Comics books are mostly associated with superheroes and fantastical stories. Yet, some use comic books, or graphic novels, as a medium to tell a compelling narrative.
Journalist Joe Sacco is one of those people. He had previously documented and illustrated his time in Palestine and Bosnia with his books Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. With his new graphic novel, Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco sifts through stories from the towns of Khan Younis and Rafah in the Gaza Strip to find testimonials regarding two events from 1956 in which hundreds of Palestinian civilians were killed by the IDF. He also provides the historical context that led to these massacres, citing key players from multiple countries.
Over two trips in November 2002 and March 2003, Joe Sacco visited the Gaza strip and with his guide Abed, Sacco interviewed Palestinians who were old enough to be present at that time in 1956. Sacco illustrates their stories in the pages of Footnotes of Gaza, drawing gruesome pictures to go along with the almost unreal stories: IDF soldiers forcing their way into homes, shooting men where they stood while sometimes forcing them outdoors, lining them up along fences and shooting many of them at a time. About 265 men died in that single event in Khan Younis. In Rafah, about 111 men were estimated to have been killed in a screening process gone wrong.
Sacco provides a healthy dose of objectivity to the stories he hears. He admits in his book that relying on witness testimonials for something that happened more than 50 years ago may be a bit troublesome. While the horrific events became etched into those who witnessed it, some of those memories tend to be a bit murky. In other cases, his subjects simply have too much to talk about. In one instance, Sacco found himself talking to an old man whose story kept on switching from 1956 to events in 1948, then to 1967 and so on.
On his quest, some Palestinians openly question Sacco’s need to dig up stories from ’56. A kid at a pastry shop he and Abed frequent voiced what many Sacco came across in his journey were thinking: “Forget the past, what about now?” to which Sacco replied “One day, 50 years from now, they’ll forget about you too.”
Footnotes in Gaza is an amazing read but admittedly, a bit difficult at times. When you look upon Sacco’s depiction of one particular interview subject when he’s telling his story of that day in 1956, bloody, rising from a pile of bodies, everyone dead around him, lucky because the multiple bullets he was sprayed with missed anything vital, then the reader has to take pause and just wonder how someone could mentally come back from something like that.
In the end, Footnotes in Gaza provides a look into events that are almost entirely unknown except to those who were alive in Khan Younis and Rafah in 1956. As a journalist, Joe Sacco continues to give a voice to people in war-torn lands and in the case of Footnotes in Gaza, provides a look into the lives of Palestinians.