Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Book Notes: Joe Sacco, Paying the Land

Jesse Brown, proprietor of the journalism-review blog/podcast Canadaland calls Joe Sacco's Paying the Land “the best journalism about Canada that anybody published last year.”  I'm thinking it could be equally consequential for mass market historical writing.

Joe Sacco is an American journalist who turns his reporting into graphic nonfiction on topics that include the conficts in Gaza and the former Yugoslavia. Some years ago he made two visits to the Northwest Territories and then spent several years turning that material into Paying the Land, an immense book about the Dene, life on the taiga landscape, treaties, indigenous politics, religion, residential schools, the Indian Act, resource extraction, and such essential things as how to skin a moose and to dry fish for winter. 

It's a big and intensely political book. For a picture book, it's also a challenging read, so packed with scenes, characters, and text boxes that each page demands sustained attention. It's also, perhaps, one model for where general interest historical and current-events writing is going.  

Indeed there are quite a few other graphic history examples around already, from Chester Brown's Louis Riel to the products of the Graphic History Collective -- mostly, it would seem, on the progressive end of the ideological range. It's a long way from a revised academic monograph, and a long way from Pierre Berton too. It may be a natural read for audiences now trained by social media to get its information in clips, bits, collages, and the assumption of "pix or it didn't happen." 

Though maybe it harks back to the early-twentieth century graphic history of C.W. Jefferys.  I wonder if Joe Sacco has heard of him. 

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