Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Paying the Land’

“We’ll tell our children what to do, we’ll show them how to listen for you”

If there’s one thing you can count on with Joe Sacco’s comics, it’s that they’re going to be a nice, thick slice of reality hitting you right between the eyes. Sacco doesn’t do half-measures, and when he decides to write about something, he really decides to write about something. His latest, Paying the Land, which comes to us from Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company/Macmillan Publishing Group (so many imprints!), is a good example of this. Sacco decided to write about the Dene in the Mackenzie River valley of the Northwest Territories in Canada, and boy, did he write about them.

One thing that Sacco’s books make you do is think about the topic, because he delves so deeply into them that you really can’t help but do so. He’s a committed leftist, true, but while he doesn’t remain an omniscient and impartial observer, he tries very hard to present as many points of view as he can. When you get leftists writing about indigenous people of the Americas, you can expect a certain point of view, and Sacco, while keeping it hidden for the most part, is clearly on the side of the Dene and not the Canadian government. The problem is, naturally, the resources underneath the ground in northern Canada, specifically oil. Companies want to frack it, and that has led to problems in the region. Sacco, of course, dives into this and gives us many people on every side of the debate. He goes back in history to Canada’s treatment of the natives (which was perhaps not as horrible as the United States’, but it’s pretty close) and the impact it has had on the current issues with the people and their dealings with the government. The most important and horrific thing about the Canadians’ treatment of the natives in the “residential school” system, which took kids away from their families, sent them hundreds of miles away to (mostly) Catholic-run boarding schools, and beat the “Indian” out of them. This happened in the U.S., too, but it seems like the Yankees were more interested in killing all the Indians outright while the Canadians were more interested in obliterating their culture. That’s a broad generalization, I know, but it seems like that’s the difference. As far as I know, the Canadian government never thought about simply killing all the indigenous people. They just figured it would be better to Jesus the native right on out of them. Sacco and his interview subjects make a great deal about this, because the system didn’t stop until very recently, so he talks to many people who were in the system and can tell about the horrific effects it has.

As usual with Sacco’s comics, he writes with such breadth and comprehension that you get a very full picture, and usually that picture is enough to make you angry. Despite the fact that he interviews several younger Dene and they seem to have a good plan for the people and the land going forward, it’s clear it’s going to be tough going, because of course it is. And yet … the nice thing about Sacco’s work is that despite the author having a clear point of view (one that aligns with a leftist view of the world) and despite the fact that he cherry-picks his interview subjects (that’s not a criticism, as he can’t not cherry-pick them, and it’s something that literally every interviewer in the world does and has to do), he never allows his biases to overwhelm the subject. In the case of the Dene, it’s more complicated than “Canada = bad; Dene = good.” He interviews many Dene who want the resource extraction business in their lands, because it provides money and jobs. They understand the stress on the environment, but even that is a complicated thing, as some want to keep everything how it is, some want to work more with the businesses already there, and some want to take over the extraction of resources and make it a completely tribal thing. As usual, we see indigenous people rejecting the lifestyles of the decadent white people until they play some video games or drink some soda, and then the white people’s stuff is jake. Alcoholism and drug use are rampant, and yes, the white people introduced those things, but in some cases, native political councils make it easier, not harder, for their own people to get alcohol and drugs. The various tribes are not united at all with regard to how they’re going to respond to the Canadian government, and some of Sacco’s interview subjects express regret and anger at this. There’s a clear bias on the part of the natives toward the elderly, which is fine, but many young people express their impatience with the elders, who did something one way 30-40 years ago and won’t do it differently even if circumstances change, and they very clearly want the elders to allow new blood into the proceedings. There also seems to be a somewhat sexist attitude among the tribespeople, as they respect women but believe women have clearly-defined roles, so some of the younger women who want to run for the chief’s position say that they get no support from older men in the tribe because that’s not a woman’s role. There’s also the attitude toward kids who come back from the residential schools, who were often ostracized because those who stayed behind consider them no longer Dene. What Sacco does, simply by making sure he interviews a wide cross-section of people, is not only illuminate parts of the world that we might not know much about, but show that even oppressed people are just people, and so they can easily be dicks as well as saints, and usually a bit of both. It gives his work a rare depth in the field of “documentaries,” either in film or book or comics.

Sacco’s art is always interesting to look at. The only thing I really don’t like about his art is the way he draws himself, as he makes himself far more cartoonish than anyone else in the book and far more than he is in real life (obviously). I don’t know why he does it, as it makes him the center of attention whenever he shows up, because the weird cartoonishness sticks out among his far more naturalistic line work for literally everything else. Other than that, we get his usual exquisite brush work, beautiful hatching, his wonderful sense of space as he places talking heads into scenes of outdoor work or fracking or the horrors of the schools, making every vignette more personal by keeping the focus on the interview subject and showing how they react to what they’ve experienced. He uses a thinner line when drawing the vast Canadian wilderness, making it a bit more hazy and ethereal, in contrast to the more solid world of mining and machinery. It’s a nice, thick book, and while Sacco uses a lot of words, he makes sure each page is packed with visual content, and it makes the world these various people inhabit much more real to anyone who is unfamiliar with it.

Paying the Land is the kind of comic that is good for you, so some people might not want to read it. Unlike several other comics that are “good for you,” though, Sacco is really good at making comics, so this is extremely engrossing and thought-provoking. Some “political” comics try too hard to get you to accept their point of view. Sacco simply lays out as much information as he can and points you in his direction. Whether you want to follow is up to you. He’s good at his job, and therefore this is a good comic to read.

Rating: β˜… β˜… β˜… β˜… β˜… β˜… β˜… β˜… Β½ β˜†

(As usual, if you use the link below to buy something, even if it’s not this book, we get a tiny bit of that, which is nice for us. Thanks!)


  1. Edo Bosnar

    Yeah, I don’t think you can ever go wrong with anything by Sacco. This one has been on my radar for a few months – and it’s now on my ( very long) want-list.
    Otherwise, I share your sole criticism of his art, i.e., the way he draws himself. Yeah, it looks more cartoonish because he draws himself as quite a bit more homely than he is in real life. I think his intention is to make himself look less heroic and less important to the story, but – as you noted – it has the opposite effect, in that the reader’s eye is drawn to him.

  2. Corrin Radd

    That opening sequence/chapter about the man’s experience and education growing up Dene is a stunning work of comics story telling and should be used in schools.

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