Boldtype reviews WAR'S END

“War's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996” / Flavorpill / Boldtype Staff / June 1, 2005

Two early short comics from Joe Sacco offer contrasting portraits of an artist in wartime and an untouchable war criminal.


Celebrated graphic novelist Joe Sacco (Safe Area Gorazde, Palestine) is a muckraker in the noblest sense. He's a war-zone journalist who happens to use comics in his dogged documentation of injustice. Just republished by Drawn and Quarterly, these two early short stories depict a pair of fascinating characters on opposing sides of the Bosnian war, just as it was ending.

In "Soba," Sacco offers a portrait of a self-described Sarajevan artist-warrior, a local rock star who paints with scrounged materials by day, and plants landmines around the city at night. In the boastful antics, wistful reminiscences, and horror stories of this larger-than-life figure, Sacco traces the determination, hubris, and humanity of the entire ruined city.

In the second story, Sacco and two journalist friends manage to track down and interview Radovan Karadzic — one of the bloodiest of the Serb war criminals — outside an Orthodox church at Christmas. But to the trio's dismay, they find the nationalist leader to be maddeningly peaceful, even stately. As he sits in the church, all Sacco can do to remind himself of his loathing is repeat over and over Karadzic's deadliest statement during the siege of the Bosnian capital: "Sarajevans will not be counting the dead. They will be counting the living." This vignette evokes the frustratingly elusive nature of crimes against humanity: when the shells stop falling, massacres, rapes, and concentration camps emerge in stark relief against a ravaged civil society, but making sense and indictments of them is no easy matter.

Over the course of his career, Sacco's illustrations have grown almost pathologically detailed. It's as if each panel has to capture every last nuance of oppression, and only virtuosic inking can accurately portray the black and white of morality. In these early works, realism is more fluid: the stories bridge the aimless but talented caricatures found in Notes of a Defeatist with the steely focus of The Fixer. As always, Sacco masterfully exploits comics' ability to show us personality writ (or rather, drawn) large. (TW)

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