I jumped at the chance to see Joe Sacco speak at the Innis Town Hall last night. He was in town to talk about his journalism in comic book form. I’m trying not to use the term ‘graphic novel’ because he doesn’t like the term. And I agree. There is no difference between a ‘graphic novel’ and a ‘comic book’. ‘Graphic novel’ is just a marketing term to make adults feel better about reading a comic book.

Now here’s someone who respects the art form. And I am grateful for it.

Ok, back to his presentation.

Joe spent some time living in refugee camps in the former Yugoslavia and Gaza Strip. Through the use of his research photographs along side pages from his graphic novels comic books, Joe showed us examples of how drawings allow us to show readers the feeling of the scene. Using drawing techniques to show confusion of the moment. People running everywhere, people throwing stones, fire from invaders, many things happening simultaneously.

Sure you can get the same feeling with photojournalism (plus publishing speed), but Joe showed how drawings let you assemble a moment in a way that photographs can’t. For instance, a photographer would need to stand in front of an approaching tank in order to take the photo. Or stand in the middle of the chaos of an invasion in order to take that scene. What the photographer is given, the photographer gets.

The cartoonist on the other hand can take it all in. Observe from different angles, interview eye witnesses, sketch out maps of the area and research a little in order to draw and assemble accurate scenes. Joe said that nothing in his book was exaggerated. All drawings of demolished houses, for example, came from the photos he took. He drew clothes and the layout of the refugee camps as accurately as possible.

Comics have the ability to shake the reader into feeling the moment. Text can’t do that. An example, “There was mud everywhere” in a newspaper story doesn’t offer the same impact as a comic book depicting the muddy conditions characters have to endure in every panel, every aspect of their lives.

Joe’s presentation opened up new horizons for my comic book art. And I can’t wait to try them out.