Comic truths

The medium conveys a difficult message.

Oct 17, 2001 at 12:00 am

Before the Sept. 11 attack, I wrote a review of Joseph Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, a journalistic account — in comic book form — about the war in Bosnia, a region of the former Yugoslavia. And since the world has changed, I’ve had to revise this review as well.

When reading Sacco’s book — and writing about it the first time — I thought about a couple, whom I met in 1984 while I hitchhiked through Croatia, then a part of Yugoslavia. Tanja, a petite woman, whose last name I don’t recall, picked me up and suggested that I stay with her and her husband, Franja, for a few bucks a night on Hvar, an island off the country’s coast where they lived. I spent four days with them, giving Tanja a chance to practice her English. Tanja nicknamed her husband “Grumpy Smurf” because he wouldn’t talk with us (he understood English, but was too shy to speak) and because he became annoyed with me when I asked about the country’s politics. Franja did not like being reminded of a government that prohibited him from starting his own fruit-and-vegetable market. He was stashing away money, hoping he and Tanja could someday move to Canada.

After I left, we exchanged a few postcards but eventually lost touch. I often wonder about them, though, particularly when their part of the world makes headlines. Did they make it to Canada or remain in their homeland? And if they remained, did they survive the decade of wars and turmoil?

Since the terrorist attack, I wonder if Tanja and Franja think of me. And I wonder about Sacco, who has seen war’s destruction in faraway places like Bosnia: How is the author coping with a terrorist attack in New York, where he resides?

Before relaying Sacco’s answer, the reader should know more about his book, which I found utterly engrossing. Sacco’s sometimes disturbing drawings pull in the reader much the same way a provocative photo can. Like a documentary filmmaker, he is able to convey the immediacy of the story. However, the advantage of Sacco’s medium is that he does not have to be at the scene when the action occurs. With a few strokes of a pen, he can render the memories of war victims or flash back to some other place and time — and each moment appears equally real.

Sacco says that his mission is to reach people through his art who may know little about the Bosnian war that pitted Muslims against Serbs. He seems to have accomplished this goal.

The Seattle-based Fantagraphics Books, which published Gorazde, sold 7,000 copies during the past year, more than any of its other comics, according to Kim Thompson, who edited the book; Quality Paperback Book Club recently began offering the book to members, and a Fantagraphics paperback edition is slated for next month. Apparently, others are discovering through Gorazde, as I did, that comics can be as subversive, enlightening and profound as other forms of journalism and art.

Sacco, who has been drawn to other places of conflict around the world and created comic books about them, takes us to dark places with pictures. He is currently working on a comic book from the Serbs’ point of view, as opposed to the Muslims he reports on in Gorazde.

“I never really consider myself an adventurer, but certain things going on in the world piss me off and I feel compelled to do something,” he says. “I’m not the kind of person who goes to marches or writes letters. I am a cartoonist, and I have to do what I can and if I can use my talent to illuminate something, it’s for the good.”

He is very good at illuminating the mundane in his book, which cameras and newspapers rarely report. For instance, a chapter in Gorazde titled “Silly Girls” describes the lives of some of the young women he met. Even in war, they are preoccupied with romance and fashion — like one woman’s desire for a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans. Sacco reminds us of how precious even the trivial can be; he is expert at weaving everyday life with the harsh realities of the war that he reported on during four trips (totaling four weeks) in 1995 and 1996. Turning his experiences into this book lasted another three years; it took about three days to draw each page.

Gorazde’s Muslims told Sacco how their Serbian neighbors raped and tortured women, murdered others and burned down their homes. Before the war ended, Gorazde and other towns were called “safe areas,” where, in theory, Muslims would not be harmed by Serbian forces. But according to Sacco’s account, Gorazde was not safe.

Edin, who is Sacco’s translator, guide and eventual friend, takes him to the hospitals where the wounded were operated on without anesthetic, limbs were removed with kitchen knives and pregnant women were taken from their beds and repeatedly raped by Serbian soldiers. The school where Edin taught is destroyed, as well as the public libraries. When the war ends, Sacco suggests that Edin, who lost close friends during the war, take some time to recover from the trauma. But Edin, who is working on his degree, insists that he must return to school, eager to make up for the time that has been taken from him.

Since the terrorist attack, Americans are more likely to identify with Edin’s desire to get on with his life. However, Sacco says that in contrast to New Yorkers, getting back to daily life means much more to those who have been deprived of it for years by war.

“In the United States attending a concert or play became very unimportant after the attack,” says Sacco. “But in Sarajevo, carrying on with daily life after the war becomes very meaningful.”

Asked how Sacco is getting on with his life, he says that he plans to do a comic book about the terrorist attack.

“I’m turning off the journalism and turning on the artistic switch,” he says. “As an artist you respond to things around you.”

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. She can be reached at 313-202-8015 or at [email protected].