When mainstream America received news of Bosnia at all, it was through reports on whatever victims of the fighting were near the broadcast center, interspersed with often-unchallenged presentation of pertinent, political views. As a result, most Americans lacked the simple understanding through which a greater understanding is possible, and substantive reporting in less glamorous media fell victim to the white noise that replaces proper context.
Joe Sacco's remarkable new book, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95, could serve as a first step towards reclaiming the basic facts of the 20th Century's last important war. A former Portland resident now residing in New York, Sacco spent several months at war's end in the town of Gorazde, a Muslim enclave deep in the heart of separatist Serb territory. When a cease fire made access possible, Sacco joined other journalists from Sarajevo in one of the U.N. convoys heading to the once-thriving, small city.
While his fellow journalists came and went, Sacco stayed, drawn to the town's residents and an increasing sense that what happened in Gorazde was emblematic of the Bosnian War in its entirety.
Sacco is a comics journalist, a reporter who tells his stories in comic book form. Sacco began combining his interests in reportage and comics with a dissection of the Gulf War and western bombing strategies later collected in the book War Junkie. Some of those comics featured Sacco as a character, experiencing and reacting to the events at hand. Including himself in the comics was a technique he used to enlightening effect in his award-winning and critically-celebrated exploration of land politics, Palestine. What was a natural narrative element in the underground comix that inspired him made Sacco not only a comics journalist, but also one of America's leading practitioners of subjective, first-person, New Journalism.
Sacco presents at least four stories in Safe Area Gorazde--a chronological history of the war; the histories of the people Sacco meets, interviews, and sometimes befriends; Gorazde's first steps towards physical and psychic recovery during his stay; and Sacco's own story of involvement and guilt and professional obligation as a reporter and onlooker. Sacco achieves a sense of continuity through his own constant presence and the humanizing, painstaking care with which he renders faces and figures.
In fact, Sacco's 240-page book is a model of visual intimation. Repetitive background images of woodcutting subliminally reinforce the reader's sense of Gorazde's decay and resiliency. Human figures walk amidst meticulously-rendered buildings in a way that heightens their loneliness. When Sacco leaps back in time to show the village's initial dissolution, the effect is devastating. Individuals initially introduced to us as lost and lonely, bloom within their proper context: whole buildings that were later destroyed, whole families who later died. Sacco masterfully reminds us that war is about constant change and unexpected loss. In doing so, he achieves effects with mood that would be lost to anyone except the finest prose novelist. Even then, it would be almost impossible to match Sacco's economy.
But forgetting the form, and leaving behind the pop sensibility which will no doubt drive the majority of attention this book receives, Safe Area Gorazde impresses because of the delicate, tragicomic sensibility of its author. At first serving as an emotional barometer for the audience, using humorous bewilderment to find the humor in all but the darkest scenes and making the book bearable, Sacco the character eventually comes to reflect America's largely inarticulate but fundamental lack of understanding about situations outside of its own. The book ends with a slightly embarrassing episode where Sacco asks his closest Bosnian companion, an admirably decent graduate student named Edin, if he intends to take a vacation. In simple, non-accusatory language, Edin lets Sacco and the audience know the difference between an event that becomes part of one's personal and professional life and one that completely interrupts and destroys it. That poignant reminder serves as an extremely self-aware and graceful endnote to an impressive new work about difficult-to-comprehend human actions.