Safe area America

Graphic novelist Joe Sacco goes back to Sarajevo with his powerful new book "The Fixer" -- and talks about why the entire U.S. population should be tried for war crimes.

Published December 5, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Joe Sacco has a hard time sitting still -- a potential problem for a man who makes his living writing and illustrating graphic novels, or comic books for adults. Over the last 15 years, Sacco has jumped from one city, one nation, one war zone to another. In the late 1980s and early '90s, there was Germany and Malta, his home country, followed by Israel and the Gaza Strip. Later came Bosnia, Chechnya, another trip to Gaza, some time in The Hague, Netherlands, for a war crimes tribunal (for Slobodan Milosevic and company, not him) and even a tour of Mississippi with a blues band.

Sprinkled among all of those trips were sporadic stays in Portland, Ore. That gave Sacco just enough time to write and draw, to parlay his many journeys into award-winning books like "Palestine" and "Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995," and in the process to become one of the most critically acclaimed and successful graphic novelists of his generation. Not long ago, that distinction wouldn't have meant much. Comic books were considered kid stuff, and graphic novels were a fringe movement. But with the increasing popularity of works like Art Spiegelman's "Maus" -- a graphic rendering of the Holocaust -- and the profoundly mundane "American Splendor," written by Harvey Pekar with various illustrators, graphic novels have become a respected art form, even a literary phenomenon.

Sacco, now 43, added his own distinct flavor to the renaissance by combining in-depth first-person reportage with the graphic medium, creating a synthesis of the traditional journalism he had studied (he received a journalism degree from the University of Oregon in 1981) and the comics he had grown up drawing; one of his original collaborations was a short-lived series called "Centrifugal Bumble Puppy."

Although his initial serializations of "Palestine" garnered acclaim within the comics world, it wasn't until the 2000 publication of "Safe Area Gorazde" that the mainstream media finally began to recognize Sacco's genius. "Safe Area" is a brilliant portrayal of a small town in eastern Bosnia, Gorazde (pronounced "go-RAHJ-du"), and the suffering of its people during the war. The book garnered rave reviews from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NPR and Time, among others.

Sacco's meticulous drawings, combined with detailed, personal accounts of his "subjects" (the word feels too sterile to describe his three-dimensional renderings), provide the kind of human, emotional context so lacking in traditional media reports. Newspaper articles and even television broadcasts may excel at describing the bare facts of a situation -- the number of people killed and wounded, the number of houses burned -- but they tend to fail at conveying atmosphere, nuance, meaning. (Sacco also co-authored "A Blues for Drago Drugilovic," a 1999 installment of Salon's comic series "The Dark Hotel.")

In "The Fixer: A Story From Sarajevo," released last month by the comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly, Sacco revisits the Bosnian war. This time, he highlights his relationship with a man named Neven, a former soldier turned "fixer" -- that is, a freelance agent paid by journalists to set them up with local stories. Through Neven's tale, Sacco recounts the story of the several warlords who defended -- and dominated -- Sarajevo throughout the years of battle with surrounding Serb forces. More than that, Neven embodies on a personal level the effects of war on the individual. His relationship with Sacco paints an intimate picture of the dilemmas faced by journalists reporting from a war zone. They often feel lost and dependent in a foreign land, must trust people whose credibility is suspect, and feel a moral obligation to the people they write about.

Salon discussed the issues raised by "The Fixer" -- and the nation's newfound respect for graphic novels -- with Sacco in a telephone interview from his home in Portland.

Reading about your travels, it seems like you almost don't have a home.

(Laughs) Well, I'm sitting on my couch, which I bought. Now that I bought a couch, for the first time ever, I think I can finally say I have a home. I move, I move, I move -- it sort of scares me a little.

Many people hear about conflicts taking place across the world, and a lot of them might even be curious -- but not too many actually go to experience those places firsthand.

Anger generates action. It's not that every issue of equal magnitude pulls me in the same way, because I'd be a wreck. But some issues just kick me in the gut.

What happened with Bosnia is that I met a guy at a party here in Portland, who was a poet, but he'd been doing some journalism in Sarajevo. This is during the war, like in 1993. Talking to him demystified the whole process of getting over there. Nothing was stopping me.

In the couple of major trips I've done, I've had no money and no clout. So you tend not to talk to the people who aren't even going to be interested in talking to you. Why would a politician talk to me? Or a general? So I never got any of that, and it's a good thing. Because it made me hang out with people who were on my level. It wasn't a well-thought-out idea, but I think that's what directed my stories to the street level.

Did you have a publisher when you went to Bosnia the first time?

No. I went to New York, and I spent a month, and I went to many publishers and none of them were interested. Times change -- now lots of people are interested. People pay more attention and see that comics are a viable way of telling these stories. It helps that there are other cartoonists doing good work. It seems like the whole idea of comics as a medium is of interest; people aren't just dismissing it offhand anymore.

Did you ever think you'd actually be able to make a living the way you do now?

Ultimately, at some point, you've burned all your bridges. When you realize you're 35, and you haven't had a regular job in I don't know how many years, you know that if you had to write your résumé, employers would take one look at it and say, "What were you doing all this time?" And you'd say, "Drawing comics that were never sold." (Laughs)

If you want to know the truth, I was about to give it up. When I finished the Gorazde book -- maybe I had a hundred pages to go -- I was ready to give it up. I thought, OK, I'll finish this book, and then I'll become a math teacher.

"The Fixer" has a narrower scope than your previous books. Why the decision to center a book on your relationship with one primary character?

I think Neven was an interesting character, the sort of person you often meet in a place like Sarajevo -- a run-down, war place. I thought it would be an interesting way of telling some of the behind-the-scenes stuff: how journalists work, what goes on, how journalists rely on people who may or may not be completely credible. I also don't think Neven is a particularly sympathetic character. I like the guy, and there's something about him that's tragic, and you kind of feel for him. But he obviously is out for himself.

What themes did you want him to embody?

Journalists often rely on people like Neven, on fixers who know the local scene. These are people who make a living out of it. The fixer can lead a journalist around, shape what a journalist is looking at. Even as far as translation goes, if a fixer feels like you shouldn't hear something, he'll cut off the conversation.

Someone like Neven is a typical person in a situation like this. He's impoverished, and he has a talent that could make him money. So obviously he's going to exploit that. There's a lot of exploitation that takes place in a situation like this, where he becomes dependent on a certain aspect of his talents to make a living during a war situation. A journalist is at the mercy of all kinds of elements and people. And maybe you get stuff that's not exactly right.

You were very honest in the book as far as portraying how naive you were in dealing with Neven initially, and then slowly coming to learn that the truth might be more complex. Was it difficult for you to expose yourself in that way?

I was just being honest. I'm not worried if people look at me and say, "Wow, that must mean he's a bad journalist." I never even thought of that. To me, there is a truth -- a real, literal truth -- but the perception can get really obscured. It goes through different filters and different lenses. Then it comes out onto the page, and something is lost, something is gained, but it seldom comes out as the actual literal truth.

Talking about truth, the medium you use brings up a lot of those issues, in terms of objectivity vs. subjectivity. You take a very subjective approach -- you're drawing, so we see things through your eyes, and also you include yourself in the stories. Why use that approach instead of the way we're usually told is the "correct" form -- straight third-person narration?

Of course, third-person journalism is still necessary. There's no point in interjecting an author's personality into all kinds of stories. But as a foreigner going into a situation in Europe or the Middle East, I come with my own prejudices and preconceived ideas. If I've got a prejudice, I'd rather it was known, and the reader can judge what I'm portraying knowing that there's a filter there. I want the reader to know that I'm approaching this as an outsider, and every drawing of myself is a reminder of that.

This whole pretext of "a reporter came to a checkpoint and had a discussion" -- I find this ridiculous. Why don't you just say it was you, and tell us what it was like? I'd rather feel like I was sitting across the table from someone who was in an interesting place telling me what he or she felt. Or what they really perceived.

Yet because art is more subjective, comics may have a reputation of being more inaccurate.

You get the essence of a place. You get the essence of the truth. A photograph will show you literally what is happening in front of the lens. (Of course with Photoshop you never really know.) With comics, I'm trying to establish a mood or an atmosphere of what a place is like. Let's say I'm walking down the street. I can draw mud in every single frame, so the mud is following the reader around, just like I'm walking through it.

As far as your own persona goes, what part of you makes it onto the page, and what gets held back?

What really matters is what advances the story, and what gets in the way. If someone told me a story and I was crying while they were telling it to me, would it be a good idea to show myself crying? I'd think probably not. To me that would undercut the story. Let the reader cry.

At the end of the book, Neven has a very tragic feel -- he's gained some weight, he's sick, he doesn't have the same energy. Were you using him as a symbol of the aftermath of the war?

You're right in that Neven very much reflects something I noticed. After the war there's a huge, huge letdown. You realize that the place is smashed, you're still dependent on foreign donors, no one has any work. You realize that the place is a basket case. Recovery takes much longer than the war itself. You can't even dream anymore. When the war's about to end, there's this dream of peace, and then it ends, and suddenly there's another reality to deal with.

It's important to portray what war means. It's not just about cool equipment. A lot of Americans have this impression -- although they're getting some reality with what's going on in Iraq every day -- war seems so distant and clean and video game-ish, and it's not. People are really broken.

What do you think about the American public's level of awareness about foreign conflicts?

I think the American population should be sent to The Hague to be judged. This is a country that has an enormous impact around the world. What is decided in Washington, D.C., when George Bush lifts his little finger -- someone around the world is going to feel it. To me it seems almost criminal that the people who live here, who elect someone like that -- if they really knew how other people's lives are affected by American policies, maybe they would pay more attention. It's appalling the amount of ignorance here about world events.

Are you a U.S. citizen?

No. But I'm going to apply for citizenship. I'm a permanent resident. Right now I'm a citizen of Malta.

Do you see any contradiction in the fact that you want to be a part of America, you sell your books here, and yet you're very critical of the American people?

I have a deep affection for this country, and in many ways living here and deciding to seek citizenship is my little way of taking some personal responsibility for how it acts. So I don't see a contradiction at all. I see a duty.

Do you think putting international news in a more engaging format like comics could help remedy American complacency, by making news more palatable?

Well, perhaps a few thousand people who might not otherwise be interested in a topic like Bosnia or Palestine will pick up my books and begin to take an interest. Or begin to see through some of what they watch on the nightly news. That's some contribution, admittedly a modest one. I expect others are doing the same thing in other formats -- film, prose, poetry, whatever -- and in total one hopes a change can be effected.

By Christopher Farah

Christopher Farah is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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