Monday, June 14, 2010

Graphic Novel Monday: Safe Area Goražde, by Joe Sacco

Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992-1995. Published 2002 by Fantagraphics. Hardcover.

Click here to buy Safe Area Goražde via

Over the last few years, I've read a number of graphic novels, and while I'm by no means an expert in the form, it's something I enjoy and return to often. Once in a while I come across one that changes my perceptions of the form, of what it can be and what it can do. Safe Area Goražde is just such a book.

And, as a matter of fact, it was the first graphic novel I ever read. For some reason, these standout graphic novels always end up being nonfiction- think of David Small's family story Stitches, or Emmaneul Guibert's amazing The Photographer, about a journey through Afghanistan. Safe Area Goražde is also nonfiction, a journalism piece by writer Joe Sacco, who has since written (and drawn) extensively about the war in Bosnia. This book chronicles his time in an eastern enclave under a nominal cease-fire but cut off from the rest of the country and still experiencing zealous ethnic cleansing and violence. Christopher Hitchens' introduction helps place the reader with the necessary background information on Sacco and on the political and military situation while Sacco's narrative and artwork focus on the people and the trials of everyday life under siege.

And the art is amazing. Strictly black and white and pen and ink, it's nonetheless incredibly detailed, varied and expressive. Moments of stunning violence and quiet despair are rendered with equal skill; crosshatching creates quiet shadows while bodies lay in pools of inky blood. But again it's his characters who steal the show with their careful, detailed faces. The reader can feel the tension in a basement refuge from something as simple as someone's slightly downcast eyes or head tilted just so. Scenes of people running or in a panicked crowd put the reader right in the middle of the action and panels zoom in and out almost cinematically. A picture of freezing rain or snow makes me feel cold, too.

I was stunned after reading this incredible book; as an introduction to the graphic form it's harsh and difficult but when you put it down you'll never again doubt the form's potential for communicating both information and emotion in a mature, intelligent, adult-friendly way. I've since read a number of Sacco's other books and while they're all wonderful and retain his characteristic style, none have had quite the same impact on me as Safe Area Goražde. If you're interested in a serious, unflinching book, it's a great read.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not read this book for review.