Kit Chinetti, Sharadyn Ciota, Navika Shukla, Aditi Warhekar, Kevin Zhang
Dr. Michael Hancock
Graphic Novels: Images and Text
14 November 2012
Safe Area Gorazde: The Sights and Words of War
To many in the United States, Yugoslavia seems like an exotic, distant land nestled away in the part of Europe that simply seems irrelevant. Thus, following a wave of political instability that swept Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia suddenly was thrust to the international stage as violence not seen since World War Two ripped the ethnically diverse nation apart. Safe Area Gorazde, by wartime journalist Joe Sacco, is a contradiction: a graphic novel depicting serious topics, stories of individuals interspersed with a grander narrative, and gruesome images combined with informative text. In many ways, Safe Area Gorazde exemplifies the brutal chaos of the Bosnian War by focusing on the individual narratives strewn throughout larger plot, intentionally leaving an emotional chasm between readers and characters, and using the interplay between text bubbles and images to enhance the plot.
On May 4, 1980, Josip Broz Tito died, ending his long, dictatorial reign over the Balkan nation. For much of the world, this event simply marked the end of the reign of an oxymoron: a benevolent dictator of a neutral Communist state in the Soviet era. While the rest of Eastern Europe had darkened behind the oppressively heavy hand of the Iron Curtain, Tito’s Yugoslavia had unexpectedly risen as an economic powerhouse. But for Yugoslavians, Tito’s death did not just mark the end of his rule. Rather, it marked the end of the fragile peace that had somehow existed for nearly four decades. Less than a decade later, Tito’s precious Yugoslavia would tear itself apart in bitter ethnic struggles.
The apparent, disconcerting disconnect between the international community and the those caught in the vicious warzones plays a central role in Joe Sacco’s stunningly insightful graphic novel Safe Area Gorazde. The honest depiction of the raw, human element of the brutal four-year long Bosnian War is unique in its scope and personalization. Sacco focuses on the UN-designated ‘safe area’ of Gorazde, the only eastern Bosnian city to hold against repeated Serbian onslaughts. Within this precarious settlement, thousands of Muslim refugees – men, women, and children carrying the heavy burden of horrific trauma – huddled, fearing daily for their survival.
But it is not this subject matter that sets Safe Area Gorazde apart from the libraries of Bosnian War journalism. For all intents and purposes, this book should be forgettable. It was written by an American journalist in late 1995 with less than four weeks of interviews and observations, taken largely after the guns had already been silenced. Most importantly, it is a comic book competing against reams of newspaper articles and hours of television broadcasts, comfortably in their element. The larger stories that Sacco tells here are nothing new. They have been splashed across the world’s living rooms in quick flashes of horror overlaid by the grave commentary of reporters.
What distinguishes Sacco’s graphic novel from its numerous contemporaries is its attention to the true Gorazde. He pays meticulous attention to the visceral human dimension, allowing the greater narrative of treatises and politics to fall to the background. His characters are not martyred heroes, flawless and perfect; rather, they remain ordinary people pushed into an extraordinarily ruthless world. As he reports rape, genocide, and other grave violations of human rights, Sacco devotes whole pages to the gut-wrenching description of life in a seemingly doomed town, surrounded by death pushing insistently, inexorably inward. Among these panels, though, he spends an equally long time developing his characters. He unabashedly illuminates their complex personalities, emphasizing that they are whole people, not just stories. As such, we see that Safe Area Gorazde walks a careful line between individual character development and the grander scope of events in Bosnia.
Safe Area Gorazde’s comic book format makes the story of the Bosnian War more accessible to a wider audience of people by sharing individual stories, often lost within the chaos of war. Regular coverage or stories regarding the war are distant and esoteric, but the personalization of Safe Area Gorazde displays the plight of ordinary, everyday citizens. These panels accentuate the human dimensions of the Bosnian War, which is mainly reported through numbers, figures, and statistics. By evoking reality in its vivid details, Safe Area Gorazde portrays emotions impossible to accurately depict in prose or the usual journalistic mediums.
Nonetheless, local people in Safe Area Gorazde are drawn more realistically in order to better emphasize the inevitable emotional disconnect between the reader and the survivors of Gorazde. As Sacco depicts a mass burial of innocent civilians, each unfortunate victim is unscrupulously depicted, and surrounded by carefully drawn faces of mourning survivors (Sacco 92-93). This happens once more when Serbs are gruesomely depicted slitting the throats of innocent Muslims on a now-infamous bridge, drenched with pools of blood running down into the gutters (Sacco 3-5/110). The details make such scenes realistic, and ironically also distance the reader from the event. While the realistic properties of the drawings appear to make readers more sympathetic to Muslims, the realism causes readers to remain unable to emotionally connect to these scenes. However, although the reader cannot easily put themselves in the position of an average citizen of Gorazde, the reader can better relate to Joe Sacco because of his exaggerated self-portrait (Sacco 8). Safe Area Gorazde was not meant allow readers connect to the depicted situations, on the contrary, readers must act as a helpless observer, much like Sacco himself. Because of this emotional disconnect, Sacco’s artwork fits with the needs of the novel.
In addition to Sacco’s artwork, the interplay between different types of text creates a powerful medium in which each contributes to plot by moving it forward. Sacco’s use of textual bubbles is unique as narration bubbles abound, and speech bubbles do not predominate. Given the journalistic nature of the novel, narration bubbles present vivid details that speech bubbles cannot provide without interrupting the flow of the story. Understandably, the majority of the plot is moved along by the narration bubbles, while the speech bubbles serve to supplement the story with additional personal details or opinions interviewees. As such, both speech and narration bubbles are crucial in continuing the plot in an efficient, fluid manner.
Another method of moving the plot forward is Sacco’s unique placement of textual bubbles in order to physically lead the reader through the plot. Some bubbles are seen in traditional locations on the top of each panel; however, many text bubbles are scattered throughout such that each bubble lead the reader through the action inside the story. In a way, the reader becomes a part of the story, and the textual bubbles become the transitions through separate scenes. An example can be seen on the first page where the textual bubbles are read from the bottom up as they mimic the movement of the trucks in the panel and thereby leading the reader’s eyes, and attention, throughout the scene (Sacco, 1). Thus, we see how the textual aspect of Safe Area Gorazde plays a crucial role in advancing the plot.
As a whole, the effect of the text is much broader as it serves to convey emotional details and more nuanced elements of Gorazde’s story that cannot be portrayed through images alone. While images may not be able to convey all the elements of the plot, they remain crucial by producing the emotional aspects of the story. It is through these images that Sacco creates the emotional impact of the graphic novel, as readers connect more effectively and efficiently to images than compared the text. The horrors of the war and its effects on the people of Gorazde are most effectively portrayed through the images, such as the gut-wrenching, disturbing wartime injuries portrayed in the hospital (Sacco 122-123). The contrast between reading about atrocities and visually perceiving them is apparent as readers gain an unabashedly emotional reaction to these images. Another unique example of the interplay between text and images can be found on page 108: Sacco juxtaposes two connotations of the Drina- the cigarette and the river- to create another powerful image that invokes the reader’s emotions by exemplifying the drab, monotonous life in Gorazde. Overall, Sacco uses the images effectively in that they convey emotion and mood more directly than text ever could.
Yugoslavia, in all its ethnic and religious diversity, was a great contradiction. The fact that such a nation, riddled with nationalistic tension for over four decades, survived for such a long time is a testament to the effectiveness of Tito’s dictatorship. Nonetheless, Safe Area Gorazde tells the tale of the aftermath of these long-suppressed tensions: brutal violence, unthinkable horrors, and unimaginable, callous disregard for human life. To portray this myriad of terror, the graphic novel employs a multitude of unique tools, such as the balance between individual character development and the greater story arc of the war, the realistic art in each panel, and the usage of speech and text bubbles. In the end, Safe Area Gorazde is an emotionally riveting tale of average people, struggling to survive in a stupendously dangerous and seemingly hopeless situation.