Just another comic book about genocide“Comics journalism” might sound like an unlikely calling, but this remarkable book by the cartoonist Joe Sacco makes you wonder why it’s a one-man profession. “Safe Area Gorazde” is Sacco’s 227-page chronicle, in black-and-white comic-book panels, of the ordeals of a Muslim town that was surrounded by Serb-held territory for nearly four years during the Bosnian war. Gorazde was declared a “safe area” under the protection of the United Nations ― a designation, as its inhabitants were well aware, that did nothing to prevent the Bosnian Serbs from filling mass graves with Muslims in the “safe areas” of Srebrenica and Zepa.
Mr. Sacco, who used to make funny, low-key comics about his life in Oregon, has an eye for nuance and an intimate, mostly realistic and strangely unsettling drawing style. He spent about four weeks in Gorazde, and it’s his small-scale approach ― his immersion in the town’s everyday life ― that gives the book its power and its value. He depicts a siege atmosphere that’s unreal and mundane at the same time. Horror is constantly around the corner for these people, and yet they stubbornly go to discos, brood over wayward boyfriends and speculate about whether Michael Jordan will play basketball again. We get to know several Gorazde residents rather well ― unremarkable people not unlike the unremarkable people we know ― and that, of course, makes us dread what might be about to befall them, more acutely than we probably did when we were watching the news in the mid-’90s. And when, after gradually introducing us to this town, Mr. Sacco does show us the real stuff of nightmares ― blinded children and amputations without anasthesia aren’t the worst of it ― he makes the horrors new. It’s as though we can’t believe things like that could happen. It’s as though we hadn’t realized that’s what war is.
Mr. Sacco ― who won an American Book Award in 1996 for “Palestine,” which used a similar method to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ― depicts himself rather self-deprecatingly throughout “Safe Area Gorazde” as a journalist worrying about whether he’s being an opportunistic jackal or not. To think of a cartoonist as a journalist (not counting political cartoonists, who aren’t known for fieldwork) might take some getting used to, but Mr. Sacco more than merits the title.
by David Moll