Recently I was at a backyard barbecue with my Chicago
neighbors. Late at night the talk turned to books, as it often does,
and I described a book that had haunted me for days. It was
Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco's account of life under siege
in an east Bosnian outpost during the civil war. I recounted to
my neighbors anecdote after anecdote from the book, trying to impress
on them that they must read this book right now, that its 227 pages
contained the truest, most loving and horrifying reporting yet written
on the Bosnian tragedy. I told them Sacco was the Bosnian war's
own Orwell, and Safe Area Gorazde was his Homage to
Catalonia. After a polite silence, a neighbor interjected:
"Let me get this straight: You're talking about a comic book with
Chetniks in it?"
Yes. Like Palestine, Sacco's previous comic
book (which won an American Book Award in 1996), Safe Area Gorazde
is an extended, dead-serious, comic-journalistic essay on - what
else can a war correspondent write about? - man's inhumanity to
man. As the Bosnian war slowly and painfully segued to a bitter,
drawn-out cease-fire (optimistically called "peace" by its architects
back in the Buckeye State), Sacco wormed his way through the Serb
armies encircling the rural, largely Muslim Bosnian enclave of Gorazde
and lived there with its citizens. With a soldier and math teacher
named Edin as his guide, Sacco exhumed the stories we are already
aware of - the ditches full of castrated corpses, the shreds of
civilians hit by artillery, the round-the-clock rape of women in
maternity wards - and drew them back to life in his chosen medium.
Given Sacco's subject, many reviewers will no doubt
write that Safe Area Gorazde transcends its medium. They
will say it approaches the comix Olympus occupied by Art Spiegelman's
Maus. These reviewers will be at least partially right:
Read purely as
a comic book, Safe Area Gorazde is incredible. Sacco "writes"
his pictures with the narrative strength of the medium at his command,
arranging his panels to capture not a series of moments, but time
and place itself. The slightly fish-eyed lens of Sacco's distorted
yet realistic cartooning style captures the insanity and the intimacy
forced by war, and it accentuates the fears that hide in the faces
of his subjects.
But Safe Area Gorazde does not transcend the
comic medium. It fulfills it. For years, a few intellectuals "in
the know" have rightly argued that underground comix are among the
most vital of the popular arts. They have often cited Sacco as proof
of this. And so, Sacco's true achievement is transcending the journalistic
form. By telling his story with pictures, Sacco makes his journalism
art; but by drawing his pictures with a writer's eye, Sacco makes
his journalism Art. It is not what Sacco says, but what he shows
that makes his story merit re-reading.
Haunting the dead center of Saccos
story is the chapter featuring a refugee from Visegrad named Rasim
and his eyewitness account of Serb troops who massacred captive
families on a bridge in the middle of the night, night after night.
By day the soldiers rounded up more victims while drinking, playing
the accordion and singing songs in their spattered uniforms. Sacco
waits until almost halfway through his book before depicting this
"unsubstantiated" massacre because mere atrocity - mans
inhumanity to man - is something that unfortunately no longer jars
our society from its slumber. With the instinct of a novelist, Sacco
knows that if we live with these people first, night and day as
they soldier in their civilian way past the unspeakable horrors
they have survived to the uncertainty that awaits them - then we
will feel the full weight of their predicament. We have to really
know these people before we can really care about them. That is
all, essentially, that Sacco is asking us to do. He is not a propagandist.
He simply wants us to fall in love with the people of Gorazde the
same way he did: by hanging out with them.
Hanging out is perhaps the most
moving part of this book. It is certainly the most fun. We drink
a lot of little cups of coffee with our hosts, by the candlelight
or by fire, swap a lot of gossip, and help our Muslim friend Riki
learn English in the way he ardently wants - by figuring out the
lyrics to "Dead Flowers" by the Rolling Stones. We dance
with them, laugh with them and crash on their couch every night.
Then, and only then, do the Chetniks show up to torch their homes
and slit their throats. In the main, that is Saccos triumph:
to make palpable and personal a war we have heard about a thousand
times before but have never let hit home.
Because Sacco lived with his subjects,
his book has a surprisingly quotidian focus on their day-to-day
struggles. They chop wood, conjure from scratch the first pizza
seen in years and build a generator to run teenage mutant movies
on their VCR. They are simply fighting for the right to a normal
life, and it is in this humble fight that their heroism is most
apparent. A woman may be defeated, but she is not destroyed so long
as she can escape to the shattered public library and read Baudelaire.
A soldier cannot be hopeless while he still wonders whether or not
Clyde Drexler was traded to the Houston Rockets. The picture of
anticipation on a teen-agers face as she watches Sacco bite
into a square of her banana bread, baked just for him, says more
about the fragility and resiliency of her human spirit than the
proverbial thousand words. Consider that proverbial value, and consider
the fact that there are thousands of pictures in this book, and
you begin to get an inkling of its worth.
That is what I argued at the barbecue.
Sitting there I felt a bit like one of the Gorazdans in Saccos
book. I was not besieged, obviously, but there we neighbors were,
huddled around the dying coals and telling stories, food in our
guts, drinks in our hands. We were hanging out, just like Sacco
and his friends. But the rest of our neighbors were not out there
in the enclosing blackness, jeering at us from their hills. My mother
had not been raped, and my father had not been shot. My neighbors
were not promising to kill me. n
Daniel K. Raeburn produces The Imp,
a journal devoted to the comix genre. For more information on Joe
Sacco, Gorazde and Safe Area Gorazde, visit the Fantagraphics Books
Web site (http://www.fantagraphics.com/preview/gorazde/gorazde.html).
Safe Area Gorazde is available at bookstores and comic book specialty
shops nationwide, or can be ordered directly from the publisher