Joe Sacco

Safe Area Goražde and The Fixer and Other Stories are graphic journalistic works by Joe Sacco detailing his time spent covering the Bosnian War from approximately 1992 to 1995. Sacco won an Eisner award in 2001 for the former. His 2009 work Footnotes in Gaza won an Eisner in 2010. All three are non-fiction, which is a bit outside our normal fare, but they’re all excellent reads which make unexpected and excellent use of the graphic novel format.

But they’re also a little difficult for this particular site in that though they definitely occur in the real world, they do so in a time and place that makes legal analysis pretty difficult. Much of the country existed in an almost pure state of lawlessness during the war. Beginning in March 1992 and continuing through the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December 1992, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina exerted no effective control over almost any of its territory. Even large chunks of the capital city, Sarajevo, were effectively under the control of local warlords. These strongmen officially answered to government superiors, but in practice, they did almost anything they wanted, carving out fiefdoms for themselves and their supporters. The government had little ability to enforce its decisions there, and the stories suggest that there might not even have been much interest in doing so, given that without the strongmen, the official military would have been unable to maintain the war.

So the stories are really a case study of what happens where normal state legal systems cease to operate. It’s a bloody mess, both literally and figuratively. National governments have proved almost entirely incapable of dealing with the actions of participants during the war. Indeed, there exists a special tribunal of the United Nations, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, which is specifically tasked with adjudicating complaints of war crimes arising out of conduct during the war. Just last year, Ratko Mladić, commander of the Army of the Republika Srpska, the main Serbian political entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was extradited to the Hague to be tried for war crimes, where his trial is pending.

So both books are highly recommended, for two reasons. First, they provide a truly unique and engaging window into one of the least understood conflicts of the late twentieth century. The late Christopher Hitchens penned the introduction for Safe Area Goražde, and he does a better job of explaining the works’ merits than we ever could:

Having persisted so long as an affront to civilization, and having ended so abruptly with the most compromising compromise that Holbrookian statecraft could confect, the siege of Sarajevo and the obliteration of civilian “safe havens” at Srebrenica and Zepa have passed into an area of the semi-conscious. In a dim fashion, people apprehended that the mass graves of the latter were the price — and the pressure — for Bosnian signature at Dayton. Yet did this not after all constitute peace? Even a peace “process”? How excellent it is, then, that just as we are all forgiving ourselves, Joe Sacco steps forward to clear his throat, and our vision. How excellent it is, too, that he should have hit upon unfashionable, inaccessible old Goražde and not one of the war’s more chic or celebrated spots. . . .

But second, the books should serve as a kind of reminder to other comics writers: You can’t just ignore the rule of law. It really does matter. When the legal system fails to operate, things do not continue on as they always have minus a few lawyers and pesky forms to fill out. When Bane seals off Gotham City, things should have gotten really messy, really fast, even in the absence of a besieging army, and even more than they did in the movie. Not only does failing to take these things into account make for a less believable story, but it also passes up some truly amazing potential for drama. The Fixer doesn’t really have a “plot” in any traditional kind of sense, but its main character—not really a protagonist, but certainly the focus of the narrative—is an amazingly interesting and colorful character. Sometimes the most fascinating stories aren’t world-shaking epics, where superhuman beings save the day altruistically, but the accounts of people in small, absurd, and absurdly dangerous circumstances making choices with incomplete information and impure motives.

8 responses to “Joe Sacco

  1. You will find tons of people who will go to any length to explain away why Marvel and DC cities aren’t sprawling military occupations with all of the businesses scared away by the constant fighting. The problem is that comics try to be as close to current life as possible, but in the U.S. superhero comics dominate the industry so they have to have things that simply clash with current life.

    • NY and Chicago have significant numbers of people killed each year due to criminal activities, but THAT didn’t scare away the businesses or create military occupation. Why should a couple of guys fighting in the street in their underwear do it?*

      *OK, maybe a few isolated events in comic history might have messed up the city a little bit… say, Galactus arriving, or Inferno from the X-Men’s continuity. But mostly stuff happens and most people wouldn’t even know about it, especially the ones who try to cover up all their activities (various X-teams) or the ones who do their battling in out of the way places (FF, Spider-Man, Batman)

      • The majority of violent crime in real life New York and D.C. doesn’t occur where the middle class and corporations are going to be. It’s not a coincidence that events that make the public demand the government be tougher often happen at the same time that crime spills over into ‘safe’ places*.

        Also think about what we usually see those ‘couple of guys’ doing. Superman. How often is he thrown through a building? How much do you think it costs to repair that building? Then how much is it to replace office equipment that was destroyed (and the price goes up considerably if they were fighting in a specialized laboratory)? Then how much does it cost the business to rent some space (with whatever equipment they can find) until the original building has been repaired? And what about people injured from the fight or in need of therapy? Then multiply all those costs by at least three or four buildings.

        Of course that’s just corporate buildings. What about small businesses? The Rhino or Juggernaut smashing through their walls and destroying stock could put them out of business.

        Moving on from buildings, what about damage down to roads, railroad tracks, bridges and worst of all, ports and airports? Depending on the damage or threat of damage the city’s economy could be halted for hours to days. Then consider that this is not a one time thing but a regular occurrence. Even if it’s only monthly (which I feel is too optimistic) that’s still going to be an unbearable cost.

        After that take into consideration the cost of having individuals like the Joker constantly escaping confinement and attacking the population, often at flashy events like Christmas ceremonies. A few bad events in real life can be more than enough to scare away tourism and business for a city, the Joker on his own would be enough to permanently turn Gotham into a ghost city (and why in real life some cop would have long since shot the Joker dead at the first opportunity).

        Then there’s the issue of rule of law. With so many stories where shape shifters and mind controllers taking over people you would think there would be real fear about the independence of the courts, something vital to ensuring that businesses are confident about a nation. And that’s not as bad as court decisions that are just plain wrong (as in illegal) as we saw sometimes in recent Marvel comics and a few from DC. It is not a coincidence that nations with decent rule of law attract more investment.

        Tied to rule of law is good governance. Look at the horribly written ‘Battle for Bludhaven’ DC series. When people like that are in charge you don’t see good decision making and faith in government from the people. When people like that are in charge you’re looking at revolutionary conditions (and revolutions are often even worse for the economy).

        *However it also isn’t a coincidence that New York City and Chicago have both had their worst fiscal years (aside from recessions) at the same time as high crime rates. Recessions don’t seem to be a major spur of crime but when the city is struggling financially there’s little money for police and social programs and social links get shattered, meaning that crime is harder to prevent and punish at the same time it starts to look more personally acceptable. Also consider the case of the town of Flint.

      • Usually after a big building-breaking fight, we see Supes super-rebuilding or at least super-helping the construction crews; frequently he does all the work himself. This doesn’t fix all the problems, but there are costs of doing business wherever you go. If the cost of real-estate in NY (or presumably, in Metropolis) doesn’t scare off businesses, then the possibility of a tights-wearing super-criminal attacking probably won’t either. For a couple of years there, people in NYC had a more-or-less omnipresent fear of additional terror attacks.

        DC went through the sniper case, too (and, of course, knows that it is the number one target if any other nation decides to exchange radioactive craters with us), yet the city continues to function despite the everpresent threat.
        London went through a similar siege mentality during the Troubles (to say nothing of Belfast). The threat has to become much more real to cause EVERYONE to flee, or even a substantial portion of everyone. I actually think Marvel got this one right (private enterprise would create an insurance company to indemnify “acts of superheroism”)

    • Seth Finkelstein

      A better analogy to the Marvel or DC Universes might be in the middle – not places where the rule of law has broken down and it’s all warlord fiefdoms, but countries where there is a working government and legal system but suffer from constant terrorist attacks, paramilitary activity, and low-level guerrilla warfare. Maybe something like Israel or Northern Ireland. Or Columbia or Mexico with drug cartels. Some very nasty stuff happens in these places, killing people in horrifying ways. But there’s still businesses and social life. There is fear, but it’s often balanced by a sense of “We’re not going to let the terrorists win”.

      • That suffers the problem that the legitimacy of those governments has been called into question more than once by a significant section of the population (well, not Israel) and their economies do suffer from the powerful gangs/guerrillas/terrorism.

    • Seth Finkelstein

      While it may not be an exact match, it does demonstrate that there can be a functional, even productive, society, while under ongoing attack. Of course there’s a point at which things break down completely, but that’s a worst-case outcome. Maybe the economies of the superhero universes do suffer, and that’s what keeps them from being able to use all the cool tech effectively. That is, the productivity advancement which would otherwise happen goes into reconstruction from the rampages and invasions, so they don’t get very far from pre-superhero baseline.

    • Well, there is Judge Dredd, an English creation which I believe is distributed by DC in the US. So there is at least one franchise that addresses the consequences. Crazy genocidal dystopias are not very popular in the US; after all, every movie must have a happy ending. For an example, look at the ending that the studios forced onto the end of Blade Runner.

      And that Bosnia/Kosovo thing, that gets brushed away in ways that the current genocidal wars in Africa don’t get brushed away. In my more cynical moments, it is a toss up between the lack of a coherent group to speak up for the dead (such as the “never again” mantra of the Jewish community after WW2), that Bill Clinton was involved in Bosnia/Kosovo and a self-delusional belief along the lines of “we white people would never act like that.”

      Thanks for the book recommendations, they’re on my to-read list now.

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