The Ethical Stakes of Style: Crosshatching and Testimony in Joe Sacco’s Comics. Abstract.

Documenting Trauma: Comics and the Politics of Memory
A Symposium hosted by the TORCH Network

University of Oxford, 22.06.2017

Joe Sacco’s reportage has often been studied in ethical frameworks, as his comics have shed light on both the background of journalistic work and on the creation of narratives in the comics form. Sacco’s comics contribute to human rights discourse and the narratives have played important parts in revealing the complexities of armed conflicts for a Western public.

In my paper I read Sacco’s comics on the Bosnian War and study the connection between style and ethical engagement in the narratives. I explore the capability of drawing style to express engagement and compassion with the pain and vulnerability of the Other, and argue that Sacco has a compulsive relationship to drawing, which supersedes his often mentioned meticulous attention to detail. I show that the role of crosshatched backgrounds in Safe Area Goražde (2000) and The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo (2003) create a different temporality for both the artist and the reader, the temporality of dwelling (Diprose). I show that the heavily crosshatched haptic surfaces foreground the labour of the artist, and represent his embodied presence in the work. The haptic surfaces are just as important in panel compositions as the figures giving testimony, and are expressive of an intensive, laborious and time consuming engagement with both the materials used for drawing and, more importantly, with the traumatized person who is being drawn. In the close readings of certain panels and page structures I also rely on Norman Bryson’s theory of the logic of the gaze, as well as on Laura U. Marks’ now classic investigation of haptic visuality, and ultimately show that style, and not only the choice of topic or the nature of narratives, can be representative of ethical issues.



Bryson, Norman. Vision and Painting: The Logic of The Gaze. Macmillan, 1983.

Diprose, Rosalyn. “Corporeal Interdependence. From Vulnerability to Dwelling in Ethical Community.” SubStance, vol. 42, no. 3, 2013, pp. 185-204.

Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press, 2000.


Comics and Haptic Reading: Bodies in Joe Sacco’s The Great War – Abstract

Birth, Death, and Rebirth: (Re-)Generation as Text
8–10 June, 2017
University of Bucharest


 The starting point of my presentation is the realization that comics is a medium of embodiment, and comics creation, as well as comics reading, are constituted by bodily performances of the artists and readers. On the example of Sacco’s unusual graphic narrative, The Great War (2013), which narrates one of the most brutal battles from the first world war, the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, I examine the ways in which Sacco’s visual representation of the events of a single day relies on the haptic and bodily involvement of the reader. The Great War is not a comic per se, as the textual component is printed in a separate booklet, and the units of the visual narrative, rather than being separated by panels, flow seamlessly into each other. The increasingly violent action of the battle is presented as a seamless visual narrative in the format of a folded mini-panorama, while the format itself serves as an obstacle to the fluency of reading: the accordion-like structure is not that easy to handle as is turning the page of a book, the materiality of the pages has to be dealt with. In the analysis I show the importance of the formal traditions that Sacco is diverging from – the 19th century panorama, the comic strip, the graphic novel, –  and argue that the new format does not only make the reader conscious of his or her body during reading, but, more importantly, due to the reader’s bodily performance during reading, it creates an actual embodied connection with the thousands of represented bodies that are being destructed in the battle.