Receiving a book award for a book without any words was a bit of a surprise and has left me slightly uneasy. It is not as though I think of my book The Great War – a 24-sheet foldout illustration depicting the Battle of the Somme – as unworthy of attention and enormous sales. It deserves much of the one and many of the other. It’s just that I wonder whether the format itself – the package – is what has created a noise above the more subtle tones of other, perhaps more worthy volumes.
I suppose in this day and age of the e-book, physicality matters to a greater degree in the print book trade. It’s what “real” books have over their e-counterparts. They can be displayed, made to catch the eye, handled. And disquieting or not, a book like mine, which probably can’t be well reproduced in electronic form – or would miss something tactile in the translation – probably has a real leg up as a physical object over its prose counterparts, which can more easily be transformed into binary, scrollable information and sold for a fraction of their printed cost. This is perhaps why the sale of graphic novels is the one growing sector of the physical book market.
This is all good news for me, a cartoonist. And it is good news for my book and others I’ve done like it. But it’s strange, on the other hand, because I read many more prose books than graphic novels; in fact, I tend to prefer prose. This is not because there aren’t weighty and compelling graphic novels available – there are, and many of them are on my shelves. But my own mind tends to privilege the written form. I suppose this has something to do with the fact that even though I am part of the growing graphic novel scene, they didn’t really exist in anything like the form they do today when I was growing up. There were few real examples for success as a graphic novelist until Art Spiegelman produced Maus, and it took another decade to feel that something new was really afoot. I was 40 years old and had been working as a cartoonist for 15 years before things began to turn my way, and the success I’ve had has always felt a little ephemeral or transitory. Perhaps for that reason I’ve never quite accommodated myself gracefully to the mainstream acceptance of what I do.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad for the success now. It means I can eat and I don’t need to worry about next month’s rent. But there was also something comforting in the days when my work sailed under the radar, when few people paid little attention to it or gave me a funny look when I told them what I did. Back then I found my own voice without taking myself so seriously. Awards like this one tell me I should be a little more self-conscious. Like I said, it makes me feel slightly uneasy.
Joe Sacco, one of the 2014 PNBA Book Award Winners, had a previous book, Footnotes in Gaza, selected for the 2011 PNBA Book Award shortlist. For a great behind-the-scenes look at his award-winning The Great War: http://vimeo.com/76336385