It's not easy to describe Portland-based author Joe Sacco, who writes hard-hitting comic books often focusing on international affairs.
Is he a journalist? A cartoonist? A graphic novelist? Scotch the third definition because he's not a fiction writer.
"I wanted to write comics that I would be interested in reading," Sacco, 53, tells the Straight over the phone shortly after arriving in Vancouver. "Since I have a political way of looking at the world...that's the kind of thing I wanted to write and draw about."
Sacco, who will speak at 7 p.m. tonight (November 6) at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward's, has covered the Middle East and the war in Bosnia, and his newest book is The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme.
Along the way, he's won the American Book Award and the Guggenheim Fellowship, and his work has been shown in art galleries.
In 2012, he collaborated with former New York Times foreign correspondent Chris Hedges on Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which painted a devastating picture of the growing gap between rich and poor in America.
Sacco recalls meeting Hedges in Bosnia while researching Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995. Hedges was late for a UN convoy, which irritated the cartoonist.
But once Hedges showed up, they hit it off, discussing various books and recognizing that they had a similar view of the world. Sacco says he's not surprised that Hedges, a supporter of the Occupy movement, went on to become one of the leading alternative voices in America.
"He's been very consistent. I think it's possible to work for a mainstream publication and do good work, as I think Chris did," Sacco says. "But I think in the end, he felt the confines of that sort of journalism and struck out on his own. I don't think there's been a switch."
Sacco says he's just finished a story about Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnians, mostly men and boys, were slaughtered in 1995 by Serbian forces under the control of then-general Ratko Mladic. It reflects Sacco's long-standing interest in the Balkans.
He believes that the NATO bombing in the mid 1990s probably stopped the killing from continuing in Bosnia. "The people I know in Gorazde might not be around if NATO hadn't done something," he says.
However, Sacco expressed "concern" about NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999, which was justified on the basis of helping the people of Kosovo.
"I'm not a pacifist and I'm not completely against intervention, though I'm hardly ever for it," he says.
Sacco's American Book Award came for his examination of the Palestinians. He suggests that cartoons of refugee camps can put a reader in this situation, adding a visceral effect.
He also says comics have a "subversive element" because people think they're easy to read. "You can actually pack some pretty powerful information in that—just as much as in a documentary film."
Sacco cites Mad magazine illustrator Bill Elder, cartoonist Robert Crumb, and Flemish Renaissance artist Peter Bruegel the Elder as his major influences.
When Sacco is asked why he doesn't include his eyeballs in his comics, he replies: "When I first started drawing myself, I thought I will always try to be honest about what I depict about myself, but I won't show everything....It's just that notion that the eyes are the windows to the soul. I just wanted to signal to the reader that you're not seeing the whole picture here, as far as my personality is concerned. So what you're seeing is honest about me."
He says it can take years to write a comic book, so he must be totally committed to a subject before embarking on a book.
So what fires up Sacco these days?
"What I'm troubled about the most these days is state power," he says. "I'm troubled about the drone warfare. I'm troubled about any erosion of civil liberties. And I'm troubled about imperialism, even soft imperialism. I'm troubled about human migration and how people need to move—and how, you know, the disparity between North and South is pretty clear, and how we will probably end up making fortresses of the United States and Europe. Those things trouble me."
It leaves no shortage of topics for Sacco to explore in the future.