Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-95, by Joe Sacco. Published by Fantagraphics Books, 2000.
Click here to order Safe Area Gorazde from your local IndieBound-afffiliated independent bookseller.
Weird as it may seem, I have a soft spot for Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde. Sacco's journalistic, non-fiction graphic documentary about the war in Bosnia was the first graphic novel I ever read or bought; about eight years ago I became intensely interested in the Balkan wars, because there was so much about them in the news and I knew so little. Feeling ignorant and out of touch (I couldn't even locate the former Yugoslav republics, or Yugoslavia, on a map), I read everything I could get my hands on. To this day I have a bookshelf devoted to the subject.
In the process of all this self-education, I read Sacco's graphic novel depiction of the war and the damage it caused to the people and landscape of Bosnia. Gorazde was a so-called United Nations-designated safe area, which was nonetheless surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops and whose people were suffering desperately. Sacco travels throughout the area, as well as to Sarajevo and elsewhere, reporting with modesty and self-deprecating humor as he surveys the wasteland. He lets the Bosnians speak for themselves- their hardships and their hopes shine through every page.
Though Sacco provides enough historical background for the casual reader, I was glad to have some modest background nonetheless; the thing about the Bosnian war to me was how illogical and irrational it was, even more than most wars, but then of course there were real people suffering through what seemed like someone's sick joke. The war was unusual in that so much of it was fought not by professional militias but by regular people taking up arms to protect their own homes and towns; the result was chaos, and civilians all around subjected to every conceivable form of abuse and atrocity.
Sacco's art is black and white throughout, in a comic-book style which felt comfortable to me as a first-time graphic novel reader. He uses structured panels but varies them according to the needs of his storytelling, and his characters as well as his backgrounds and scenes are detailed richly. His characters' features, often distorted and caricatured, reminded me of the absurdity of their situation. Sacco portrays himself as a near-featureless lump whose defining feature is a pair of round, empty eyeglasses- ironic since it's through his eyes that we see this story, but fitting in that he means to keep the focus away from himself.
Safe Area Gorazde certainly has a lot to offer those interested in the war in Bosnia, but it's important to me because it was the graphic novel that taught me that graphic novels can be more than superhero stories or serial cartoons for children- they can be smart, intellectually-challenging and engaging reading for adults as well. I know I make this point over and over in my Graphic Novel Monday posts but it can't be made often enough. Even if you think there isn't a graphic novel out there that would appeal to you, trust me- there is!
P.S., Safe Area Gorazde won the Will Eisner Award for Best Original Graphic Novel in 2001.