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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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05/07/2005 Archived Entry: "Graphic journalism review: Safe Area Gorazde"

Safe Area Gorazde
The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95
by Joe Sacco
Publisher: Fantagraphics Books

Review by Tom Good

"Who reads a graphic novel about the war in Bosnia?" That was the reaction I got recently when I told some people about Safe Area Gorazde. Here is my simple answer to that question: you should read it. If you appreciate the graphic novel as an art form, you would really be missing out if you skipped over this book. It has no superheroes, ninjas, or giant robots -- just very good war journalism, with enough background information that it also serves as a miniature history lesson.

"Gorazde was in love with me. People I didn't know hailed me by name. Whole high school classes jumped up when I entered the room. Drunks offered me the town slut. Soldiers wanted to talk girls, and girls wanted to flirt, they wanted me to carry them off to a Gap outlet in the sky. I'd like to tell you it was me they loved, but that wouldn't be the Real Truth. What really made 'em swoon was how I'd gotten there, not by foot and over mountains through enemy minefields, but by road -- the Blue Road, the U.N. Route to Goradze."
-- Safe Area Gorazde

The town of Gorazde was a U.N.-declared "safe zone," a small island of Muslim and Croat territory surrounded by a sea of Serb-controlled land. Sacco traveled there, talked to the locals, and got an inside look at what it was like for civilians caught in the middle of a vicious war.

Even the phrase "caught in the middle" is not quite right, because it implies that it was all a mistake, with civilians accidentally caught in a crossfire between armies. Actually, these civilians were often deliberately targeted, and one of the strange things about this war was how often people fought enemies they personally knew. The sniper shooting at their kids may well have been a neighbor from down the street who was once their classmate in school.

There is nothing remotely clean about "ethnic cleansing," and there is nothing remotely easy about telling a story like this as a graphic novel, but Sacco succeeds in creating a gripping, memorable story that is suspenseful and entertaining. No realistic war story can be expected to be uplifting or cheerful, and this one does contain some harrowing accounts of atrocities, but Sacco keeps the book from being a one-dimensional downer. He shows these Bosnians to be clever, resourceful people, most of whom are less interested in political ideologies than in a new pair of jeans, or in obtaining the written lyrics to American rock-and-roll songs. At a party, one Bosnian soldier approaches Sacco and recites, from memory, the text of a Time magazine article about the Paula Jones trial, then explains that the magazine was his only entertainment at the front.

I probably would not have read a more traditional book about this same subject, but I read this because it was a graphic novel. Safe Area Goradze stretches the usual boundaries of the format, and proves that nonfiction comics deserve a place on any comic fan's shelf. Recommended.

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