Safe Area Gorazde
by Joe Sacco
2001 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album
When I was reading Fax From Sarajevo I couldn't think of another comic that dealt with the Bosnian war. Somehow I had overlooked Safe Area Gorazde that dealt with a lesser known aspect of the war. At the height of the conflict there were three large enclaves of Bosnians were completely cut off in Serbian territory. The largest of these was Gorazde and while the other two eventually fell Gorazde remained a besieged outpost for the entire length of the conflict.
So what I anticipated going into Safe Area Gorazde were the human stories of a trapped people. And I got that. Eventually and in tiny doses. What Safe Area Gorazde is actually about is Joe Sacco himself and that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sacco spends about the same amount of time in the book on himself and his experiences in Gorazde as he does on everyone else there put together. The early parts of the book are especially heavy in this and even when it gets to a few pages detailing the harshness of a supply run or the harrowing escape from one of the other collapsing enclaves it's a few pages of that and then back to how the story affected Sacco.
I understand that Sacco it attempting to work himself in as the view point character; as the guy outsiders are supposed to identify and view the story through. This is completely unnecessary though. There is a saying that the reporter should not be the story and that is what Sacco has done in Safe Area Gorazde. He's the center of attention instead of the people who the story should be about.
In addition Sacco is not a compelling storyteller. He has a tendency to throw out these dry blocks of text. Most of these are put in quotes which makes me suspect that they're translated from the original stories and if that's the case then the translator is a poor one. (There's no credit or thanks given to them and given the story context I am assuming it's Sacco himself.) The character's voices are all the same and do not change as the characters do. It makes defending their homes against former neighbors who have turned against them as interesting as a walk to the store for a loaf of bread.
In addition the narrative is the book is badly fragmented. If you don't like what's happening in those two pages give it another page since it will jump topics by then. Sacco can't keep focus on anything for more than a few pages at a time and I got whiplash from the way topics would suddenly swerve.
There was one aspect to the art that I found disturbing. Sacco portrays all of the Bosnians with cat like slit pupils. Since a major aspect of the war was the attempted genocide the decision to portray the victims of that campaign with inhuman features is a bad idea. In complete fairness he seems to do this to everyone but there's very few characters in the book other than Bosnians and himself (and he is always drawn with featureless glasses covering his eyes). It rubbed me the wrong way to have people whose murders were justified through dehumanization being dehumanized.
For all the faults in Safe Area Gorazde there is one thing it does: it gives the story of a little known aspect of a war that was forgotten by most of the world almost as soon as it was over. Just having a unique subject is not enough to make me recommend it. This was not a compelling way of telling the stories.