There’s a scene in journalist Joe Sacco’s new book, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, in which a Muslim schoolteacher-turned-soldier looks up at the sky as he’s defending his hometown of Gorazde from Serb attack. After three and a half years of bombings, snipers, rape and butchery on a scale that hadn’t been seen in Europe since World War II, the schoolteacher, Edin, has become increasingly desperate; the town is about to be overrun by Serb soldiers and his family and friends slaughtered. And what does Edin see as he gazes up?
NATO planes circling overhead, taking pictures but offering no support.
It’s a chilling moment–one that gets to the heart of the ineffectual U.N. and NATO response to Serb-led genocide in Bosnia. Safe Area Gorazde is filled with moments like this. The book is a detailed, emotionally wrenching look at the effect of the Bosnian War on a small town deep within Serb territory during the height of anti-Muslim ethnic cleansing.
It’s one of the most harrowing accounts of war that I’ve ever read.
It’s also a comic book.
Sacco has made a name for himself as a careful teller of other people’s stories; his last work of journalism in comics form, Palestine, won the American Book Award in 1996 for its on-the-ground examination of Palestinian life in Israel’s Occupied Territories. His 1997 comics short story “Christmas with Karadzic,” a sometimes hilarious recounting of his attempt to meet a Bosnian Serb leader who’d been indicted for war crimes, earned Sacco praise from The New York Times‘ foreign desk for his “street-level grit and insight.”
With these works, Sacco has created a provocative new kind of writing: serious, long-form journalism expressed through the medium of comics. Safe Area Gorazde works in ways that prose accounts cannot. Sacco’s unique, highly realistic drawing style pulls the reader into the action, while his careful ear beautifully captures the voices of the residents and the brutality they witnessed. The combination can be chilling, as when Sacco cuts between a flashback of war horror to the face of the resident who experienced it, forcing us to repeatedly confront the victim’s stare as we read his or her tale.
Sacco spent four months in Bosnia in 1995-1996, making trips via U.N. convoy to interview the Muslim people of Gorazde, who had been out of contact with the outside world for three and a half years. Despite being declared a U.N. “safe haven” in 1993, Gorazde turned out to be one of the most dangerous places in Bosnia; Sacco lets the residents of the town speak for themselves as they describe the devastating events they’ve survived.
He begins his story in the fall of 1995, riding down the single road the Serbs have reluctantly opened into Gorazde. As briefly as he can, Sacco lays out the roots of the current war, starting with ethnic atrocities committed during World War II, moving through the years of relative calm under Tito’s Communist rule and bringing us up to date with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the rise of a virulent strain of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic. He handles the background well, intercutting the relatively dry (but essential) history with warm scenes introducing his new contacts, who are delighted to have someone to offer hospitality to. CNN and the rest of the media soon leave, having gotten the day’s story, but Sacco stays on and begins interviewing the residents with the help of Edin, the schoolteacher/soldier.
The celebratory atmosphere doesn’t last as Sacco, and the reader, begin to learn what has happened to the people of Gorazde over the last three and a half years. Sacco unfolds the story slowly, letting Muslim residents describe the way their Serb neighbors brought crates of guns into town as Serb radio called for Muslim deaths. Edin discusses the events of May 4, 1992, the night most of the Serbs in Gorazde quietly left town. The remaining Muslims woke the next morning to the realization that their long-time friends and neighbors were soon going to attack.
The next 100 pages describe the constant battles, shelling and starvation of the three-and-a-half year war. Muslim refugees begin to swarm into Gorazde from Serb-controlled areas in eastern Bosnia; Sacco draws their stories of rape and murder with blunt, terrifying realism. Terrible as the events are, the book never bogs down in a litany of depressing anecdotes; Sacco breaks up the horror with later scenes of Gorazde as he found it in 1995–newly opened to the outside world and allowing itself to hope. Sacco is smart enough to give readers time to breathe between waves of brutal stories; the scenes of celebration and rebuilding work to balance the dehumanizing violence. If Sacco hadn’t done this so skillfully, an already agonizing book would be difficult to finish.
The slow accumulation of small, telling details gives the book much of its emotional resonance; reading Safe Area Gorazde often feels like watching a documentary film. Sacco’s drawings allow the reader to see what the town looked like before the war as well as after, when bullet holes and rubble became an ordinary part of the landscape. Scenes of women and children slaughtered become even more horrifying when you notice they’re wearing socks. “You don’t need shoes,” a Serb soldier tells them. “You’re going to be killed in a few minutes.” We also see Gorazde’s people dance and toast the end of war, but the looks on their faces occasionally betray their worries about the future. Sacco demonstrates this with three panels of a woman uncertainly trying out celebratory poses. She finally gives up and puts her head in her hands, saying, “It’s peace and I don’t know how to behave.”
Sacco’s greatest achievement is the direct link he creates between the people on these pages and the headlines we were reading back in 1995; it’s difficult not to feel ashamed of the Western democracies as you see what they were turning a blind eye to. In fact, the indecisiveness of the U.N. and NATO forces in eastern Bosnia, and its consequences on the lives of the people of Gorazde, is a consistent theme in the latter part of the book. President Clinton and his advisors come across as particularly ill-advised–even unconcerned– about the fate of non-Serbs. The facts are clear: U.N. forces did absolutely nothing as Serbs overran many “safe havens,” leaving the Muslims in those towns to certain slaughter.
Reviews of Sacco’s past work often note that he has “staked a unique place for himself in the comics field,” but fewer of them note that he has also been at the forefront of a revolution in reporting. Sacco associates himself with “the New Journalism,” a movement that acknowledges the role of the reporter and demands that journalists let the reader hear the reporter’s voice and understand his or her biases. Sacco told an interviewer in 1995, “I don’t really know what ‘objectivity’ means.” For him, the most important thing a reporter can do is tell the truth about “what you saw or how people reacted when you were there.”
Instead of erasing himself from the story and presenting it with the anonymous, authoritative voice favored by mainstream journalists, Sacco places himself in the book honestly, sharing information about his difficulties moving into and out of the town and letting us know what it’s like to be a privileged observer in the midst of incredible suffering. But Sacco is also wise enough to step back and allow the residents of Gorazde to take center stage. He draws himself in a goofier, more cartoony way than the other characters, thus heightening their realism at the expense of his own. Sacco is the only character in the book whose eyes are never shown; instead, his glasses form opaque circles that give him a blank, iconic quality. Not only does the technique subtly set Sacco apart from the residents, it also allows the reader to identify with him more closely as a somewhat faceless stand-in. Sacco fills his books with artful, brilliant moves like this.
As authors like Sacco create comics of stunning depth and power, they run into barriers that prevent their work from seeing a larger audience. The first is that the business side of the comics industry is in serious trouble. The New York Times reported in June that there are fewer than 4,000 comic book stores left in the United States, “down from more than 10,000 during the comic boom in the mid-’90s.” The industry is now dominated by one major distributor, Diamond Comic Distributors, which provides nearly all of the comics to those stores. If Diamond decides not to feature a given title in its superhero-dominated catalog, the chances of it selling well to comic shop visitors are extremely slim.
Which leaves mainstream bookstores and mainstream readers to take up the slack. When comics artist Art Spiegelman won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, many in the industry hoped it would encourage mainstream book critics to start paying regular attention to what was going on in the world of comics. There was also new optimism that independent and chain bookstores would begin stocking intelligent graphic novels–and shelve them outside of the humor and superhero sections. But progress has been slow, as a tour of local bookstores demonstrates. Few fans of Southern fiction , for instance, have heard of Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, a dark and beautiful graphic novel about a gay man coming out in a small Southern town during the violence of the early 1960s civil rights struggle.
Critics and literary award committees can be another barrier to acceptance for comics authors. The Comics Journal, perhaps the most respected magazine of comics criticism, recently reminded its readers that, despite the win for Maus, there is no Pulitzer category for serious comics. The closest the group comes is an award for editorial cartoons published in newspapers.
The reception Safe Area Gorazde gets from mainstream book critics may help change that; it seems the comic book is poised to do well. Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens (who also wrote the book’s introduction) reviewed it for the Los Angeles Times, and a profile of Sacco appeared in The New York Times last week. Fantagraphics Books publicist Eric Reynolds says that despite lingering bias against comics literature from both journalists and book critics, sales of Safe Area Gorazde have “totally exceeded” the company’s expectations. The first hardcover printing of 6,000 quickly sold out; the second is underway. “Serious war journalism is a niche market,” Reynolds explains. “Those are good numbers for any book about the Bosnian War.” He also notes that between two-thirds and three-quarters of sales for Sacco’s book have been through “non-specialty shops,” meaning stores where the primary sales focus is not comic books, Pokemon cards and the like.
Sacco continues to write about Bosnia. He’s working on a series of comic book short stories; the first, Soba, about a musician/soldier from Sarajevo, has already been published. According to a recent interview, Sacco also has plans for another comic focusing on the Bosnian Serb side of the story. Readers looking for an intelligent, beautifully written introduction to the Bosnian War of the early ’90s, as well as readers looking for a gripping, true account of the depths to which humans will go in search of ethnic “purity,” will find both in Safe Area Gorazde. The fact that it’s a comic book only adds to the achievement.