Cartooning from the Front— a look back at Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde

Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, the story of the 3 year war that began 27 years ago, is almost 20 years old. It was a war that many of us didn’t even realize was happening as a genocide was happening half a world away. But Joe Sacco was there in 1995, spending time in the Muslim city of Goražde, living with those besieged people who were under constant gunfire and bombings by Bosnian Serbs. Before the war, the Serbs were the Muslims’ neighbors and friends. Sacco, through telling their stories in their words, shows people trying to make sense of the killing and destruction which was happening all around them and figuring out how to pick up the remaining pieces of their lives. Every life in Goražde was touched by the violence of this war. To go from neighbor to enemy left many of the Muslims confused, homeless or dead in a war where they were persecuted. It was only a three year war, 1992 to 1995, but the costs of it were devastating for the area. Sacco’s cartooning puts a spotlight on the cost of lives that happened during this war.

Comics books are full of war stories but Sacco is telling stories of war, paying careful attention to personal costs of this conflict. Going to Goražde during a break in fighting when the city was declared a safe area by the United Nations, Sacco got to know the people of this city in a time when the main fighting had been over but before any peace treaty was reached. The city was still surrounded by the Bosnian Serbs and they were anything but free. Homes had been destroyed, families torn apart, and even as corny as it sounds, innocence lost as a generation came of age during this war. Sacco spends a lot of time with the university-age students and young adults of the city who should have been in school or getting jobs but instead were huddled in houses or foxholes. He is able to tell us their stories, not as soldiers or statistics but of men and women who had their lives destroyed because of who they were.

In this story of Serbs versus Bosnians, while he acknowledges the cultural differences between the two, Sacco’s reporting doesn’t stop at just identifying people by their ethnicity. He doesn’t reduce people to simple labels like that. While Sacco doesn’t doesn’t focus on how their Muslim heritage may have been a factor in this war’s causes, it’s hard not to see that as part of the identity of the war then and of the world now. By telling these stories, Sacco erases any fear of the other that may exist in the reader. By telling the stories of the mostly Muslim Bosnians (who accounted for about 61% of the casualties in this war,) Sacco writes about them as men and women. They are you and me; they are our neighbors and friends who were under attack because Sacco crafts these honest and compelling portraits of them. They’re not some nameless and faceless person on the other side of the world that we’ll never meet and get to know. His stories show us the people that they are and gives them the voices that they needed and we need to listen to.

Through these stories, we become the Muslims of Goražde, living in bombed out houses and fearing getting shot at out in the streets but also trying to find moments of joy amid the death and destruction. Sacco develops real relationships with the people that gets broadcasted throughout the book. As he’s telling their stories, Sacco almost never becomes his own subject. This is not an autobiography where we get to know the cartoonist and his escapades in a warring country. In this book, he almost disappears into the narrative becoming a conduit to these people. Even as he shapes the comic by drawing the stories he heard from them, they are telling us their stories and Sacco is creating the connection between them and us. It’s a connection that is still there 20 years later. As we get more and more involved in Sacco’s accounts, the boundary between subject and audience vanishes and we get to share these horrific events with them.

Sacco’s drawings of people have weight and form to them. They wear their struggles physically on their tired faces and their worn down posturess. You can see just how worn down these people are. This is not a war they wanted and Sacco’s focus is on showing us the price that they paid for it. Influenced by underground comix, Sacco learned from Robert Crumb the art of exaggeration and caricature. He captures people’s personalities with only a few lines. As well as Crumb, think of the best Mad Magazine artists and their ability to capture both physical and personality likenesses of their subjects. Sacco brings that kind of personality-driven artwork to his work, telling you so much about these people just through how he draws them.

So does this book mean anything in 2019? This is a story of Muslim persecution so it means everything in 2019. This war was two and a half decades ago and while Bosnia may or may not be much better today, can we really say that this brutality couldn’t happen today? Maybe as a world we’re a little more “woke” to the idea of genocide but it still happens around the world. It’s happening today.Violence toward Muslims clearly hasn’t gone away. Sacco’s drawing erace any physical divide that may exist between the people of this city and the reader. Sacco isn’t white washing the culture of these people but he’s expressing the commonality of all people, highlighting our shared desires and fears, making us question “why?” Why did this war happen? Why is humanity still hardwired for violence and hatred instead of healing and love? While this is a story of Serbs and Muslims, Sacco seems less involved in delving into the political causes of the war and more driven to let the actions, fears, joys and sorrows of these people tell us who they are.

Safe Area Gorazde
Written and Drawn by Joe Sacco
Published by Fantagraphics