“Urgent and compelling” – Paying the Land by Joe Sacco

Graphic journalist Joe Sacco is back with Paying the Land, an investigative comic set in and around the Mackenzie River Valley in Canada’s proverbial frozen north. What we have here are a series of interviews overlaid against the story of the Dene, an indigenous, Aboriginal community who have undergone a series of great trials, largely at the hands of Government, over the last couple of centuries.

If you’re familiar with Sacco’s work (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, Footnotes in Gaza), you may initially suspect that Paying the Land is a little something different – a historical piece rather than a contemporary work, in the vein of his most recent long form work, The Great War – but you’d be wrong. Paying the Land is every bit as up to the minute as his previous works, dealing as it does with Government incompetence and bureaucratic bait and switch as it is a great hymn to environmental damage (and Sacco is nothing if not even-handed, the people he interviews weighing up the cost to the land on one hand against the need to survive and provide on the other).

You might also be quick to think that this is a smaller story than those addressed in his previous works but again you’d be wrong – this is Sacco getting to grips with the story of America itself, the story that America tells itself, the brave pioneer palimpsest that sits atop the genocide of native Americans, the connivance by which whole swathes of territory were signed away, the fact that these issues remain live and contentious in both America and Canada (where this book is set).

Yes, portions of the book are ferociously complex (particularly when it comes to discussions of the ways in which members of the Dene have gradually worked to infiltrate local and national politics in order to ensure their voices were heard), but it’s also tremendously heartfelt, particularly when he gets to grips with the stories of the children who were ripped from the arms of their families and sent away to residential schools to cure them of their so-called savagery. This great sundering is at the heart of the book, and the tales of alcoholism and sexual abuse it spawns make for uneasy reading.

But there is hope, too, in the stories of the younger generation, looking to find a way to connect the old way with the world in which we find ourselves. And Sacco himself, looking a little more salt and pepper around the hairline, is our familiar guide, refreshingly honest (such as when he gets cross about people not being interviewed without being paid, and then second guesses himself and questions his own exploitation), sometimes slapstick (see his cross country journey aboard a skidoo for more on that), but always thoughtful and engaged and interesting,

It’s just a shame that the form his art takes is often so painstaking and intricate because when you get to the end of a new Sacco book you know it’s at least four or five years until the next one – and we are nothing if not greedy for new Sacco work.

Any Cop?: Paying the Land shines a light on a story that needs to be told, in an urgent and compelling way.

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