Joe Sacco is an engaging and direct writer, and an incredibly detailed black-and-white cartoonist, but above all, he is a good journalist. Comics just happen to be the outlet for his reportage.
Sacco has published cartoons since the 1980s, but Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995 marked his first graphic novel when it was released in 2000, followed quickly by the collected graphic novel publication of Palestine in 2001. Though Sacco is probably better known for his work in the award-winningPalestine (originally published as nine smaller books in 1996), Safe Area is arguably the better of the two, earned Sacco the Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001, and cemented his role as a master of the unique medium of comics journalism.
Safe Area documents Sacco’s four trips in late 1995 and early 1996 to Goražde (pronounced “go-RAJH-duh,” as the author explains), a United Nations–designated safe area in eastern Bosnia. Its Muslim population suffered many losses during the Bosnian War—both in lives and an incredible amount of property destroyed—but the town was the only one in eastern Bosnia to hold out while the Bosnian Serb forces carried out an “ethnic cleansing” of the region.
Sacco documents the siege imposed upon Garožde’s population by the Serb forces and its impact on the town’s people in 227 pages of journalism at its finest. His recognizable black-and-white visuals include a portrayal of himself, but unlike the tendency of Art Spiegelman to become the center of attention in his tales, Sacco keeps the focus on his subjects. He seems only to portray himself for the purpose of transparency of the journalistic process, ultimately even exposing some personal flaws and unavoidable conflicts that go along with being an American embedded in another country for the purposes of a story.
In one scene, Sacco recounts reviewing gruesome home footage of a Serb shelling before having the Goražde resident who taped it name an “outrageous” price for the video. Sacco also points out that as an American journalist he receives passage in and out of Goražde via U.N. escort, but his subjects—such as Edin, a graduate student who takes Sacco into his home and provides much of the graphic novel’s stories—did not have that luxury. Sacco also takes requests for American-made jeans and films when he leaves town, and occasionally gets overburdened by his task or certain individuals. And though he does find the need to editorialize at times, it is kept to a minimum.
The honesty lends credibility to his effort and makes the stories incredibly personable, which is Sacco’s entire goal with Safe Area. The book is not a documentation of the general events from a broad prospective; the news at large already had that covered. It is instead an account of how those major events affected real people—what they felt like on the other side of the world. Though Sacco provides a well-researched outline of the events to keep everything in perspective, Safe Area primarily relies on snapshot stories to convey its messages, and offers things like Bill Clinton’s statements during the war through the eyes of Muslims.
Sacco’s images are as richly detailed as his text. Every person in every panel looks like a unique individual, and Sacco accurately documents everything from the clothes they wear to their posture to the way they speak. The art is slightly less caricatured than that of Palestine and better for it. Sacco’s images are still just a bit larger than life and carry with them a liveliness and convincing realism few journalists have captured.
Reviewed by William Jones on January 1, 2002
Safe Area Goražde