As conflict in the Bosnian War heightened, centuries-old cycles of revenge, no longer dormant, spun out of control impassioning atrocious violence in the torn Balkan nation. Serbs, Bosnians and Croats engaged in a chaotic three-sided war where cease-fires were broken at the slightest sign of strategic advantage and racially-fueled slaughter was commonplace. Faced with these crimes against humanity, UN members were duty bound to act, but clear delineations of good and evil were often betrayed.
In his deliberate and masterful 2000 graphic novel Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco scorned the UN’s indecisive handling of Bosnia, particularly in its approach to Eastern Bosnia. There, the UN established safe areas for Muslims in regions teeming with hostile Serbian forces. In the middle of a war, the safe areas were naturally besieged leaving their residents in impoverished fear, their outside world crushing in on them with military hardware and nationalist fervor. As in his American Book Award-winning opus Palestine, Sacco’s Gorazde documented the lives of neglected survivors, civilians caught in violent power plays.
While Sacco’s first two books made limited, although careful, points on the ambiguity in conflict, his latest work The Fixer (part of his sporadically continuing Stories of Bosnia series) strikes at the issue directly.
Joe Sacco frames the book using his journeys to Bosnia where he meets and befriends The Fixer‘s namesake Neven, a finagling Bosnian who couples reporters with interviews and stories for a price (a bit of cash in Neven’s pocket and a bit of objectivity out of the journalists). At its simplest level, The Fixer is a detailed character study of Neven, as a friend, businessman and soldier. Around half of the book explains Sacco’s personal relationship with Neven and the fixer’s current status in Sarajevo. Neven’s local renown is gained through his stories of defending Sarajevo against the Serbs as part of the Green Berets, a “collection of autonomous armed cells built around popular or self-elected leaders.” In order to repel the better supplied Serbs from the hills around Sarajevo, the government integrated these cells into the official military. They were lauded, literally, with songs of praise. The exploits of Neven, the Green Berets and their charismatic criminal commanders makes up the book’s other half, with the two portions interspersed and crafted into a tight, revelatory storyline. As Sacco’s reporting continues, it is slowly revealed that Neven’s stories of forcing back a unit of Serb tanks, for instance, are exaggerations. In parallel flashbacks, readers are presented with the increasing dubiousness of the official government’s sponsorship of independent paramilitary groups. The warlords were becoming power-hungry and irresponsible, leading their forces in looting, kidnapping and ethnic-fueled murders. The government found itself debating how to wash its hands of these villainous heroes.
The spiraling question of The Fixer is one that ponders our ability to sacrifice integrity of means for the rectitude of ends. Yet Sacco never burdens the reader with moralization. He is a reporter and holds himself to exactly that, reporting. But this is where the comics journalism style excels over other formats; Joe Sacco’s illustration puts the reader face-to-face with those he interviews, creating a human association between audience and source. While this advantage would be achievable by any comics journalist, Sacco’s personal style is particularly effective at pulling the audience into the narrative’s world.
Consistent with his previous volumes, Sacco’s art captures the full emotion of life among ruins. Human figures are like liquid, fluidly caught in moments of pain, mourning, binge drinking and casual grazing. They are certainly cartoons, but they are undeniably human cartoons. The landscape they are set against is a meticulously detailed aftermath where every bullethole and empty can is precisely drawn. At times, minor details in the overall composition of a frame are the most powerful. In a road scene of one war story, the bare legs of a woman with her underwear pulled to her ankles goes by hardly noticed at the bottom of a frame. In a post-war panel, a woman and soldier kiss at a café equally unnoticed. Whether it be horror or delight, Joe Sacco fills his pages with assiduous detailing that allows him to shift his tone dramatically yet naturally.
Because many of its best qualities dwell in the subtleties of Sacco’s layered narratives and not in documenting epic-scale conflict, The Fixer is not as instantly powerful as Palestine or Gorazde. Its depth, however, is tremendous. One of the most chaotic wars in history, there is a great deal we can learn from the Bosnian War in our understanding of conflict and how to control it. With a combination of analytical detail and natural simplicity, Joe Sacco’s Stories from Bosnia brings readers to the aftermath and like a fixer guides them through its threads.