looking at all the bullshit and he’s calling it for what it is. But he’s not doing it to be amusing or to just poke fun at America. He understands America at its core and he understands the American political process at its core. So there’s a great depth to his very different take on it. And there are others, you know, George Orwell, Michael, her, a lot of writers, any any good writer always sort of gives me an inspiration, really. I read a lot of writers that are writing nonfiction and they just change my mind about something. They make me see something in a different way. And those people always have an influence on me. It makes me realize what can be done.
S5: Great. Well, thank you once again for joining us, Joe. Thanks very much. A sleepless listeners, we hope you’ve enjoyed this little bonus tidbit with Jessica. Thanks for listening.