Review: Journalism

Is the greatest barrier to comics journalism its necessary subjectivity, or is it something else?

In the introduction to his new collection, Journalism, comics journalist Joe Sacco addresses the dissenters "who would naysay the legitimacy of comics as an effective means of journalism". He responds to the criticism that since drawings are "by their very nature subjective", the can never aspire to represent the objective truth – that which, his detractors claim "is what journalism is all about".

In trying to answer the criticism, Sacco already sets himself on the back foot. There is, of course, plenty of wonderful subjective journalism, and while the near worship of objectivity is a curiously American obsession, the country is also the source of some of the best writers to have given up any pretence of that aim. From Capote on, there have been no shortage of potential role models for Sacco to base himself on.

Yet its clear that he aspires to something different from the New Journalists, something which does require addressing the criticism. Comparing Sacco's work to something like Sarah Glidden's How to understand Israel in 60 days or less, which does owe a direct legacy to New Journalism, is instructive.

Sacco doesn't aim for objectivity, but at the same time he doesn't put himself in the work to the extent that it can be safely classified as a personal story. So the critics take aim, and the answer he gives is one which has defined Sacco's work for much of his life.

Drawings are inherently subjective. No matter how much an artist's visual style aspires to realism, they are still portraying the scene as they recall it, with all the quirks of memory. Photoreference can help a bit, but lessens the power of journalism – which is to portray those moments which a camera can't capture, but a pen can record.

Even if Sacco did aspire to realism, then, his objectivity would be slighted in the eyes of the arbiters of the view from nowhere. But he doesn't – his style is triumphantly cartoony, so while it might not give the full picture of what a scene looked like, it enables him to emphasise the important aspects of a situation with greater clarity. The portrayal of a Serbian camp guard's glee as he orders a prisoner to bite off another's testicle, or tension on the faces of soldiers in Iraq confronted with potential suicide bombers, ought to justify the stylistic choices from the off.

But why do the choices need justification at all? Sacco doesn't just feel that it is his decisions as a comics journalist which need to be explained, but his very existence as one.

He's right, of course. Comics journalism remains rare, and editors are loath to commission it even from proven practitioners like Sacco, let alone up-and-comers like Karrie Fransman, whose work was featured in the New Statesman this August. But while publications in North America may have problems with a lack of objectivity, real or otherwise, that's always been less of an issue in Britain, where the opinionated, openly subjective journalist is a much more common feature.

For all that Sacco is concerned about being locked out for bias, he's actually a comparatively measured reporter. It's clear where his sympathies lie, but these pieces are no mere polemics.

If it were just about perceived partiality, then comics journalism would be flourishing here. Yet it struggles just as much as in the US, even when you account for the relative popularities of the medium in the two countries. Why might this be?

The unexamined barrier Sacco comes up against is mere quantity. It's terrible to reduce art to something so basic, but that's what the people who commission him and his peers must do. For the effort – in money, time and space – it takes to put a four page comic in the New York Times Magazine, the editors could get a 3,000 word prose piece. It would almost certainly occupy readers for longer, and some days that seems to be all there is to it.

But comics journalism has the capability to be just as densely packed with detail as the most text-crammed page, as the trip to Chechen refugee camps exemplifies. Sacco visits the homes of several "internally displaced persons" in Ingushetia, the Russian province which neighbours Chechnya, and the portrayal of the cramped conditions and inadequate facilities in the images saves him from repeating them in text – allowing the captions to be used for the less visual task of telling the stories of the refugees. The painstakingly rendered mess of the tents becomes all the more noticeable when he visits some families who have traded up to an abandoned distillery: the walls are plain white, and the rooms so sparsely furnished that half the panel is simply blank.

Throughout the decade-plus of work represented in the collection, Sacco rarely ever skimps on this crucial work of displaying the setting as well as the protagonists. In more directly narrative comics, and much fiction, there is often a temptation not to "waste" energy depicting things which are merely incidental to the story at hand. (In fact, for some artists it is almost regarded as part of their personal style to do so; look, for example, at the simple gradients that Frank Quitely uses as backgrounds.) By doing so, we get a far fuller picture of the world his characters inhabit than even the most sparkling written-through descriptions in a prose piece ever could.

There is, nonetheless, a tradeoff, and it comes with the things that only words can say. Sacco is, in terms of what he covers and how he does it, a surprisingly traditional journalist. His stories are typically first person, quote heavily from conversations with his subjects, and deliver the necessary context at the right places in the story. But he faces a much stricter pressure to be parsimonious with his words than the prose journalists who developed that style, and sometimes doesn't quite hit the mark.

For instance, "What Refugees?" a two page editorial for the Boston Globe, written immediately after his return from Chechnya, feels rather swamped in captions. It tells a similar story to the preceding (in the book – it actually came out six years later) "Chechen War, Chechen Women", but without the space to let his characters and art speak for themselves, it feels too much like an illustrated op-ed to be truly successful.

When he is given that space – as in "The Unwanted", his study of migration to Malta, or his standalone books Palestine and Footnotes to Gaza – he uses it to offer up reportage that simply couldn't exist in any other form. Unfortunately, of course, that makes him even harder to fit in the same mould as the prose reporters who he is uncomfortably pitted against. Nonetheless, it is clear that Sacco is one of the masters of his craft, and although he is fighting an uphill battle for recognition – or even awareness that he and his peers exist – the pieces collected in Journalism make a strong case not just for his talent, but for comic journalism as a whole.

Journalism is released by Jonathan Cape on 1 November. (£18.99, hardback)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism