Profiles From Bosnia 1995-96
By Joe Sacco
Drawn and Quarterly. 65 pp. $14.95
Full disclosure: I've met Joe Sacco. Five years ago we strolled up Chicago's Lincoln Avenue, talking about the present circumstances -- good, fortunately -- of Sacco's Muslim friends Riki and Edin, whose stories he told in "Safe Area Gorazde" (2000), the central volume in his trilogy of comic books about the Bosnian civil war. So I know Sacco, barely.
But that's not why I'm proclaiming him one of our best cartoonists and writers. It's because of his work, which transcends not comics but journalism to pose the same questions as literature.
"War's End" asks, "If, when a war breaks out, all hell breaks loose, once it's over, where does hell go?"
To church, among other hiding places. Few locations are more fitting for humor than church, where a taboo against giggling perversely incites it. And no subject is more wrong (i.e., right) for the blackest humor, humor that is not even close to funny, than a sponsor of genocide -- er, ethnic cleansing. Fitting, then, that Sacco attended church on Orthodox Christmas, 1996, beside the wannabe Fuehrer to Bosnia's rebel Serbs, Radovan Karadzic.
"I have despised [Karadzic] with all my heart for years," writes Sacco, and yet faced with the man, he feels nothing. He recites this ogre's crimes against humanity, attempting to rekindle his hatred. To his dismay, he can't. "It's too much," he thinks, watching Karadzic bow before the priest. "Or, rather, he's not enough." In the flesh, the mass murderer is just another schlub.
The banality of evil that Sacco is ultimately concerned with, however, is his own. He and his journalist pals tracked Karadzic only to get the scoop on his whereabouts, not to bring him to justice, and so the target of Sacco's humor is himself. That night, with some Sarajevan victims of Karadzic's campaign, Sacco sees himself and the would-be killer of his hosts on the evening news. Sacco is embarrassed, especially because he alone knows the truth, which is that "going to see [Karadzic] was the most fun I'd had at Christmas in years." Bang. As with George Orwell's final sentence in "Shooting an Elephant," Sacco's aim is dead-on.
Although Sacco draws himself with an essayist's self-critical eye, toward his subjects he is as generous as a novelist. Take Soba, a soldier for whom peace is nearly as hard as war.
"A lot of people will go crazy after this war," Soba tells Sacco. "Especially the fighters from the special units. The war is everything they have." But Soba has something other than the war: fame. Soba is a folk hero, Sarajevo's numero uno rocker, painter and hipster. He's like Bono, if Bono had rocked not only the mike but a Kalashnikov. With the war nearly over, Italy offers to bring Soba to Milan, with his own studio and exhibition, all expenses paid.
"I don't want to go," Soba says, glumly sucking down his zillionth cigarette. "I don't want to leave Sarajevo now." Soba's postwar struggle is the struggle of any provincial artist: Should I stay or should I go?
He hears Milan calling but knows that when he leaves Sarajevo he ceases to be Soba and becomes, as he puts it, "just another refugee from Bosnia." Soba's ego won't let him be a nobody. Not for long, anyway. According to Sacco's afterword, Soba eventually moved to New York City to haul furniture by day and paint by night. "Fighting for survival," he called it; "the war was easier and better than this." Nevertheless his artwork was recently selected for the Venice Biennale. Like the warrior, the artist won't give up the fight.
In his introduction to "Safe Area Gorazde," the Leftist Formerly Known as Christopher Hitchens opined that Sacco's Bosnians are "not heroic -- though some of them are exemplary."
I'd argue the inverse. To make art in between bombings is to be truly brave. "We're really fighting for some kind of normal life," says Soba. Revealing that quotidian if unheralded heroism is what Sacco splendidly achieves throughout his Bosnian trilogy.
Full disclosure, Part 2: On that walk with Sacco five years ago, we passed a handful of Eastern European cafes that had split along the same fault lines as the civil war. Where all the emigre Slavs had once mingled, now Serbs, Croats and Muslims segregated themselves. Spooky. Still, I thought, it'll never happen here. Imagine a demagogue inciting Americans to expel all our Muslim neighbors by force. Nah.