Joe Sacco is one of the world’s foremost cartoonists and the creator of war-reportage comics. He is the author of a number of illustrated books including Palestine, which received the American Book Award, Fixer and Safe Area Gorazde.

In 2001, while on a reporting trip to Gaza he learned of a large-scale killing of Palestinians during the Suez crisis in the town of Khan Younis, near the Egyptian border, in November 1956.

Determined to uncover the truth behind this forgotten killing, and one that took place in the neighboring town of Rafah a few days later, he returned twice more to Gaza to record the stories of Palestinian eyewitnesses to the tragedies. Immersing himself in the daily life of Gaza, he gradually came to understand how those incidents — footnotes to a long history of killing in the area — could contain the seeds of grief and anger that shape present-day events.

Footnotes in Gaza is his unique account of what occurred — cold-blooded massacre or a series of dreadful mistakes — that November day and of how competing truths have come to define an intractable conflict. Combining oral history, investigative reporting and brilliantly rendered illustrations, Sacco moves seamlessly from the present-day to the past and back again. In so doing he not only uncovers a forgotten crime, but also vividly reveals the almost unbearably difficult reality of life in contemporary Gaza. Patrick Cockburn, writing in The New York Times Book Review, described Footnotes in Gaza as a “gripping, important book” and “one of the few contemporary works on the Israeli-Palestinian struggle likely to outlive the era in which they were written.”

The judges for The Ridenhour Book Prize honor Sacco’s tenacious reporting and recognize Footnotes in Gaza as a work of profound social significance, one that explores the complex continuum of history. At a time when peace in the Middle East has never seemed more elusive, Sacco’s illustrations bear witness to the lives of those who are trapped by the conflict. This marks the first time that the Ridenhour judges have awarded the prize to an illustrated book, but in the words of David Hajdu in The New York Review of Books, “There is virtually no precedent for what he does…. Sacco is legitimately unique.”

2010 Book Prize Speech

Transcript of Joe Sacco’s speech

JOE SACCO: I’m very honored to receive The Ridenhour Book Prize for Footnotes in Gaza. I’d also like to thank, though they’re not here today, all the elderly people I interviewed for this book. It was a privilege to be invited into their homes, sit with them and hear their stories. Unfortunately, my book took a long time to put together, and many of the men and women I talked to have since died. They never had a chance to see the book, which I hope in some way stands as a testament to their experiences.

As you know, Ron Ridenhour, for whom the prize is named, was instrumental in exposing the massacre at My Lai. When he wrote his famous letter about the killings in that Vietnamese village, the incident was just about a year old. My book is also about massacres, though the ones I look at were not fresh in anyone’s mind. They took place in the Suez crisis more than 50 years ago. A large number of Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army at two different places in Gaza in November 1956. The killings were acknowledged by both Palestinian and Israeli sources in a U.N. report issued at that time. The U.N. estimated about 400 deaths in those two incidents.

A number of books cite the report and mention the deaths, but they focus on the wider implications of the war between Israel, France and Great Britain on one side, and Egypt on the other. And I think history tends to always fry the biggest fish, but much of what’s left—and in this case it’s the minnows, it’s the innocent civilians, who are ground up by these sorts of events, they get thrown back into the waters of obscurity.

And my book was like a salvage operation. I wanted to see if I could retrieve a story for which there was little readily available or accessible documentary evidence and find out what happened. And naturally, there were two competing accounts of the events: the Israeli version was that Palestinians had been resisting; the Palestinian version was that they had not. Now, as any journalist knows, or should know, that truth does not necessarily reside somewhere in the middle.

The reporting was very straightforward. I went to Gaza and talked to older people who survived the incidents. In the town of Rafah, for example, I could walk up to any man over the age of 65 and he would almost certainly have been of military age at that time and almost certainly he would have been caught up in the Israeli screening operation that resulted in so many deaths. Finding survivors in that case was easy. And what was difficult, of course, was untangling their memories. In fact, parts of the book are a reflection on memory and the problems inherent in relying on oral testimony. Rather than smoothing those things out, I chose to confront the reader with discrepancies and contradictions. I wanted to demystify the process of deciding what was credible and what was not. Leaving in the kinks did not, I think, obscure the overall arc of the story, a story told from dozens of perspectives, perhaps refracted by time and filtered through the minds of very fallible human beings, but one that overwhelmingly led to the sad conclusion that unarmed people were killed in cold blood.

Is the story I tell important? For its own sake, I believe that when possible, the historical record should always be set, if not straight, then straighter than it was before. In this case, we are talking about large-scale killings of civilians in a conflict which is ongoing, which is widely considered to be at the crux of problems in the Middle East and beyond.

But it might amuse you to know that some younger Palestinians I met scoffed at me and my interest in their past. After all, attacks were taking place across Gaza and in Israel in the present tense, and home demolitions were going on a few hundred yards away from where I was doing my research. So what did 1956 matter to them? And what does it matter to us?

I would suggest that it is just such undigested historical episodes swirling around without proper acknowledgement or reckoning that compound the frustration, bitterness and hatred that seemingly perplexes us today.

Before I close, I’d just like to address the fact that my book is illustrated. And as David mentioned, it’s a comic book. That’s what I refer to it as, not as a graphic novel. I love the phrase “comic book.” I have no shame about that. I’d like you to know the format was not a case of me thinking outside the box about how I wanted to present this material. I just happen to be a cartoonist who happens to be interested in some of the same things you’re interested in, and this is the only way I know to go about doing it. Thank you.