Joe Sacco is one of the cartoonists who shaped the comics scene in the 90s.
His best-known stories reflected the reality of the trouble spots in our world - from the Middle East to the Balkans, and his "almost journalistic" approach was relatively new in the world of comics. Harvey Kurtzman did his exceptionally well-researched war comics in the very early 50s, but there was a big gap between his efforts and the emergence of comics like Maus by Art Spiegelman. Many thought that modern comics needed to rely less on fantasy, and that in many respects this medium had simply lost touch with reality and connection with the real problems of our time.
Anyway, Sacco seemed to be someone searching for a different approach . He traveled to the problematic areas and returned with the testimonies of people who told him about their experiences during those turbulent times. Beside this, Sacco tried to depict the historical background and political climate of these countries, which was, of course, quite different from the stuff regularly found in comic books. And it was also very often different from the information delivered through the mainstream media. This was the reason why Sacco's name was known to a wider audience interested in the reality that his comics reflected, not just to comics aficionados. If you combine this with the fact that Joe Sacco has a clear way of storytelling, and that his drawing style is fine rendered, it is understandable and justified that he was one of the cartoonists everybody was talking about in the 90s.
One of the most recent and most prized pieces by Sacco is "Safe area Gorazde"- the story about a small town in Bosnia, a Muslim enclave surrounded by Serbian territory, during the Yugoslavian civil war in the first half of the 90s. This comic portrays the destiny of people who lived far away from media attention and who had to face unspeakable hardships in the midst of bloody conflict. It was probably just one of the hundreds of small hells that existed in the Balkans during the war which tore a country once called Yugoslavia into many separate national states. There was probably a need for hundreds of Joe Saccos to tell all these stories from the different sides of the conflict, but the only Joe Sacco existing in this universe did the best that he could do. He found one of the most extremely grave cases, such as Gorazde really was, and made it the focus of his interest.
Well, you might ask, how come that these stories were not discovered and related by somebody living out there in the Balkans?
I can say that Joe Sacco's works on the Yugoslavian civil war were generally more methodical, systematic and readable then most of the works by artist or journalist from the Balkans who tried to deal with the same topics. Of course, since Sacco's books were created for a Western audience, he HAD to work in his methodical, systematic way in order to make the context of the story understandable to readers who needed an introduction to the extremely complex historical and political background.
But it seems almost as if there was a need for someone who could observe this situation "from the outside,", someone systematic and reasonable and from the West. It's not that people from the West were always good at analyzing the situation in Yugoslavia. In fact, most of them were really drowning in over-simplification and black and white views. The actions of Western nations were, moreover, in most cases, making things worse in the Balkans, and they basically succeeded only in multiplying the misery, even when they were sure that they were on a God-sent mission to help. So when I mentioned the cool-headed observer from the West, I was thinking about the neutral, analytic mind that you would expect to come from the sophisticated civilization which created this thing called the "Age of Reason". It turned out that there were just a few observers of this kind, and Sacco was one of them. At least he seemed like somebody who was trying really hard. What more could you expect?
Mind you, it's not easy to speak of these things. There were many different developments after 1991 when the crisis in the Balkans began. After reading "Safe area Gorazde", one could feel bitter and disgusted. Why did it have to be that way? Why were these people fighting in such a bestial way? Why couldn't they resolve the situation peacefully like some other nations did? These were the questions that some of us in the Balkans asked ourselves repeatedly, and I am still not sure if , after all this time, we know the answers.
I remember that each side involved in the conflict had their own tragic stories to tell, and that each of them remembered only the bad things that somebody else has done to them. The very dissolution of Yugoslavia seemed to be like opening Pandora's box - and more then one hand participated in this act. But once it was done, we mostly just stood appalled - watching as the hardly imaginable ghosts and nightmares paraded in front of our eyes. It's not hard to admit - we were stupefied, and we didn't really know what to do.
But, by reading Sacco's "Safe Area Gorazde", and his descriptions of "civilian" life that exists in a small town despite all the turmoil of war, you can see another aspect of life in the Balkans. Sacco depicted his Bosnian friends as people who enjoyed having fun at the local bar and getting together. Not better or worse then others, just kind of normal. They are Muslims, and in this book Sacco does not speak at length about their Serbian or Croat counterparts. This is understandable because this is the story of "Safe area Gorazde". But you can imagine that - very likely - they are not that different from the others, the Serbs and Croats. It's not difficult to come to the conclusion that the inhabitants of Gorazde are just like those of a town of a similar size in any other part of the world.
Still, as the war went on, former friends and neighbors of different nationalities became enemies and began to see each other as strangers, as "different". This great leap of perception is one of the keys to the mechanism of the spiral of violence that unstoppably propels itself in the outbreak of war.
As someone of Serbian nationality, and if I can take the liberty to speak about it, I'll say that Joe Sacco's book was also an interesting read because it speaks of the atrocities committed by Bosnian Serbs. I can't judge the authenticity of each of the stories illustrated, but I think that it's very important to present them and speak about what happened. I honestly wish that "Safe area Gorazde" was published in Serbia. I simply don't believe that it's fair to speak about the bad things that others have done to your nation if you don't bring to light all the bad things that your nation has done to others. Anyway, it's very dangerous to suppress atrocities, not to bring them to the attention of the public for debate. Serbs should know this very well, as they were themselves the victims of the unspeakable mass killings during World War II. But for decades this fact was largely swept under the carpet by officials in what used to be called Yugoslavia. This led to frustrations and eventually was misused by manipulative politicians. And then, how confused, how helpless were we when the ugly demon came out of the darkest pits of the human soul.
These are all really big issues, and it's very important to comprehend that they could be communicated in the form of comics, such as in Joe Sacco's work. Comics, as a medium, have a potential which in our society is still largely overlooked. Maybe artists like Joe Sacco can help us to realize that picture stories can be used in many different and innovative ways. Some of these are yet to be discovered.
Sasa Rakezic alias Aleksandar Zograf