Nashville City Paper | Wil Moss | June 27, 2005
Nashville City Paper Reviews WAR’S END
Joe Sacco is a bit of an oddity in the ever-burgeoning graphic novel field - he's a war correspondent.
Sacco's first graphic novel, Palestine, was culled from his time in the strife-laden Israel in the early '90s. In Safe Area Gorazde, he chronicled his time spent in Sarajevo in '95 during a siege on one of the "Safe Areas" by Bosnian Serb forces. Sacco returned to Bosnia in 2001 and from his time there he gathered the material for The Fixer, a profile of a one-time soldier for a local warlord who took Western journalists to the front lines of the conflict.
These reports are brought to life with Sacco's vivid artwork, a thick, cartoony style reminiscent of R. Crumb at his peak. Sacco includes himself in his profiles, but always as a peripheral character. The focus remains on his subjects and their experiences.
All of that is true for Sacco's latest work, War's End (Drawn and Quarterly), a collection of two profiles he made while in Bosnia from '95-'96. Sacco's subjects are two drastically different men, but each is interesting thanks to Sacco's keen ability to capture important details and remain as impartial as possible.
"Soba," the first story, is about a Sarajevo soldier who comes alive when he's not on the field disarming and planting mines. Soba achieved some notoriety from the Western media during the war thanks to his skill as a painter and musician combined with the fact that he was fighting in the war. Sacco's profile seems to capture Soba's spark that interested the media so. At times Soba seems just like anyone else, but his observations on the war and what it is doing to his country show depth beyond his ratty hair and partying lifestyle.
Soba talks about how the war changed him, but how he doesn't let it corrupt who he is. Sacco captures that defiance and determination, but explores all other options as well. This isn't a straight-ahead narrative where each character has defined characteristics and attitudes - Soba is a real person with scattered thoughts and emotions, and Sacco's profile reflects that.
One of the most haunting images in the book accompanies this story as Sacco is walking the streets at night after a party: "[It's] not the police I'm worried about. It's the rustling in the garbage, it's the growling. It's the soft trotting behind you that stops every time you stop." He turns and sees the three savage dogs from the book's cover, waiting to pounce on him and the rest of Bosnia.
What those dogs represent turns up as the subject of the next story, "Christmas with Karadzic," as in Randovan Karadzic. Karadzic at the time was the president of Republic Srpska and the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, a man responsible for countless war crimes that would later earn him indictments for genocide and crimes against humanity from The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
Of the two, this is the stronger story in War's End, following Sacco and two journalist buddies as they attempt to track down Karadzic on Christmas Eve for an interview. You get a real sense of what life was like in Bosnia at this time - road checks everywhere, useless politicians, constant gunfire, and that general sense of "life-must-go-on" townspeople get in wartime. The family Sacco stays with celebrates Christmas in a shelled-out apartment building like there is no danger.
Sacco's personality seeps through more so than usual in this story, particularly when he and his colleagues finally find Karadzic Christmas Day at a church. Sacco tries to reconcile his anger at Karadzic's larger-than-life crimes with the man he sees before him praying at church, but he can't muster up a single feeling either way - an unexplainable reaction that is nonetheless a human one.
While the general troubles Sacco writes about may have passed, different troubles have replaced them. Karadzic to this day remains at large. These stories Sacco tells offer a chance unlike any other to see specific glimpses into realities very foreign from our own. And in a day when the media is as shut off to the rest of the world as it is, glimpses like these are even more important.