To the Dene, the land owns them, not the other way around, and it is central to their livelihood and very way of being. But the subarctic Canadian Northwest Territories are home to valuable resources, including oil, gas, and diamonds. Joe Sacco travels the frozen North to reveal a people in turmoil over the costs and benefits of development.
That trajectory alone says a lot about the significance of his subject matter. Sacco goes where important conflicts rage, and where the muddy politics of identity exacerbate the conflicting intersections of politics, cultures, and ideologies. We are lucky he ventures into these spaces, because the insights he shares in his books offer important lessons in understanding and compassion to readers around the world. They also offer an important model of good journalism for reporters. It's common for reporters covering struggles in colonized spaces – from the Middle East to North America – to retrench colonial perspectives and attitudes in their work. Sacco offers a superb model of how journalism ought to be done in the modern era ... One of the immediate benefits of a work like Sacco's Paying the Land is that it renders its subject matter deeply engaging for settler audiences that have probably never been exposed to an authentic and compelling version of Indigenous history (especially if they were educated in the past decade or earlier). It's a history that not only disentangles the complex politics of treaty negotiations and land claims, but conveys a sense of the urgency underlying the fraught political present. It's that sense of urgency that's often lacking in settler coverage of Indigenous issues ... Sacco, as a world-renowned journalist and comics author, brings a unique range of insight to his topic, along with a broad international following ... More than just a comics artist, Sacco is among an emerging movement of comics reporters whose methodology and techniques are reinventing journalism, for the better ... the comics format allows for a more complex introduction to a character. When an informant is given a full page or two-page spread to start telling their story, the reader is able to take in with a single glance more of the complex and intersecting elements that make up that person, all visually presented on the page ... In television or film it takes time to construct such a complex and well-rounded image of an individual; Sacco achieves a similar effect in just a few pages. Of course, it's perhaps not as thorough as the effect that can ultimately be achieved through other media such as film, but its value lies in anchoring this multi-dimensional portrayal of an individual in the reader's head before proceeding with their story. And where a documentary might only be able to present two or three individuals in such depth, Sacco's use of the technique enables him to inject literally dozens of informants in one book ... superbly translates the politics and history of the North into real human terms ... readers and conscientious journalists alike will find an outstanding example of how good journalism can, and should, be done.
It has been more than 10 years since Joe Sacco has produced a full-length work. Not to suggest that one of our greatest living graphic journalists should make a habit of taking that much time off (he should not), but the wait has been worth it. Paying the Land is an immersive exploration of the Northwest Territories’ native Dene people that casts its net across a broad panoply of topics while still hewing to the granular detail (maps, diagrams, footnotes) that make Sacco’s work so rewarding ... sympathetic without depriving the Dene of agency ... Drawing himself as somewhat more grizzled than in previous works, Sacco continues to use his flustered presence for self-deprecating jabs of humor. Rather than just trying to lighten a dark subject, though, he also does so to undercut the idea that he is an expert. One of Sacco’s greatest gifts is bringing readers into his learning, making us feel that we are somehow part of it rather than passive observers.