Daily Graphic Novel Recommendation 52

Mr Wuffles

by Joe Sacco
Genre notes: journalism, Middle East
288 pages
ISBN: 156097432X (Amazon)

This is going to be a bit long but hopefully worth the time for you.

Let’s go back two decades to my formative experience in the Christian church. I grew up in California’s premiere non-denominational denomination. Calvary Chapel, an outgrowth of (and reaction to) the Four-Square tradition, is what one might call: very dispensational. For the unwary, dispensationalism is the complicated sort of interpretive rubric by which someone reads the Bible and comes up with an end-of-the-world scenario that resembles more or less that which I imagine was laid out in the Left Behind series.

As a teenager, it was not uncommon to see intricate charts illustrating all the maddening complexities of the eschatological framework that despotically governed our motivations. Much of what we did was in mind of the imminent rapture of the church and its concordant seven years of tribulation (with a capital T). And above all things in our late-twentieth-century world, there was one idea that was of the utmost importance: to bless Israel was to curry favour with God and to curse Israel was to invite wrath and judgment. And even thinking a negative thought about the nation skirted cursing Israel so closely as to be indistinguishable from it.

In point of fact, the Israeli nation could do no wrong.

Israel occupies a special place in the dispensational understanding of things. As opposed to other Christian perspectives, dispensationalism holds Israel and her children in such high esteem that Messianic Jews are often seen as some glorious chimera who, being Jews, likely hold the keys to interpreting all the particularly knotty issues the Scriptures hold. Maps in textbooks of the region called Palestine are edited with Sharpies to become maps of Israel. There is within dispensational circles some variety of opinion as to just how deeply those descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob should be revered, but in common to the last man, American dispensationalists seem to be deeply fearful of the president who finally gives in to the powers of the world and decides to stop supporting Israel.

Such an action would surely lead to the ruin of the American nation. We would be cursed of God. We would flee in seven ways from before our enemies. The skies would be as bronze. There would be molds. Plural.

So then, what did Joe Sacco do? The first thing and the one that affected me recalcitrantly was craft a comic called Palestine.

Sacco is a special kind of journalist. Over the last fifteen years, he’s produced book after book giving readers an up-close perspective of areas of the world torn by the kind of traumas that Americans will likely never have to face. At least not in our generation. Maybe in the next if they are especially unlucky.

1999’s Palestine is a sprawling, 288-page non-fictional comic book that chronicles Sacco’s experience in Palestine at the tail end of the First Intifada (that is, the uprising of the Palestinian people against what they considered to be the oppressive Israeli regime—this lasted from 1987 through 1993). Sacco peppers his narrative with interview after interview, speaking to both Palestinians and Israelis, though spending more time on the Palestinian side of the equation. At one point he responds to a skeptical Israeli woman who wonders why he isn’t more interested in interviewing Israelis, telling the reader that he’s heard Israel’s side of things his entire life.

I could relate.

Ever since I was old enough to know that there was still a nation called Israel and old enough to know that there was a PLO and Arabs and a Palestinian people, I knew that Israel was the good guy and all those nations around them were the enemy who wanted Israel dead, who wanted God’s chosen people dead. There was no way I was able to process information that might portray Israel in a negative light save to either spin it positively or simply reject it as the, quote-unquote, Bias of the Liberal Media.

What? Israel attacked Palestine and a bunch of citizens were killed? Well, the Palestinians know that Israel’s policy is to return an attack with a force greater than that with which they were attacked. They should just stop attacking! What? Israel’s taking land from the Palestinians in order to house new Jewish immigrants? Well, it is their land after all. God did promise it to them. The Palestinians are just lucky the Israelis don’t act like God commanded them to in the Old Testament. What? Israel’s torturing and killing innocent people? In cold blood? Liberal lies.

It’s very easy to maintain a belief system when one is immune to new information. Of course, Sacco’s Palestine hit me in a way I was totally unprepared for. Instead of railing against Israel, instead of merely exposing some of their more dubious methods of controlling the Palestinian people, it took a far more direct route. It did something I could never have expected or defended against.

Palestine humanized the people of Palestine.

It did the same for the Israelis, sure, but in my mind they were already quite human. It was the Palestinians who were essentially kobolds or orcs, fantastic creatures whose whole existence was devoted to hoping for Israel’s destruction. Yet Sacco unveils a people rich in culture, grievously wronged by world powers generations earlier, and presently stuck in circumstances with no ready solution. Their populace is as varied in its opinions, beliefs, and desires as is our own. Some wanted peace at all costs. Some wanted a fair and equitable resolution to the conflict. Some wanted reparations. And some wanted war so badly that it hurts. These were people with dreams and nightmares. People governed by hope and by hopelessness.

These were, whether I liked it or not, people.

And so, Joe Sacco, with a single book, turned my ability to (mis)understand Israel’s place in the Middle East on its ear. Suddenly I was able to hear things I had been previously deaf to. I was able at last to empathize with the plights of my brothers and sisters who happen to be Palestinian. More, I became able to empathize with people in a vast array of cultures that had previously been marginalized by my religious framework. By the time I had read Palestine, I had abandoned my infatuation with dispensationalism a couple years earlier but had still retained my warm-hearted sentiment toward the Israeli nation. I can’t imagine how chaotic this shift in thinking would have been had I still held doggedly to the dispensational system.

And for the curious, this is probably the best way to describe Dispensationalism in a single image. Timelines, timelines, timelines. Dispensationalists loooooove complicate timelines.

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