Joe Sacco has built a global reputation on his astoundingly powerful tales from the world's war zones. A hardcover edition of two comics from the end of the Bosnian conflict displays his reach, says Ho Che Anderson.
There were once people called war artists. They had names like Harris and Colville and Leroux, just to mention a few - all of them built, perhaps only by necessity, just a little hardier than most of us are today. They got into uniform and sometimes fought on a battlefield and when it was over they took out brush and canvas and painted what they saw.
One man in the process of reclaiming that mantle is Joe Sacco. I know not whether our Joe ever donned fatigues and kicked righteous ass for his country, but I have no doubt he has seen and felt the effects of war.
Sacco, a native of Malta but a world traveller of the first order, has been a player in the realm of politically charged comics journalism, a genre he practically pioneered, since the early '90s release of Palestine, a series that looked at the Middle East conflict through the prism of the cartoonist's on-the-scene reporting. Winner of the 1996 American Book Award, critics lined up to praise Sacco for the quality of his research and insightful handling of issues rarely understood by the casual Western observer.
Just the same, it took the 2000 release of his 240-page, throat-slitting epic, Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, to make Sacco's reputation. This time he was on the streets of Gorazde, a small Bosnian Muslim enclave, relating survivors' stories and first-hand experience, a first-person tour of hell. Then it was The Fixer (2003), about a soldier turned combat tour guide for journalists. Sacco's latest is a dual portrait of life after the Bosnian conflict titled War's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-96.
It's like he's addicted to the life: speeding past checkpoints held by Bosnian soldiers with two of his gonzo buddies as they track down an interview with Radovan Karadzic in "Christmas With Karadzic." This trip through the badlands is set in motion by a tip from Jugoslava, a curvaceous Serbian TV exec (Sacco treats us to her ass but never her face) that the media-shy leader of the Bosnian Serbs would be attending mass at a Pale church. The same man who, as Sacco reminds us, once said of his occupation of Sarajevo, "The Sarajevans will not be counting the dead, they will be counting the living."
Evil is seen from somewhat closer quarters in the book's post-war story, "Soba." The eponymous Soba - artist, musician, warrior - has been a volunteer for the Croatian army after the Chetniks began their slaughter, but not before spending three months hiding in a basement, wasted on heroin, grass and pills.
Sacco is a master cartoonist, possessing a documentarian's eye. His next book deals with Chechnya refugees, and he has more recently been detailing the lives of Mobile Assault Platoon 4 as an embedded correspondent in Iraq. More fertile ground for the world's foremost comic book war artist.
Toronto's Ho Che Anderson is the creator of the celebrated King: A Comic Book Biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Fantagraphics).
War's End: Profiles From Bosnia, 1995-96
by Joe Sacco
Drawn and Quarterly
65 pages, $19.95
Copyright (c) 2005 The Toronto Star