Cartoon wars

By dramatising events in comic-book form, Joe Sacco's Palestine exposes the fantasy of the Israeli o

I approached Joe Sacco's book Palestine, an account of Christmas and New Year 1991-92 in the occupied territories, as if it were a message from an alien land. Not because Palestine is particularly foreign: I spend a part of every year there and have done since 1994. And not because the experience of life under occupation was so different ten years ago. It is a difference of degree: Israel's occupation, as Sacco's work shows, used to be brutal. Now, under Ariel Sharon's policy of escalation, it is far, far worse.

Sacco's book seemed so alien because it is a cartoon book. For me, cartoon books belong to childhood. Faced with a review copy, I gave in to anxiety. I wanted to like it, but honestly felt I would not know how to read or review it. Palestine desperately needs journalists who are prepared to live under occupation. I was not sure that it needed cartoonists. I worried that Sacco's drawings would detract from the issues. I worried that if I praised the book, I might, rather patronisingly, recommend reading Sacco only to those who dislike reading in general. And yet, Christ-opher Hitchens, David Thompson and Edward Said have all claimed that Palestine is a significant and original work, perhaps a work of genius.

Sacco has said that he draws inspiration as much from the New Journalists as from other comic book writers. He cites Michael Herr (Dispatches) and Hunter S Thompson (Fear and Loathing, etc) as influences. Like them, Sacco puts himself in the story, continually questioning his aims and motives. In Israel and Palestine, where the two nations have conflicting accounts of what is happening and why, Sacco's self-questioning serves as an important check and balance, one that reassures us that there is a truth at stake: a wilful occupation and not an unwilled accident of history.

Sacco has claimed that comics allow the journalist to put more information on the page: they can pile on the detail. There is a long tradition of accuracy within comics. Harvey Kurtzman, editor and chief illustrator of Frontline Combat, a Second World War comic of the 1950s, was rigorous in getting the details right. The skill here, as evinced by Sacco, lies in selecting the details, so that a small thing - a rubbish skip, a car tyre, a water tank - brings the streets of a city like Ramallah or a refugee camp like Balata vividly to life.

If Kurtzman established a standard of accuracy in comics, it was the next wave of cartoonists who introduced the documentary comic. The outstanding examples, both histories, are Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa (1972) and Maus by Art Spiegelman (also 1972 but expanded into serial form between 1980 and 1986). Nakazawa details his own experiences of the nuclear attack on Japan. Maus is an account of the Holocaust, told as a story between cats and mice. One might think that the Maus conceit would trivialise the Holocaust. Yet comics have long relied on such childlike devices as anthropomorphism. It is part of the language of the medium and, through its use, Maus has a power that would be unimaginable in any other narrative form.

The first piece of reportage in comic-book form is said to be Alan Moore's Brought to Light: thirty years of drug smuggling, arms deals and covert action (1989). Moore used the comic to dramatise research carried out by the Christic Institute, a legal foundation, into the Iran-Contra scam. The Christic Institute was later bankrupted when a court case it had initiated to prove its claims was dismissed and the judge fined the institute for vexatious litigation. Moore's book has never been republished (though Moore has turned it into a spoken-word piece, released on CD by Codex Books).

The generation of comic book writers that emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s is commonly identified as the "underground comix" generation, the spelling of comix designed to emphasise their X-rated content. These were not children's comics. They were, however, very similar to children's comics: they inherited their lexicon and techniques. And in their determination to create what more than one commentator has described as a "transgressive cultural discourse", the comix constantly replay a childish moment: an inchoate rebellion against authority. A new generation of artists emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, including such rightly respected artists as Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: the smartest kid on earth) and Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), yet they remain hooked on the moment of teenage alienation.

Perhaps the urge to tell a story in pictures is too rooted in the nursery ever to break free of childhood entirely. Again and again in comics, one reads the fantasies of the weak as they confront the strong. This applies as much to Maus, despite its moral seriousness, as to Asterix and Obelix, an ironic look at the Nazi occupation where the Gauls were never entirely defeated. All novels, all films, all theatre contain elements of wish-fulfilment, but in comics as in children's literature, this element lies unrepressed, close to the surface. The child reads and imagines himself more powerful: as a magician such as Harry Potter or as a teenage superhero such as Spiderman.

Comics continually act out the same fantasy: that the weak are secretly very, very strong. Israel's fantasy is the opposite: that it is secretly very, very weak. Never mind that it is the world's fourth-biggest military power. The Israeli army is charged with one task: to be capable of attacking and defeating every nation in the Middle East, and it has been secure in this aim since 1947. Israel's fantasy is that if the 36-year-long occupation of Palestinian land ever ends, then Israel will perish. It will be destroyed either by an attack from across the Jordanian border, or it will face cultural obliteration by surrendering a part of Jerusalem and its environs.

Sacco's work is so successful because it peels back this fantasy, exposing the truth of the occupation. He recounts the experiences of those imprisoned in the obscene barbed-wire camps in the desert. He provides detailed accounts of the kind of torture sanctioned in Israeli law and its effects on its victims. None of this is new. Sacco takes typical examples, recounted thousands upon thousands of times.

What is new is the depiction. By dramatising the accounts in comic-book form, he shows us what has never been shown before: a heartbreaking glimpse behind the facade, to pierce Israel's fantasies. As long as Palestinians are silenced by Israel's occupation, with its curfews and travel restrictions and all the other mechanisms of apartheid, Israel's fantasies will form the official version of the conflict. Thank God for Joe Sacco: a truly adult voice.

Palestine by Joe Sacco is published by Jonathan Cape (12.99)

Nicholas Blincoe's latest novel, White Mice, is published by Sceptre