By Vinutha Mallya, Editor, Booksy.In

Despite having not one, but two, journalism masters degrees, with some experience as a reporter, I had never heard of comics journalism until when I was gifted with Joe Sacco’s book, Journalism (Jonathan Cape, 2012), by a dear friend. The book is a collection of 11 stories from the field, from war crime tribunals at The Hague, to war zones like Palestine, Iraq and Chechnya, and the fragile social setting for immigrants in Malta, to the horrific caste-based disparities in village India.Joe Sacco Journalism

Each story, commissioned by a magazine or newspaper, is both, fact and interpretation. In his preface, ‘A Manifesto, Anyone?’, Sacco says

“Drawings are interpretive even when they are slavish renditions of photographs, which are generally perceived to capture a real moment, literally. But there is nothing literal about a drawing.”

Sacco is considered to be a pioneer of Comics Journalism genre, which has only recently emerged as a form of journalism.

“Fortunately, there is no stylebook to tell the comics journalist how far he or she must go to get (such) details right. The cartoonist draws with the essential truth in mind, not the literal truth, and then allows for a wide variety of interpretations to accomodate a wide variety of drawing styles”

To achieve “balance” between objectivity and subjective interpretation can plague a journalist for life. Sacco is critical of the emphasis on objectivity in journalism schools, which discourages interpretation, and the emphasis on balance, which becomes a smokescreen for lazy journalism (much like what we see in primetime news in India today, or in the he-says-she-says style of news reporting.)

Reading Sacco’s compilation of reports from all over the world is eye-opening. Even though one is used to visual storytelling techniques, to find them being used with journalistic techniques, in reporting of current events, is a new experience. Some stories are known, other familiar, but when what would have been reproduced as quotes in a newspaper, or an interview on TV, takes a whole new dimension when seen in graphic style. The facial expressions of hope, despair, sadness, resignation, perhaps plucked from memory by the reporter/illustrator,  shows how much reporters actually internalise during the act of reporting, but which is lost to the medium they report in.

Journalistic reporting, at least in India, leaves very little space for humanising the story. The story is often about humans, but at the end of the report, too many filters block from view the people that stand behind it.

Joe Sacco’s book moved me like no book has in a long time, but like the film Waltz with Bashir did a few years ago.

His story, Kushinagar, on the wretched poverty faced by Dalits in India, through the example of Kushinagar in UP, is heartbreaking. For someone to be able to perceive the complex social relationships that create and perpetuate casteism, with only a few visits to a village, is nearly impossible. Sacco manages to draw out the crux and presents it without fuss, even though his note on the story says he thought of it as “hit-and-run journalism” due to his inability to spend much time with the villagers, because the upper caste groups were constantly driving them away.Joe_saccoschemes

Perhaps what makes the comics journalism style so human is because Sacco places himself actively in his story. We know where he is, what he is thinking, what he is seeing, at all times. He isn’t just an observer, but truly a reporter. His voice is always there.

(Readers can find excerpts of Kushinagar online.)

Those who find this post interesting, may also want to know about a Comics Journalism movement online, with a strong presence in India, which places an emphasis on grassroots comics. This interesting project is run by World Comics India, “a collective of grassroots activists, cartoonists, artists, development journalists, students, using comics as a communication tool as well as medium of self expression.”

World Comics India was started in the early ’90s by cartoonist Sharad Sharma, who introduced cartoons in a few posters made for a literacy campaign in Rajasthan, India. It led to workshops in different parts of the country, where people were encouraged to create wall newspapers with the help of cartoons. The movement now has networks all over the world. You can join them on Facebook.

Principal at LineSpace Consulting, Vinutha Mallaya is a Publishing Editor, Reporter and Features Writer. She notes with pleasure that the well-produced edition of Journalism was printed at Replika Press in India, for Jonathan Cape, London. She may be contacted at