With everything that’s been going on in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, etc. of late, it could occur to a restless young person that it would be a good idea—because it’s exciting and morally justifiable—to go to such places and report on what’s happening, to record the stories of war and revolution. An idea like that—specifically, to go to Benghazi, Libya—occurred to this reviewer only a couple months ago. Some people said it was a brilliant idea, exactly what a young journalist should be doing, heading to where the news is with a laptop, a camera, and a satellite phone, while others (family members) said it was an awful, disgusting idea, horribly selfish, and reckless.
While my plans have been tossed into the garbage, for the time being, the cartoonist Joe Sacco is someone who’s done such things, has gone to hot spots and reported—artistically, seriously—on what life was like there. He first traveled to the Middle East in the early 1990s, and his experiences there became fodder for his graphic novel Palestine. After that, he went to the Balkans. Safe Area Goražde: The Special Edition is not just a repackaging of Sacco’s illustrated report on the Bosnian War; it’s practically a DIY instruction manual on alternative journalism, a primer that reveals not just how someone gets into an isolated hot spot like Goražde, but how that person can believe he or she is capable of doing so in the first place.
Goražde is a small city in a river valley southeast of Sarajevo, in eastern Bosnia. During the war in the Balkans, Serbs were massacring the Muslims in cities near Goražde (most notoriously at Srebenica), cities that were supposedly UN-protected “safe areas.” While Goražde came under siege various times between 1992 and 1995, it was never wholly overrun. Sacco traveled there for the first time in November 1995, as the Dayton Accords were being negotiated in Ohio and after the violence in Goražde had settled. Sacco’s portrait of the city is a series of short chapters—vignettes, anecdotes, conversations, history lessons—as told by the townspeople and as drawn in Sacco’s finely crosshatched, black-and-white style.
Sacco illustrates his comics the way George Orwell or Hunter S. Thompson wrote their books, or the way Werner Herzog films his documentaries: by putting himself in the middle of it. Sacco is a character—a cartoonish one at that—in Safe Area Goražde. He’s a bespectacled, quiet American who comes bearing the hope of freedom, peace, and authentic Levis 501’s, who comes to listen to the horrors of genocide and bombardment, of snipers and mass graves, of being tossed around by NATO and the UN.
Even if much of what Sacco reports in the book is nauseating and sad, he also finds levity and warmth, of people in Goražde who can still laugh, still enjoy a good meal and a good conversation, who are eager and ready to get on with their lives. The criticisms one could make of this graphic novel—like how most of the Serbs appear as drunken, swarthy maniacs, or how some of the prose is clunky—just seem petty and unhelpful, not worth going on about in contrast to the seriousness, the importance, of what’s in these stories.
This special edition of Safe Area Goražde—released to celebrate the book’s 10-year anniversary—contains an essay by Sacco about how he did his reporting (including how he got press credentials as a cartoonist), as well as excerpts from his journals, photos, and sketches, a where-are-they-now for the Bosnians that appear in the story, and an interview with Sacco by comic-book critic and publisher Gary Groth. It’s a relief to hear a journalist be so candid about the nuts and bolts of his craft, instead of the usual mystifying veil journalists tend to drape over their methods.
Reading this book doesn’t just unearth the shivering ghosts of a war many people were content to ignore and forget; it also digs up the happier ghosts of a cartoonist who was able to access a war zone and create a new form of literary journalism. Both of these ghosts could harass a young person to gather up his or her notebooks, cameras, and computer, and buy that ticket tomorrow for Tunis, Cairo, Manama, Tripoli, Damascus, etc.
Joe Saccco’s Safe Area Goražde: The Special Edition will be released on May 9 by Fantagraphics Books. To purchase it, click here.