Palestine: by Joe Sacco, paperback, 285 pgs. By Todd Taylor

It’s quite a testament that within the pages of a non-fiction graphic novel, I learned more about the makeup of the war between Israel and Palestine than I had in twenty years of passively watching network news. The irony doesn’t escape me that a comic book is a hundred-fold more informative than endless of hours of looking at Tom Brokaw’s never-aging head. Although it is clear who Sacco is more empathetic with – the title gives that away – he does a great job at looking at and criticizing both sides, making sure neither becomes mere monsters or caricatures.

As a comic book artist, there is no doubt to Sacco’s talent. His pictures evoke Crumb’s style – tiny details are never forgotten. Expressions on people’s faces are precise. Where Crumb was often subsumed with women’s asses, Sacco tackles refugees and war.

Palestine has very little gore and blood, and instead focuses the dread, anxiety, and the feeling of imminent, corrosive doom most Palestinians feel. There is a lot less rock throwing and more huddled meetings of people, telling stories of woe in cramped places. Whereas network news is primarily interested when a building is blown up or a human body is blown apart, Sacco goes deeper, to the complex and maddening politics, the clash of religions, and the humanity at play.

At first, I didn’t think it would be possible for a comic to tackle it all, that elements of understanding would be lost from a narrator with massively drawn lips, but one reason Palestine is unbelievably powerful is because it debunks not only what a comic can and cannot do, but it also expands the very parameters of journalism. Say there’s an incident and journalists rush to the scene. Those with TV gear or fancy still cameras will be the first to be turned away if what had just occurred is against party line. But how do you treat a guy with an Instamatic camera, who’s going to draw – not render as realistically as possible for a future lineup – a comic of what just went down? An official’s regular radar doesn’t go off and this is partially why Sacco is allowed so much candid access to a very fucked up situation in the Palestinian refugee camps and the areas in constant dispute. Plus, he’s a great listener.

I also suspect Sacco is a person who’s at least aware of zine culture, which gives him elbow room to insert his own feelings and emotions to a highly charged situation. Beyond deep feelings, he lets the reader know when he’s tired, when he’s horny, when he’s hungry, and what lines he won’t cross (like letting someone lend him their underwear). And then he links these very basic feelings – feelings that everyone has – into the larger plight of this specific conflict. Good examples come in small details, like how the Israelis methodically cut down groves of olive trees under the guise of avoiding possible ambushes. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never thought of a tree as a brother. Sacco takes his time with the trees, explaining that they’re treated like members of the family, that, if tended correctly, are kept for generations, and are excellent sources for cooking oil and revenue. All his details – in both his writing and drawing – dovetail back into the war. It’s a very precise book, evocative book.

Palestine is an excellent introduction and open invitation to inspect the reasoning behind why Israel and Palestine are in a state of constant war. Highly, highly recommended. –Todd (Fantagraphics, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA98115)