3.1.3 Comics, Journalism, and War Discourse

Molly Scanlon
Virginia Tech


This paper examines the current state of American global mass media and its increasingly narrow vision and delivery of foreign news reporting, which is far too influenced by special interests in world politics and global economics. The Israel-Palestine conflict is one example of the ways in which America’s foreign policy special interests results in omissions in the journalistic narrative.

This paper proposes that alternative narratives of foreign cultures in times of conflict can challenge the mass media narrative of Israel-Palestine through the work of comics journalist Joe Sacco—a writer who provides readers more in ways of the lived experience of war and initiates an alternative discourse of both international conflict and journalistic practices.

Keywords: mass media, journalism, foreign reporting, comics, comics journalism, alternative discourse

You have, no doubt, experienced frustrations with the current state of the global mass media.  Our news sources have grown increasingly narrow, both in scope of coverage and in diversity of perspective. Frank Luther Mott, a renowned journalist who is credited for coining the phrase “photojournalism” earlier in the 20th century, has said that journalism suffers from five characteristics:

-          “scare [headlines with] excessively large print;”

-          “the lavish use of pictures [. . .] and ‘faked’ pictures;”

-          “’ faked’ interviews and stories, misleading [headlines], pseudo-science, and a parade of false learning;”

-          “the Sunday supplements, with colored comic strips and superficial articles;”

“more or less ostentatious sympathy with the ‘underdog,’ with campaigns against abuses suffered by the common people”  (Mott, 1950, p. 539).

Perhaps surprisingly, Mott was writing in the early 1940s, and was describing yellow journalism, the ruthless tactics of dueling newspaper editors-in-chief Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst.  The term became common after Pulitzer and Hearst’s infamous cartoon wars, stealing not only headline writers from one another, but also engaging in a proverbial tug-of-war over Richard Outcault, author of The Yellow Kid, a political cartoon about immigrant life and issues of class in urban living conditions (Wood, 2004).

The use of cartoons like the Yellow Kid to provide social commentary to the masses became popular to attract readers, as did the tactics described earlier by Frank Luther Mott (sensationalism, scare headlines, fake “experts”) – all under the ruse of objective investigating and reporting of what editors consider “newsworthy” stories.  But, the words of Mott may as well have been written yesterday.

State of the News

For one, the already-massive global mass media continues to grow through conglomerates and seemingly endless mergers, the latest between Comcast and GE (to create NBCUniversal, LLC) being the most recent (Ramsay, 2011). Media critic and blogger Anup Shah writes that corporate mergers and massive conglomerates have left us with only eight giant global media companies, down from nearly 50 in the 1980s:  Disney, AOL-Time Warner, Viacom, General Electric (now Comcast), News Corporation, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and Google (Shah, 2009). Shah argues that “[t]his results in the possibility of less diversity and reduced quality of journalism as political interests may not allow certain topics to be covered (Shah, 2009).  In the same article, Chuck Lewis, then the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, notes that “[i]f media moguls control media content and media distribution, then they have a lock on the extent and range of diverse views and information. That kind of grip on commercial and political power is potentially dangerous for any democracy (Shah, 2009).

And the global mass media itself is certainly no democracy.  Rather, it is the political power of countries like the United States and the economic power of media conglomerates that determine which corners of the world are worth listening to and worth reporting about.  In International Media Communication in a Global Age, Guy Golan conducted a study that concluded that the two primary determinants for news were a nation’s trade value with the United States, and a nation’s location “within the world system” (Golan, 2010, p. 141).  In other words, the value of reporting is determined by how valuable a country is to the economic or political global superpowers and mass media moguls like those in America.  The nature and breadth of this kind of power is almost unfathomable because what these media critics fail to discuss directly are the implications of one hegemonic ideology dominating the media (Western culture, American democracy, etc.).  Such power nearly guarantees the subjugation of other cultures and competing ideologies, and results in news that is lacking in accurate and generous depictions of other cultures, especially those in the Middle East, where America has a vested interest in democratic ideology.  It is a power that controls what stories are told, whose stories get told, and who listens.  It is a power that makes peoples and cultures visible or invisible to the Western world.

Because of America’s pro-Israel foreign policy perspective and its current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention its tense diplomatic relationships with several Middle Eastern countries—depictions of the Iraqi resistance to American invasion, Iran’s support of Palestine, and Palestinian resisters themselves, have been less visible and, in the rare case they are made visible, are portrayed in less-than-favorable ways as an ideological resistance to democracy, order, and Western rationality.

Media Analysis: The Middle East

Several studies have examined just how these special interests in American economics and politics inform news stories covering conflicts in the Middle East (Berkowitz, 2004; Gilboa, 2002; Momani, 2010; Trivundza, 2004; Yaghoobi, 2009). One example of a study which examined Western representations of Middle Eastern nations and cultures in the media is an article by Madhi Yaghoobi, an intercultural communication scholar who analyzed a series of print media articles from America and Iran during the Israel-Hizbullah war in 2006. Using critical discourse analysis, Yaghoobi identified several linguistic indicators, including the use of passive voice and nominalization in the Iranian press to place blame on Israel, while similar indicators in the American press were identified in an effort to relieve Israel of blame and instead point fingers at Hizbullah. Yaghoobi’s study demonstrates the ideological nature of communication that informs the way the global mass media inherently communicates issues of global politics through a lens of Western ideology (2009).

In a different study, Ilija Trivundza (2004) examined a series of photographs by a staff reporter for Delo, Slovenia’s most widely circulated newspaper. Her investigation of the reporter’s photographs consisted of his entire published portfolio, which was shot during a 4-month period just before and just after America’s invasion of Iraq.  Trivundza’s analysis was framed through theories of Orientalism, of the Eastern “Other” as exotic, dangerous, strange, and irrational. She concludes that a majority of the images furthered these stereotypes through the photographer’s focus on a more symbolic war between the orderly, rational military sophistication of the West and the chaotic, irrational civilian fighters of the East, as well as the photographer’s heavy reliance on images of Iraqis in traditional ethnic and religious clothing, especially as worn by women and pilgrims.

These two studies allow readers a glimpse into the wide range of critical analysis approaches to study media messages, both through textual media and visual images. But, while criticism affords the public a deeper awareness of media messages, awareness is just the first step. Where do readers turn for a different side of the story? If audiences care to listen to more than eight hegemonic corporate voices and the media critics who highlight their flaws, they are inevitably forced to turn to alternative discourses of global politics—discourses that challenge dominant narratives through perspectival change. One example of an alternative narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the work of journalist and cartoonist Joe Sacco.

Sacco’s Comics Journalism

Joe Sacco is a writer whose comics work has been published in numerous full-length comic books about the Israel-Palestine conflict and the war in Bosnia. Shorter excerpts of his work about various global political issues have also appeared in Details, The Washington Monthly, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, and The New York Times.  Sacco has been credited in publication after publication for creating a new genre of comics:  comics journalism, a blend of the comics form of visual storytelling and the rhetorical aims of new journalism, or, as Danny Hellman, comics writer, puts it, “where the story is not simply about the ‘facts’ but how those facts were gathered, perceived, and presented” (as cited in Versaci, 2007, p. 117).  And, unlike mass media journalism in foreign reporting which attempts an unbiased investigatory reporting of “the facts,” Sacco’s comics journalism acknowledges the subjectivity of the author who holds the camera, and the pen.

A number of comics scholars over the past decades have studied comics as a visual/verbal medium (Berger, 1973; Eisner, 1985; Gordon, 1998; Groensteen, 2009; Jacobs, 2007; Heer & Worcester, 2009; McAllister, Sewell & Gordon, 2001; McCloud, 1993), but few have focused their work specifically on the genre of comics journalism.  Rocco Versaci is one author whose work compares the comics medium to memoir, traditional journalism, and film, among other genres.  For Versaci, comics have the ability to transform their readers, noting the ability of comics to “challenge us to see the world differently…by using exceptional and unique representational strategies, by subverting commonly held beliefs and assumptions, and by calling attention to both how texts represent the world and what is at stake in those representations” (2007, p. 7).  Sacco’s work in comics journalism exemplifies this transformation as a careful consideration of representations that results in an alternative discourse of the Palestinian narrative.

An Alternative Discourse of Palestine

When Sacco began his first journey to Palestine in 1992, he was frustrated by the limits of Western mass media – not only in their narrow perspective of what journalistic writing could be, but also in their problematic claim of objectivity.  In an interview with January magazine reporter Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Sacco reflects: “I’ll read the New York Times, maybe to get some basic facts down, but I would never read the New York Times for any kind of sense of atmosphere or what a place really feels like. It’s absolutely useless [. . . for] giving people a feel for what it’s like” (Tuhus-Dubrow, 2003). So Sacco went to Palestine to write what he believed to be the other side of the story — the story of the Palestinians that wasn’t being told.

Sacco’s first visit to the region in 1991 and 1992, during the First Intifada, resulted in nine comics released in 1996, but which were eventually published under the title Palestine, a full-length comic book in 2001. As comics historian David Hadjuwrites, Palestine is a work of comics journalism that represents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “through the eyes of Muslims—the people whose stories are ‘underrepresented in the mainstream American press and television’” (as cited in Versaci, 2007, p. 130).  In a 1995 Rhetoric Review article, “Discursive strategies for social change: An alternative rhetoric for argument,” Julia Allen and Lester Faigley describe specific rhetorical strategies that authors use to achieve alternativity in their writing. The authors refer to narrative as the “subtle strategy” in their discussion of how alternative discourse operates rhetorically to challenge dominant discourse . For Allen and Faigley, narrative can be a very powerful discursive strategy, especially when a “little narrative”—as they call it—challenges the expectations of the reader and consequently the conforming nature of the meta-narrative.  Narrative as a strategy for alternative discourse lies where writers are

telling stories [ . . . ] that challenge the representations of their lives in dominant discourses.[ . . . ] If grand narratives offer positions within dominant discourse as common sense, little narratives challenge those positions by providing stories of lived experience that contradict common sense. They challenge the mythic quality of grand narratives by describing the local and particular. Little narratives have been a primary means of raising issues of human rights and countering political wrongs (Allen & Faigley, 1995, p. 168).

In the few academic pieces published on Sacco, there is a common thread which acknowledges ways in which Sacco’s “little narrative” is able to document the lived experience of what becomes “local and particular” to the victims and perpetrators of war.  Scholars like Isaac Kamola (2009) and Tristam Walker (2010) argue that Sacco gives readers precisely that which they are denied in mass media foreign reporting: the immediacy and material reality of the lived experience of war.  Kamola (2009) argues that Sacco presents violence in ways previously unseen in mass journalism.  He asserts that the gap in representations of violence creates an exclusionary discourse in which,

those who produce knowledge about violence—often journalists and academics—are, except in the rarest of cases, neither those committing violence nor the victims of violence. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the intended audience for such representations is often not the victims or perpetrators but instead policymakers, academics and the often foreign news consuming audiences. Few approach conflict as a lived reality; a reality that is interpreted and meaningful to those participating in it (p. 5)

Figure 1: Copyright © 2001 by Joe Sacco.

Sacco avoids this inclination to lean on journalistic record or to speak on behalf of others and instead turns to the victims or perpetrators themselves and records their voices, talking about their experiences.  In Palestine (Figure 1), Sacco parallels the account of a man in Hebron—who witnessed a violent interaction between Palestinians and Jewish settlers—with the story as told by The Jerusalem Post.  The man shares his story with Sacco, saying: “[The Jewish settlers] attacked homes and caused damage….The people wounded [the Arabs] were passing by, not the ones throwing the stones” (Sacco, 2001, p. 132).  In the next panel, underneath the man’s visualized account, a newspaper clipping headline claims, “A group of Jewish families, members of the Kach-affiliated Committee for Safety on the Roads, were passing through the dangerous Harat a-Sheikh district of Hebron when they were attacked by several hundred Arabs. They said they were pelted with rocks and bottles from rooftops and alleys” (Sacco, 2007, p. 132, emphasis added).  This excerpt of Palestine has become rather famous in comics studies circles; Versaci (2007) points to this page as a demonstration of juxtaposition, a way for Sacco to visually present these two narratives in order to highlight the difference. This is another strategy described by Allen and Faigley (1995) as often employed in alternative discourse, aimed at pushing against the dominant narrative in order to challenge it.

Figure 2: Copyright © 2001 by Joe Sacco.

Tristam Walker (2010) praises Sacco for his ability to show, not just tell, readers about the trauma of war through the combination of visual storytelling and the honest subjectivity of the author.  Walker claims that while “the root of [political conflicts] may be obscured by propaganda and misunderstanding [. . . ] the violent terror of the wars was readily accessible by audience across the world. Sacco asks us to see beyond the wounds and to see the people instead, to see the families and communities affected by war” (2010, p. 84).   In another example from Palestine (Figure 2), Sacco visits a hospital in which wounded patients model the keffiyeh, a symbol of Palestinian pride, as they show their wounds, evidence of their individual resistance and commitment to the collective revolution.  One patient, however, writhes in pain as he denies Sacco the picture of his wounds. It is, as Sacco says, “a private wound” (2001, p. 32).  As Walker argues, this moment pushes readers back from the fascination of “wound culture” to remind us about the individual toll such violence takes, an individual choice and a request for privacy and respect (2010, p. 84).

In addition to the extraordinary ways in which war has disrupted the lives of Palestinians, Sacco also provides readers a glimpse into the ordinary cultural rituals of the Palestinians.  For example, in Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco features “The Feast,” a small section that depicts the activities surrounding the eve of the Muslim celebration of “El Eid-Adha, the feast which commemorates Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Allah” (Sacco, 2010, p. 137).  In this chapter, readers are situated through the outsider eyes of Sacco, a Westerner, as one of Sacco’s translators and a local butcher slaughter a bull for the feast.  For readers in the Western world who are separated from the sources of daily food, the slaughter of the bull is, to put it bluntly, difficult to watch.  The bull struggles as the initial strike to the throat—Islamic custom for a quick and humane slaughter—is unsuccessful. After a bloody struggle, the butcher carves the bull, removing limbs and cracking the ribs open, dividing the meat among family members, with one-third going to the poor (Sacco, 2010, p. 145). Strikingly, for some readers, the slaughter of the animal may produce a more visceral reaction to violence than did Sacco’s previous depictions of violence against Palestinian men, women, and children.  This metaphor of the bull’s slaughter is not lost on readers.  In addition to narrative and juxtaposition, Allen and Faigley describe metaphor as a means of “say[ing] the unsayable, [. . . substituting] one safer representation for another more definitive one” (1995, p. 164).  The feast scene provides readers a visceral, striking aspect to the narrative that allows Sacco to parallel the slaughter of the bull with the perceived slaughter of the Palestinian people. At the conclusion of this piece, Sacco’s friend Abed pokes fun at Sacco’s mission of documenting Palestinian oppression, joking, “You could go around and they’ll tell you ‘This is where they kept me.’ And since you don’t speak bull, you’ll have a bull accompany you as a translator” (Sacco, 2010, p. 145). Sacco’s work is riddled with similar asides that remind the reader that the story they read is being framed and filtered through Sacco’s eyes and those of his translator, a nod to subjectivity and a challenge to the journalistic ideal of objectivity.

An Alternative Discourse of Journalistic Practices

But not all scholarship on Sacco acknowledges this foregrounded subjectivity as an asset to the journalistic narrative. Benjamin Woo (2010) takes issue with the label comics journalism, in his article “Reconsidering comics journalism: Information and experience in Joe Sacco’s Palestine,” claiming that Sacco’s work does not “count” as journalism because:

  • It lacks the legitimacy of reporting that is tied to a major news network;
  • It can’t be considered “newsworthy” because “comics are labor intensive” and therefore could never be timely;
  • “Chapters are organized thematically rather than chronologically;”
  • “He meets no ‘notable’ people;”
  • And lastly, “there is, sadly, nothing novel about injustice and grinding deprivation” (Woo, 2010, p. 171).

Considering the state of global media today and the lack substantial foreign news reporting, these claims reflect an ever-narrowing conception of “newsworthy” subjects, limiting the nature and content of journalistic narratives.

Woo’s first claim that legitimacy can only come from reporting out of major news networks is intriguing considering Sacco’s education in journalism and multiple publications in respected journalistic venues. Sacco’s background in journalism informs his method. Through the use of interviews, fieldnotes, and photographs, Sacco carefully documents interviews with individuals and combines them with his experience, with what he saw. In an example from Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco presents readers with the story of the 1956 massacre in Khan Younis, Palestine. In this first section (Figure 3), readers see Sacco the journalist, triangulating interview data on a giant spreadsheet as he and Abed look for overlaps and connections to verify the credibility of memory.

Figure 3: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. Copyright © 2009 by Joe Sacco. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Comany, LLC.

In the following chapter, readers see the beginning of the story as Sacco tells it, through the collective voices of the men who survived and the women and children who witnessed the attack. Early one morning in Khan Younis, an announcement was made by Israeli soldiers for all grown men to report to the school. Throughout the streets and as they entered the school gate, the men were badly beaten. To depict the chaotic nature of the attack and the fragmented narratives told by survivors, Sacco creates a dense image filled with stick-wielding soldiers and dialogue boxes filled with accounts from survivors (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. Copyright © 2009 by Joe Sacco. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Comany, LLC.

The men of Khan Younis were detained all day, some interrogated, some taken away. According to Sacco, the story of Khan Younis is so elusive and poorly documented in official UN reports that Sacco returned to Gaza with the intention of researching and finally telling the story.

While these methods might drift toward ethnographic rather than journalistic, this distinction is perhaps beyond the point.  What Woo is proposing, indirectly, is that Sacco’s work isn’t legitimate because the story he is telling, the story of the lived experience of Palestinians isn’t being told by major news networks. Its illegitimacy lies in its status as a “little narrative” that challenges the dominant narrative of the global mass media.

In his second claim, Woo defines journalism by its ability to report in a timely manner, which is driven by the motivation to be the first to break a story. But, as many have asked, who has been the first to “break” the Palestinian’s story?  Tahiri Hamdi (2011) argues firmly that work like Sacco’s “addresses the need for a kind of literature that communicates to the present about a past that is unthink­able and which, in the case of the Palestinian narrative, has been intentionally suppressed by the dominant narrative” (p. 23).  Considering the growing popularity of Palestine, especially in Western readership, Sacco has broken the story.  How more “timely” can one get than to break a centuries-old story that has never been told?  Surely the average news editor would drool over such an opportunity.

Woo’s third claim argues that because Sacco’s work is arranged thematically, rather than chronologically—like event-based reporting—than it cannot be defined as journalism. This is true; Sacco’s work is subjective and therefore thoughtfully rhetorical.  But, I would argue, news articles from global mass media outlets also carry their own rhetorical aims, indirectly.  Can viewers ever really identify a piece of news that is free of any bias or persuasive language? What about writing strategies intended to invoke audience attention?  As an undergraduate professional writing major, I took a journalism writing course and learned about the inverted pyramid and many other strategies considered unique to journalistic writing, including the golden rule of writing leads: death, injury, damage. The aim? To grab readers’ attention just long enough to pull them into the story. The assumption behind Woo’s claim is that writing becomes subjective and rhetorical only when you begin to organize it on paper, and not a moment sooner. Reporting on only the events, it is understood by journalists, will keep that tricky persuasive and inherently ideological quality of writing at bay. Sacco sees it another way, as unrepresentative omission. In an interview with Al-Jazeera reporter Laila El-Haddad, Sacco confesses his loss of faith in American journalism and argues for subjectivity in writing, saying:

The reason I [don't believe in objectivity as it's practiced in American journalism] is because when I was in high school what I saw on TV news and what I read in the newspapers gave me the impression that Palestinians were terrorists. And that is objective journalism: just reporting what’s going on. ‘This is a fact’ and leave it there. I didn’t know why they were fighting at all or what they were striving for. It never seemed to come up in the American media. I want to show things from my point of view because I think it’s more honest in a way to be subjective. Admit your prejudices; just admit it. I would rather be honest about what’s going on. Which means perhaps the oppressed aren’t all angels – but the fact would remain that they are oppressed. (El-Haddad, 2010)

Because of sentiments like these, the definition of Sacco’s work as “comics journalism” is visual storytelling combined with new journalism, the movement begun mid-century in America to acknowledge subjectivity and the situatedness of the author.  Sacco has never presented his work as “hard news” journalism; he is acknowledging subjectivity to not only tell a different story, but also to tell a story differently.  This involves a purposeful break from those journalistic writing practices that he finds problematic, including the criteria that determine “newsworthy” stories.

Woo’s fourth claim states that Sacco’s work is not journalistic because “he meets no notable people.”  Underlying this question is perhaps another: When the global mass media has such reaching power as to grant or deny notoriety through its coverage, how could a people like the Palestinians ever be granted notoriety in the global political/economic community?  Ulf Hannerz, (2004) media ethnographer, recalls a story from a colleague about who is considered “notable” in Palestine:

She reported on ever-shifting, yet rather tedious phases of Israeli-Palestine contacts by having an acquaintance,  a West Bank tailor, speculate on whether the time had arrived for Yassir Arafat to order a civilian suit to replace his uniform. Not only could she insert a brief moment of another voice, in Arabic, thus dramatizing the sense of place. The sound of the tailor’s scissors cutting through cloth—snip, snip, snip—could make for good, lively radio” (p. 29).

Hannerz’ illustration points out the irony for us: Palestinians are living and dying every day and what makes the news is speculation about Arafat’s fashion, because Arafat is “notable.”

This example speaks to Woo’s final critique of Sacco, that “there is, sadly, nothing novel about injustice and grinding deprivation.” If we consider the power of the media to determine what “counts” as news, then the media has the power to spotlight moments of oppression for the world to see.  Media scholars Yoo Soo Lim and George Barnett (2010) argue that media has the ability to either create a global bystander effect or responses from nations to intervene.   This intervention-by-media-attention is known as the CNN effect: when media pressure actually causes American foreign policy to change or America to shift its “policy responses,” which has several times resulted in humanitarian efforts in Somalia, Bosnia, and others (Robinson, 2002).  The media-evoked intervention on the part of America can be incredibly influential in conflicts. For example, the United States entered Serbia to protect Bosnian Muslims from Serb forces after a threatening turning point, the fall of Srebrenica, a UN-declared “safe zone” for Bosnians.  Three weeks later, peace treaties were being drafted (Robinson, 2002). In parts of the world, especially where human rights violations are occurring, media attention has an undeniable ability—and, I would argue—responsibility to grant visibility to the oppressed, particularly toward those global superpowers with the political clout and material resources to act.


From the days of The Yellow Kid, comics have used the form of visual narrative to bring issues of politics and economics to the forefront. By using discursive strategies of narrative, juxtaposition, and metaphor, Sacco presents readers a comic of another type and an alternative discourse of the Israel-Palestine conflict, a discourse all but silenced by the narratives presented in the unavoidably loud and present global mass media outlets. The global mass media is failing us; objectivity is paraded as superior, assumed present until proven absent, and “newsworthy” stores are far too determined by special interests in politics and economics.  This argument is not new. What is new, however, is a resurgence of comics writing that provide alternatives to this discourse, of which Sacco’s comics journalism is just one text. Others include comics memoirs like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis about the Iranian revolution, Ari Folman and David Palonsky’s Waltz with Bashir about the Israeli-Lebanese war, or Mine Okubo’s Citizen 133600 about the detainment of Japanese-Americans during WWII.  There are also photojournalistic comics like Emmanuel Guibert’s The Photographer, or travel writing like Ted Rall’s To Afghanistan and Back, and Guy Delisle’s The Burma Chronicles.  These works may not be the kind of comics readers are familiar with, or the nature of journalism as recognized on our television or computer screens, but they are the kinds of stories that need telling, and the kind of journalism that challenges hegemony and narrative dominance to invigorate the public sphere and reconceive public opinion formation about global politics.


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