Saturday, September 14, 2013

War (Joe Sacco)

My impression is that, with some salutary exceptions, contemporary graphic novelists tend either to focus on personal traumas or strike out into the realm of the fantastic — or both. There's nothing in principle wrong with either approach, but the situation does leave certain territories unexplored, serious journalism being one of them. Of course, on the face of it, there might seem to be a fundamental incompatibility between the art of making "comic books" and the kind of sober and objective reporting one expects from a reporter, but the Maltese-American journalist-cartoonist Joe Sacco has made as good a case as anyone for disproving that supposed incompatibility.

Safe Area Goražde, originally published in 2000*, covers the Bosnian war of the 1990s, one of the nastier phases of the troubled breakup of what was once the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia. It focuses on a small pocket of territory, largely inhabited by Bosnian Muslims, that had been officially and ineffectually designated by the UN as a safe haven. While what happened in Goražde may not have attained the level of atrocity of the massacres at Srebrenica (another safe area, not far away), it was bad enough. Sacco doesn't appear to have been on the scene during the worst period, but he was there in 1995 when the city was still besieged and had ample opportunity to interview eyewitnesses with fresh memories. Except for a few pages of historical background, it is those eyewitness accounts, along with Sacco's self-deprecatory description of his efforts to document them, that make up the book.

A little later this Fall W. W. Norton will be publishing The Great War, Sacco's wordless 24-panel folding panorama of the Battle of the Somme, which is being issued in a slipcase along with a pamphlet that contains Sacco's introduction and notes to the project as well as a brief essay by Adam Hochschild. (I've received an advance copy.) Hochschild's contribution (which is adapted from his book To End All Wars: A Study of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918) ends with a visit to the cemetery that holds the remains of the members of the British Devonshire Regiment who were killed in the battle:
In the cemetery's visitors' book, on a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops — or was it tears? "Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk." "Sleep on, boys." "Lest we forget." "Thanks, lads." "Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace."

Only one visitor strikes a different note: "Never again."
* There is a more recent "Special Edition" of Safe Area Goražde, with additional material, which I have not seen.

No comments: