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Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95
posted October 10, 2001

Creator: Joe Sacco
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics Books
Ordering Numbers:

If the Gulf War vindicated the sensational immediacy of modern journalism, then the War in Bosnia exposed its intrinsic superficiality. Hundreds of years of ethnic history could not be distilled into a single photograph; a dissection of politics encompassing the actions of World War II-era governments and the decay of Cold War nation-states were beyond any single talking head; a rolling conflict with multiple actors in hundreds of locations lacked the reproducible drama demanded by television. 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 becomes possible, and substantive reporting in less glamorous media fell victim to the white noise that takes the place of proper context.

Joe Sacco's remarkable new book, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern 1992-95, could serve a first step towards reclaiming the basic facts of the 20th Century's last important war. 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 ceasefire made access possible, Sacco joined other journalists from Sarajevo in one of the U.N. convoys heading to the once-thriving small city. His motives were simple -- take a break from his time in Sarajevo, and satisfy his basic curiosity about a place featured in written and radio reports. But 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 somehow emblematic of the Bosnian War in its entirety.

Sacco was able to spend so much time in Gorazde because of the nature of his work. Unlike members of the media who had to file regular reports, Sacco was collecting information for much-later publication. 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 on hand. Including himself 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.

Safe Area Gorazde succeeds through Sacco's unique blend of formal approaches. Gone is the polemic that energized but eventually overwhelmed Palestine. In its place is a tremendously complex narrative structure and a mature, restrained outlook: Sacco's achievement is an act of fierce intellectual willpower, using the comics medium's greatest strengths to force its way past layer after layer of obfuscation. 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 into time to show the village's initial dissolution, the devastating effect testifies to Sacco's strength as a writer and the almost-declarative ambiance one may derive from his evocative linework. Individuals 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 lost to everyone except the finest prose novelists, none of whom could come close to matching the economy of Sacco's lucid, shattering insights.

But forgetting the form, and leaving behind the pop culture charge which will no doubt drive the majority of mainstream media 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 events he covers 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 on-site companion, an admirably decent graduate student named Edin, if he intends to take a vacation once peace settles onto the area. In simple, direct terms, Edin confronts Sacco and the reader with 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, adult work about difficult-to-comprehend human actions.

Sacco's work, supported by a first-class essay by Christopher Hitchens and a lovely printing and presentation job by Fantagraphics Books, will no doubt be discussed in end-of-the-year columns and well into 2001 as one of the finest books to be published in this banner year for the comics art form. Don't wait to be reluctantly persuaded. Buy the hardback, revel in its masterful use of the medium, absorb its author's incredible sense of atmosphere and urgency, learn something new about a subject that defied all the usual modes of presentation, and put aside a few new worlds for an unsettling, redemptive second look at your own.