Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde

The only town in Eastern Bosnia to avoid ethnic cleansing, Gorazde was surrounded by hostile Serbian forces for most of the mid-1990s. Though many of us may know a fair amount about the conflict, especially as it pertained to the Clinton Administration’s failure to stop the genocide due to the previous military failure in Somalia, the perspective shown in Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde is likely unfamiliar territory.

Sacco trained to be a journalist in school, yet was unhappy with the jobs he found afterwards, feeling
that he couldn’t write long, involved stories on specific subjects. He turned back to cartooning in order to make a living, and lucky for us, he managed to blend the two into some of the most moving comic work one will ever read. Like his acclaimed Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde is a sort of personal documentary.

Told mostly through the experiences of Edin, a graduate student in Sarajevo before the war, Sacco blends the stories of others along with his own. It’s not hard to see how television news affected the narrative: as a character relates his/her story directly to the reader, Sacco often slides in a comment here and there to contextualize. At times it really felt like I was reading an episode of 60 Minutes.

Though I did not feel like I got a better understanding of the Bosnian region and conflict, I also don’t think Sacco was aiming that direction. Instead, we see a slice of life from the community, knowing what it was like for those men, women, and children to live through a war. Of course, not just any war: a war where Muslims were killed just for being Muslim.

As Sacco leads us through the interviews and story of his time in country, we are occasionally given a glimpse at the outside world, especially as the Dayton Accords draw ever closer. As the residents of Gorazde rejoice with the truce, almost none feel that the war is truly over. At the book’s conclusion, Sacco returns a year later and we see how various people we’ve met have gone on in the following months. Though we are pleased to see Edin finishing his degree, we cannot help but feel sorry for others who sometimes are less happy now than they were when on the front lines.

Sacco is doing something so far outside the mainstream in comics that one wonders why more attention is not directed his way. Safe Area Gorazde is the equivalent of an episode of Frontline, done in a medium that is dying for creators to push such boundaries. It’s great journalism, it’s great comics. And as soldiers from the Iraq War come home and look to tell their stories, it would be surprising if a few didn’t follow in Sacco’s footsteps.

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