Thursday, January 1, 2009

Safe Area Gorazde

(This article was originally published in Savant, and is being archived here on this blog.)

There's been a lot written about SAFE AREA GORAZDE, much of it in high- profile articles in places like the New York Times. Most of these articles tend to focus on SAG's incredible and visceral illumination of a horrifying event in history, and Joe Sacco's prodigious skill in narrowing the focus of the ethnic cleansing down to the points of view of a few fascinating individuals. What most of these articles tend to ignore is how much of SAG's success is due to Sacco's abilities not as a journalist, but as a comic book creator.

The political cartoon has been a part of the culture for well over a century, but its use in anything but one-panel satiric jabs has been limited. Sacco is one of a tiny handful of artists who understand the potential power of an illustrated sequential narrative in relating events. But SAG is not a dry, impersonal account of an historical atrocity. The tragedy of Gorazde and its slow return to normalcy is related by the people it affected, and Sacco spun the life stories of so many with consummate skill. The most crucial element of the book and a constant Sacco trademark, was his own inclusion in the narrative, for he was there, a participant as well as an observer in the lives of the villagers as they waited for peace. By exposing his viewpoint and telling the audience that this is simply his attempt at relating what he saw and heard, he disarms the reader and removes himself from omniscience. He lets us in on his biases while at no time trying to make himself the star of the piece. And what he eventually constructs, though a true work of journalism, is an incredibly compelling story that draws on themes of conflict familiar to anyone. He's less interested in a generic examination of war than in trying to understand what spurred the hatreds in Bosnia, how shocking and unexpected the war was, and how people can survive and cope with a situation where Gorazde was on the verge of being utterly annihilated but instead was saved at the last moment.

Sacco is drawn to conflict and hatred in his work. He's fascinated by situations where one side is nearly helpless against a juggernaut that holds all the power in a conflict and uses it mercilessly. He's written about his native Malta being bombed by the Nazis in World War II, the rah-rah media hype about the Gulf War, and wrote a brilliant series about the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising in Israel. The latter work, PALESTINE, is where he truly made his mark in his first-person journalism, where he is a character in the world he's investigating. But that character, like in SAG, is rather quiet and self-deprecating, and is quite prone to losing his idealism. Even the way he draws himself is done to diminish his "character": he's short, vaguely-cartoonish looking and uses his glasses to white-out his eyes so that he looks even more iconic. This technique immediately dispels any notions we have of Sacco as heroic or all-knowing.

A bit of background about this novel: The war in question was between Bosnian Serbs trying to completely remove Bosnian Muslims from the eastern part of the country. What one must understand is that these groups lived peacefully together in the united Yugoslavia for nearly 50 years. This was thanks to the beloved president of the country, Tito, who ruled the country rather sternly and brooked no internal dissension. This was not uncommon in Cold War-era eastern Europe. The problem is that ethnic tensions between Serbs and Croats in the area had been raging for centuries; in fact, one of the sparks for World War I was the tension in the area. Both sides have committed numerous atrocities on the other for a long time, neither side forgetting the wrongs of the other and perpetuating new cycles of violence. When the USSR collapsed and their hold on eastern Europe relaxed, it meant that tensions that had been below the surface for decades suddenly and violently resurfaced. It literally meant, for the citizens in the mixed city of Gorazde, that people who had been your neighbors one day were shooting at you the next.

One of the primary villains in the novel is the UN, depicted as a bumbling organization that had the power to prevent a lot of deaths but that lacked the willpower to stand up to the Serbs. While most of the western media's attention was focused on Sarajevo to the west, the Serbs were slowly taking over every city in the east. This was in direct defiance of UN- designated "safe areas", cities with predominantly Muslim populations that were supposed to be immune from attack. The citizens there were completely cut off from the rest of the world. No food, no weapons, no hope. The Serbs had tanks and automatic weapons. It was simply no contest, in a war driven by an inexplicable and overpowering hatred for that which was the Other.

The book begins at the end, with news of peace in the air after the US had finally stepped in to blunt Serb attacks. A single UN road had opened up that was bringing in supplies and allowing people a chance to be human again. Sacco wisely begins on a joyous note, relating people's simple joys in having food again, in having hope again. "[They] partied like the resurrected, not like there was no tomorrow, but because there was a tomorrow." Throughout the book, he switches back and forth between brief, hopeful, funny vignettes and longer narratives about the war. The conflict is personified in the face of his eventual friend, Edin. Edin was an engineering student who fought to defend his town, and it was his stories that form the bulk of the narrative.

The book is broken up into various vignettes that jump around in terms of time and subject. Sacco alludes to the horror early in the book and slowly reveals the details of the siege of Gorazde near the end of the book. The two central narratives are "White Death", an account of the harrowing journey that Edin and other Gorazdens made during the winter in order to get basic supplies like food. They had to trek at night in freezing temperatures over a span of many miles just to obtain the human basics, and there was no guarantee they would survive. The siege is covered in "The '94 Offensive", where the Serbs continued to defy an impotent UN again and again, having already completely "cleansed" several safe area enclaves. They had built mass graves for 5000 people in the town of Srebrenica, but the Serbs by this time had pissed off both the Americans and the Russians, and NATO started bombing them. A cease-fire was called, and Gorazde made it--just barely.

The grimness of these accounts is unsparing in its detail. Sacco interviewed dozen of survivors for their stories, including families, soldiers and doctors among many others. But these scenes of deterioration are countered by accounts of rejuvenation, especially in the person of Riki. Riki was a friend of Edin's who loved to belt out American rock 'n roll and who was a symbol of hope and life. The most touching of these was when Riki had to go back to the front, and Sacco and Edin kept demanding that he sing just one more song. They couldn't let this exuberant man out of their company, this man who felt he had "an American spirit" and who wanted to see LA and New York; when he finally left, Sacco said it was the closest he came to bursting out in tears.

There were so many other amazing vignettes, many of them simple accounts of truly life-affirming parties. He would talk to young women and find out about their desperately wanting American-made jeans, a symbol of belonging to civilization at large. He talked to the artists in the community, who were desperate for any book or magazine that Sacco could bring in. And Sacco confronted his own role in Gorazde, because he represented the outside world and the concept of freedom to many in the town. He told people about movies and sports and what America was like, and brought back luxury items from Sarajevo when he went back and forth. It was a celebrity status he was uncomfortable with, but fully understood that it had nothing to do with him, but with what he symbolized. And Sacco had no illusions about being a noble, self-sacrificing crusader of moral perfection: when confronted about being an American by one angry Gorazden, Sacco told us that he wanted to get away from those "horrible, disgusting people and their fucking wars and pathetic prospects", immediately shocking the audience into realizing that the author held no moral high ground.

But the true star of the book is Edin, who deals with his former neighbors burning down his house and having dozens of his friends killed. When Sacco suggests he take a break, Edin replies that's exactly what he doesn't want to do. "He was in his late 20's and looking back on a hole in his life almost four years long. This was no time for a break. He wanted to get on with things."
Sacco's art reached true maturity in this book. Gone were some of his early Crumbian stylistic excesses. Instead, he used a heavily realistic style for the backgrounds and war scenes, sparing no grim detail or depiction of violence in its least glamorous state. His depiction of people was a bit more fluid, allowing for some expressionist exaggeration here and there, but staying firmly within realistic bounds. His rendering is extremely unidealistic, depicting all the physical flaws one might find when dealing with ordinary people. His mastery of shading is astonishing, perfectly depicting the hopelessness of the nighttime food run in the dead of winter and showing us just how dark Gorazde was at night with no electricity. His pacing is flawless in the account of the siege and his use of subtle facial characteristics is what really sells the narratives. So many people have these sunken-eyed, blank expressions of horror that it becomes unnecessary for Sacco to overwrite the scenes. His art tells the story. At the same time, his depiction of a 16-year old girl waiting for Sacco's approval on her baking skills is priceless.

SAFE AREA GORAZDE is brilliant because Sacco understood what most journalists don't: in times of human tragedy, there is no way to tell what really happened using a soundbite and a couple of video clips. Sacco is immersed in the community yet maintains his outsider role to get at what he calls the Real Truth--the stories that are alternately horrifying and uplifting. Sacco's unflinching willingness to confront evil and skill in depicting human resilience in comic book form make him a completely unique artist, one whose work is both accessible and indispensable. And in a year when I read an astonishing number of good comic books, SAFE AREA GORAZDE stands head and shoulders above them all.

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