The Agony in Bosnia, Frame by Comic Book Frame
Author: Robert K. Elder
Uploaded: Thursday, 19 October, 2000
Robert Elder reviews for the New York Times Joe Sacco's new comic book 'Safe Area Gorazde', which will have a promotion at Buybook in Sarajevo on 23 November under the auspices of the Bosnian Institute
The Agony in Bosnia, Frame by Comic Book Frame
Robert K. Elder
The New York Times
18 October 2000
After devoting almost four years to "Safe Area Gorazde," a book about his experiences in Bosnia, a thought haunts Joe Sacco: history can intervene, and suddenly there is more than marriage, work, children. You are forced to reorganize your life and your priorities, and nothing will ever be the same.
Mr. Sacco, 40, a journalist and cartoonist who lives in Queens, confronted this during a four-month stay in Bosnia in 1995-96, and it moved him to write "Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95" (Fantagraphics), a journalistic account of the Bosnian war as told through the voices of residents of Gorazde, a predominantly Muslim Bosnian backwater deep in Serbian-occupied territory.
It is a 230-page black-and-white hardcover comic book with realistic drawings. Mr. Sacco is the story's protagonist, advancing the account from his viewpoint and through interviews. Although sensitive to everyone's plight, Mr. Sacco presents the stories in a journalistic narrative style without passing judgment.
In 1996 Mr. Sacco won the American Book Award for "Palestine" (Fantagraphics), a history of the discord in Israel's occupied territories that was also written in a comic book format. With that book and "Safe Area Gorazde" (pronounced go- RAJH-duh), Mr. Sacco seeks to make complex political and historical conflicts understandable to a mass audience.
"The whole point of my life, or of my career anyway, is to get the general public interested," Mr. Sacco said. "There's a cumulative hope that the more people know, the better the democracy is going to be."
He was born in Malta and grew up hearing his parents' stories of the bombing of their homeland by Axis forces. The family moved to Portland, Ore., when he was 14, and he graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in journalism.
"Nationality is not the dividing point between who is valuable in the world and who isn't," Mr. Sacco said in an interview. "Before I went there, Bosnia stood for some of those things I think you would put under the heading of idealism. I believe in the idea of the multiethnic society, and there was definitely some truth to that on the ground level in Bosnia."
After six weeks in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, a city Mr. Sacco described as "gagging on tape recorders and cameras," he caught a ride on a United Nations convoy for Gorazde, site of some of the most intense fighting and shelling in the Bosnian war. Before the war Serbs and Muslims lived together amicably as neighbors, schoolmates and friends in Gorazde, a city of 15,000. But as political tensions grew, neighborhoods were torn asunder, with former neighbors burning one another's homes and raining sniper fire on the streets.
"Safe Area Gorazde" is a paradoxical title because, as an area declared to be a safe haven by the United Nations, Gorazde became a priority on the Bosnian Serbs' hit list, thus one of the deadliest places during the war.
Mr. Sacco said he spent hundreds of hours interviewing the citizens of Gorazde with his translator, Edin Culov, a student turned soldier. Much of the novel depicts Mr. Culov's wartime travails, including an operation without anesthesia for a head wound and nighttime missions to retrieve food dropped from relief planes.
As Art Spiegelman did with "Maus," his Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust tale in comic book style, Mr. Sacco demonstrated that the format could be a powerful means of taking on serious subjects. Comics can drop the reader into Gorazde in a way that traditional prose cannot, Mr. Sacco said.
"The marriage of words and pictures can relay as much information as a documentary film," Mr. Sacco said. "If people follow and realize that the medium is really worthwhile, that's great. I'm going to keep doing what I do unless I chuck it from sheer despair."
Although Mr. Sacco says he loves his work, he finds it hard to make a living at it. "The years wear you down," he said. "It's a hard, labor-intensive thing and there are so few rewards for it." He said it took him about three days to create each page.
Although it has been more than four years since Mr. Sacco visited Gorazde, he is not finished with Bosnia; he continues to create comics about the people and events he encountered there. He is working on a narrative about the Bosnian Serbs' side of the conflict and on a story called "The Fixer," about a street- smart Bosnian who arranged interviews for foreign journalists.
"Bosnia marks a point in my life where I set aside idealism, and what replaced idealism was understanding," Mr. Sacco said. "You can condemn violence all the time -- everyone does. But you have to understand the context."