on September 16, 2003
This is a very brave book that takes an unflinching look at the personal affects of the war in Eastern Bosnia in the 1990's. Sacco is not attempting to tell about the battles, victories defeats of this war but rather the affects the war had on the civilians trying to live through it. This novel is important and should not be dismissed or overlooked due to the choice by the author of making this a graphic novel.
If you are looking for a detailed accounting of the war this is not the book for you. Instead this is the book for any reader that wants to learn the personal affects of war upon the civilians trying to live through it. Sacco uses personal interviews with people who lived in Bosnia to give the reader an intimate feeling of how life is like for the people who had to live through the war, rather than being able to see "highlights" on CNN every few days.
The graphic novel form works well for Sacco. Sacco's art work is graphic and raw yet has a beauty to it that the reader should enjoy, even while reeling from some of the war images. The intimacy of the medium, illustrating events versus describing them, hits the reader with a great deal of impact and shows the severity of the environment and events in the novel.
This book is a great example of the possibilities of the graphic novel medium. Hopefully there will be more works from Sacco soon.
on October 12, 2002
While Sacco does provide a few pieces of historical and political detail to establish the context of his stories, this book is not an overall account of the war in Bosnia. As he did in PALESTINE, he combines the oral histories of his interviewees with his own observations on conditions in the enclave as well as his feelings about being in a danger zone. He keeps his primary focus on roughly half a dozen people, which helps to structure the collection of vignettes into something of a narrative, while also including interviews with a number of other people. Sacco stands back and lets the interviewees tell their stories, keeping his editorializing and personal reflections to interludes. You can feel his outrage over the conditions and the circumstances, but he doesn't allow that outrage to boil over and distract from the story. Despite the comments of Christopher Hitchens in his introduction, I think this approach serves Sacco well. It ensures that the reader will not be able to distract himself from the brutality and suffering by getting caught up in critiquing the author's tone.
And there is plenty of brutality and devastation here. Sacco's artwork is detailed and expressive, not gruesome for shock value's sake but unflinching in its depictions of wartime injuries and combat medicine under the worst possible conditions. You can't help but wonder not only how human beings could be so cruel to each other, but how other human beings could stand back and let it happen.
on July 30, 2002
Joe Sacco has produced a gripping account of the war in Bosnia through the eyes of the people who lived it. He tells the story of Gorazde and by extraploation of the war in general by drawing up and commenting on personal encounters he has had during his stay in Bosnia. His account remains very much a journalist's account in remaining objective, regardless of a natural feeling of indignation for the atrocious crimes the people he interviews have suffered. He also displays appropriate criticism towards his own priviliged position as a UN protected journalist. The sometimes black humor in the book further helps to sharpen the focus on the situation.
The drawing style, in pure Black-and-white, is detailed and dynamic. There is a clear Robert Crumb influence in how the characters are drawn, especially in how Sacco draws himself. As far as format and story-telling go, I think Art Spiegelman's Maus has been an undeniable influence. The visual story-telling through the changing layout of each page is very functional. It helps the book to deliver its viewpoint in a very compact and efficient way.
All this of course is post-reading-analysis. I read the book cover to cover in one go. If I was teaching history to 16, 17-year olds, this would be a mandatory read on my reading list. I'm sure no one would complain.
I bought this one together with 'Palestine', which is of the same high quality, and immediately put in an Amazon-alert to notify me when anything new from Joe Sacco comes out.
on February 14, 2002
While graphic novels have been around for quite a while, graphic journalism or history has not. Sacco is a pioneer of this extremely humanistic new genre, and here he bears witness to the horrors of the war in Bosnia. Sacco visited the so-called "safe area" four times in late 1995 and early 1996, and his portrait of a devastated city and its survivors is more affecting than any newspaper account could hope to be. His black ink panels capture in vivid detail not only the scars left on the landscape, but on the people themselves. Sacco alternates between detailing his own visits to Gorazde, a straightforward history of the war, and letting his friends and interviewees recount their own terrible experiences.
His own visits are fairly basic, everyone is frightened and devastated by the war and he experiences the guilt of one able to come and go as he pleases. The history of the war is very clearly told, with maps and pertinent statements from UN leaders, Clinton, Milosavich, et al. Sacco clearly highlights how ineffective and downright cowardly the UN approach was, singling out British Lt. General Rose and French Lt. General Janvier for lying and dissembling in order to avoid conflict, and the Clinton administration for being inept and vacillating toward the Serbs. The history is a stark reminder that in the absence of a superpower with a vested interest, one cannot expect loose multinational efforts to deter genocide. Throughout the war, due to a total lack of leadership and moral will from above, UN forces were pushed around, held hostage, and at times fled into the night rather than protect the civilians they were supposed to. Which brings one to the most compelling and disturbing parts of the book. Sacco supplies images to the testimonials of survivors and witnesses to execution, rape, nonstop civilian shelling, snipers, and even poison gas. Most of the voices from Gorazde are those of Muslim inhabitants or refugees "cleansed" from other areas, and while the stories are chilling enough, what also disturbs is the confusion and pain these people feel because in many cases, it was their former Serb neighbors who participated in it.
Sacco's artistic style may not be to everyone's taste, and certainly this is only a slice of the larger war, but he bears witness and hopefully makes the reader more conscious of the failings of leadership in preventing what was supposed to be "never again." American loves to pat itself on the back for kicking [...butt] in the "good war" against the Nazis, but somehow we've managed to avoid any responsibility for allowing genocide to continue, even when it's been clearly within our ability to do so.
on January 24, 2002
First off: this book is difficult to read. To be honest, I picked up this book as a fan of graphic novels, not because I had a burning desire to learn about the Balkans. But this book never reads like a history lesson, and it draws you back in even after you think you might be finished with it, because Sacco smartly kept the scale small--the story of one medium-sized Bosnian town.
"Safe area"--a U.N. concept of a city that would be protected from war--is a sadly ironic title. The topic is huge: centuries-old ethnic conflict, generals, the U.N., Bill Clinton, personal stories and horrendous, Holocaust-like devastation. Where do you start?
If you're Joe Sacco, you venture into Gorazde in a U.N. reporter's convoy, but when the rest of the media leaves, you sleep on a local's couch. You hear their dreams, sometimes silly, like of owning a new pair of American-made jeans. You intersperse the banality of daily life with sweeping days of horror and historical fact. You present -all- sides of the story, including the violence against Serbs (Orthodox Christians), but primarily, the unreal savagery of that group against Muslims and Bosnians (Roman Catholics). You become friends with the people you come to know year in and year out. You are awkward and uncomfortable about your perfect American-orthodonture teeth. You try to wrap your mind around how someone could shell a child, or rape a pregnant woman, or take a sniper post in the town he grew up in, against neighbors he knows. You leave the bigger questions--like why one religious group turns against others so quickly and with such hatred--unanswered. In your straightforward story, you counterbalance reams of U.S.-based, simplistic, propagandist reporting about violence-prone Muslims and peace-loving Christians.
While reading this book, things would cross my mind: what would it be like to be in Gorazde and know that the U.N. "peacekeepers" left in the middle of the night? The ominous intent of that idea stays with me still. The images are incredibly disturbing, but not exploitive or disrespectful. He simply tells it like it was, and bears witness.
on March 10, 2001
I bought this after reading a (very short) review in The Economist. I also ordered Palestine: A Nation Occupied at the same time. The progression in Sacco's work is incredible. The drawings in Palestine are a little TOO cartoonish but in this they are far more real. Both stories are in their own ways, equally horrific, from the everyday brutality of the occupied territories to the visceral horror of Bosnia and the struggles of its people to live some kind of life. His summary of the events in Bosnia is one of the clearest accounts I have read - from the viciousness of certain Serb leaders to the culpability of the UN - he explains exactly how so many lives were destroyed in such horrific ways.
He is a marvelous talent and his genre is a wonderful way to present news and inform people about current events.
However, the really scary thing is the fact that I want him to produce something else. I want to read his words and examine his pictures, even though I know a world where Sacco is an unemployed bum would be a far better place. But as long as human beings act in disgusting ways towards each other he'll have plenty of material.
on February 4, 2001
Amazing. This may be the most powerful testament yet writtenabout the war in Bosnia. Gorazde was a "safe area" in easternBosnia, much like the ill-fated Srebrenica nearby. It was nearly -butnot quite- overrun by Serb forces, and Sacco's four visits to the townyielded up this amazing comic-style account of the war from thenarrow, pained perspective of a town under siege. The story fits withthe format so well because it's not a chronology (like Honig's'Srebrenica'), nor a political review of the disintegration ofYugoslavia, nor a journalist's travelogue. It's just a day-to-dayaccount -conversations with soldiers, teachers, teenage girls,refugees, with their friends and families- all the folks who madeup wartime Gorazde. They witnessed unspeakable brutalities, attackson civilians, burning of houses, murders, rapes, gratuitous violenceby wicked men. Cut off from the world they are bored, hungry for newsand diversion. Sacco details these scenes and their terrible effectson the otherwise normal people of a nondescript Balkan town. Theunforgettable man who made hours of home video of carnage and bodyparts, achieving almost sexual pleasure from watching it and screeningit for visitors; the girls in search of bluejeans and boyfriends; thesoldiers who just want to go back to the university. Sacco placesGorazde in its historical context by reviewing the broader war, eventsin Sarajevo and Srebrenica and Dayton. He points fingers, this is notan even-handed piece of jurisprudence, but a visit to one of the ringsof hell, whose inhabitants know precisely who is guilty for visitingthis carnage on innocents. They know, because they were all neighborsjust months before.
Sacco's illustrations pack a punch. Readerswill by turns grow tense as a group walks all night in the snow forsupplies, as a handful of men hold off a Serb column supported bytanks. Or sad as young people describe their terrors in terms thatshow unmistakable signs of trauma and mental illness. Or smile asSacco's new friends show courage and humanity despite their suffering.These are enduring images. The book can be read in a few hours, andreaders will not be able to put it down.
on January 17, 2001
Someone once strongly recommended that I read this, although I have to admit I wasn't expecting much at first. I was really unsure how the Bosnian war could be rendered in comic strip fashion. However, "Safe Area Gorazde" is incredible: this is one of the best journalistic accounts to come out of the Bosnian war in any format. Sacco recounts the horrific war stories told to him by his friends and acquaintances in Bosnia with a great deal of honesty. He very effectively incorporates his own wit and the dry humor of the Bosnians into his narrative without turning it into a satire. I also like the fact that he was quite critical of the role of foreign reporters and correspondents (including himself) in Bosnia, i.e. their frequent insensitivity or their effective eavesdropping on the suffering of others. His illustrations also speak for themselves as he very accurately recreates the wartime destruction of property and the rag-tag appearance of the people; he has a unique talent for re-creating facial expressions that reflect a range of emotions. Hats off to Mr. Sacco, he deserves every praise for this informative and moving portrayal of wartime and immediate postwar Gorazde.
on June 16, 2001
Sacco is great at comic-book journalism; he in fact has a degree in journalism and can really draw. It's a shame that this terrific book is so little known while its precursor Maus--which is similar only in basic format--was out winning awards and hitting the bestseller lists. Maus is subjective, culturally and racially biased, far too personal and badly written and drawn where Palestine and especially this book on Bosnia are objective, intelligent and well-drawn, but Maus came first (and also had the benefit of appealing to the prejudices of many book reviewers) and so still gets all the attention. Perhaps some readers were stung by the overhype that surrounded Maus and judge the infinitely better works of Sacco by it; if so that's a shame. Sacco succeeds where Maus failed, that is, everywhere.
on October 10, 2000
This is an astonishing book, for two reasons: first of all, it shows a side of the Balkan conflicts that is simply invisible in any other source. And secondly, the artwork in it is amazing. The art/text combination is unique and uniquely engaging and evocative. But make no mistake: this is not a comic book: it's a serious exploration of important events. Which is not to say that it is free of humor. There are some very funny parts, and the artist/narrator-character is keenly insightful on a human level. But there are some devastating sections, too, which made me have to put the book down for a while, though not for long, since I was always compelled to return to this product of Sacco's genius.