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Beyond Words: The Visual Demands of Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde

By Nicholas Wirtz

At the intersection of New Journalism’s argumentative subjectivity, comics’ lingering baggage of cultural devaluation, and nonfiction comics’ lack of traditionally recognized evidence, Joe Sacco has championed the comics journalism genre for the last quarter century. As the foremost comics journalist, his works are most frequently examined in the context of his journalistic ethics, often inextricable from arguments on his techniques of representation, witnessing, interviewing, and spectatorship.1 Such scholarship tends to approach Sacco’s cartooning as depiction—his visual description of his journalistic process of witnessing or trauma. In this article, I discuss his formal techniques not as this descriptive presentation of his argument, but as its essential means of audience persuasion. Sacco constructs his argument through shaping the reader experience in Safe Area Goražde, his comic documenting his visits to the city during the Bosnian war, as he constructs a rhetoric of style. In this context, I discuss Sacco’s use of rupture, recollection, otherness, and consistent informational density to structure his reader’s experience, visually articulating an ethical journalistic representation.

Unstable Structure, Unstable Self

In order to convince the reader of his argument, Sacco first erodes conventional journalistic distance and then presents his alternative practice and ethic, a persuasion only organically achieved and focused through the silent means of his visual style and its continual rupture. The first portion of this article approaches Goražde in a more linear fashion, tracing how Sacco establishes the audience experience that he draws upon throughout the rest of the book.

The first pair of sequences guide the reader into Goražde as much through their conservative composition and cartooning as they do through any of their content. The prologue begins with a large, thoroughly rendered establishing panel of a moodily dark, but comfortable, café which would look at home in a noir. “I think things will get much better,” reassures Sacco’s friend and translator Edin, grounding the initially canted captions and inviting the reader more than he addresses Sacco (i). Complementing this atmosphere, a caricatured Goraždan strolls in to the next panel, complete with fedora and tall tales. The sequence continues with welcoming, orthogonal panels, and dialogue mediated through Sacco’s regular captions. The journalist is safe with his friend. The stranger is safe with his delusions of invulnerability. The reader is insulated by the subjectively—though not grotesquely alienating—cartoonish illustration, seemingly objective journalistic skepticism towards fantasy, and the café’s pleasantly familiar atmosphere.

Despite the devastation in the Bosnian no man’s land in the next sequence, “Go Away,” the reader is still formally insulated, not even part of the armored convoy entering Goražde but “watching” it lead the way from an artificially remote high-angle shot. In one of the comic’s few comfortably isomorphic spreads, faceless children play and wave as full-tier panels guide the reader across a bridge and into the city, while Sacco’s conservative distance and controlled illustration visually repeat the intellectual distance of his political exposition (2-3). This illusion of distance gives way to the Goraždans’ reality on the scene’s final page. They are surrounded by threats, positioned beneath looming, scarred buildings, and overshadowed by not-yet-ominous distant hills. Expressing a mix of resignation and fear, on the threshold of the tenuously held Blue Road, over one hundred and fifty individuated faces confront the reader. The convoy is gone, even the gutters and margin are gone; the only mediation between the reader and the townspeople are a handful of UN soldiers as small and impotent as the UNHCR strap affixed to a nearby ruin, and the dangling, pessimistic caption, “ ‘I wish Goražde would go away’.”

Here, Sacco begins his formal rhetoric through stylistic rupture, destabilizing in the reader’s experience and slowing their pace through this full-bleed image’s visual impact, and using this pause to prime the book’s interdependent visual network. However, even this initial reversal is part of the conservative foil for the book’s most radical stylistic departure. “The Red Carpet,” the book’s third sequence, most closely resembles Sacco’s earlier cartooning. It is practically kinetic, as opposed to the atmospheric, regular stillness of the previous scenes, with their dynamism limited to the occasional canted caption and a few rocks subtly kicked up by the convoy. Sacco enters his most enthusiastic and (self-)critical touristic aesthetic: panels and choppy captions swarm and overlap at bouncingly opposed angles, and his visual style becomes more emotive, privileging action over his previous pages’ finer detail. The superficial function of this new structure is nearly intuitive: as Sacco relates his experience, he conveys his overstimulation to the reader through an energetic form that expressionistically supports its content.

This sequence’s style achieves a rhetorical—rather than a purely demonstrative—mode through the unavoidable degree of its formal rupture with the previous style and structure. This rupture draws attention to the ostentatiousness—to borrow from Thierry Groensteen—of its layout: when the reader “encounters a layout deemed ostentatious, it is necessarily opportune to interrogate it … about the motivations that the cartoonist has obeyed in the elaboration of the page” (99). Had Goražde consisted only of these second, energetic layouts introduced in “The Red Carpet,” their narrative contribution may have been limited to only expressionistic reinforcement, but the structural departure itself transforms this formal hinderance into a means of arresting the reader’s attention, as they are forced to adjust their relationship to the page and narrative, fostering awareness through its contrast.

This sequence’s new form creates additional barriers. Its informational density increases quantifiably: the structure shifts from images with distinct points of focus in a frame and comfortably contained by gutters, to heavily layered panels (recognizing that captions and word balloons function like inset panels), action with several subjects, unstable perspectives, and a quintupling of captions and word balloons per panel. These are then destabilized on the page, with no consistent framing or angle, while bleeds and insets amplify their sense of over-saturation in creating an implied simultaneity. The reader must continually adjust their view as panels and captions abut each other at strange angles. The audience’s bombardment by caricatured grins, overly detailed faces, confrontational stares, and shifting perspectives makes this one of the most difficult sequences in the book to visually decipher. The abrasive techniques used by alternative and counterculture art, the ugly and grotesque, demand their audience’s attention and effort in order to decipher and access the content, rejecting the ease of the beautiful. This sequence affects a similar resistance, placing itself in opposition to the previous ease of detached realism, again amplifying the experience through formal contrast.

Marshall McLuhan recognizes the utility of burdening one’s audience, in his designations of polar “hot” and “cool” media. Sensuous hot media require little audience participation by simply spoon-feeding information, while cool media, in their relative paucity of information, demand participation to access their content. McLuhan refers to comics as a cool medium, because the reader “is compelled in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines [of cartooning]” (160). Expanding on the cool participatory demand McLuhan recognized in decoding illustration, decoding comics’ structure also makes such a demand: inferring narrative cohesion from fragmentary panels and synthesizing text and image both require active reader engagement. Sacco compounds his medium’s predisposition towards participation through his formal choices: he demands a focus—through aesthetic and structural style—that denies the somnambulist passivity found in the effortlessness of easy reading, the invisibility of beauty. Hillary Chute describes this difficult mode, in contrast with the unquestioning absorption of fact, as his “ethics of attention” (202). The value of this engaging demand is not only in establishing reader attention, but is also found in reader memory. In studying reader mnemonics, Charles Acheson describes the effect of “completing the [gaps in comics’] experience in the narrative by infusing personal experience” (292). This fusion of internal and external experience is valuable in creating a reader memory that Sacco can rely upon as he builds his foundational visual language, again, amplified by the interpretative requirements his formal choices ask of his reader.

The heightened attention catalyzed by Sacco’s formal demands supports his first major persuasion. “The Red Carpet” abruptly enters the book’s true subject, Goražde’s witnesses and their experiences, during its formal reversal into subjective immediacy. The scene’s formal destabilization not only prepares the reader’s attention for its argument, but also constructs the argument itself through its rejection of a prior supposed distance. As he focuses the reader, using comix/alternative autobiographical techniques transplanted to his role as a journalist, Sacco requires his audience to confront the fallacy of nonfiction impartiality by demonstrating the limitations of his own objectivity and representation. Sacco reinserts his visible persona, absent in the prior scene, reminding the audience of his book’s subjectivity. By presenting himself as far more flamboyantly grotesque than his silent and cohesively shaded “Prologue” iteration, Sacco wields his avatar’s inconsistency with both its surroundings and even its own prior form to again hinder the reader’s pace with his disruptive style, thereby focusing their attention. Through the subtly unstable multiplicity of his self-caricatured form, he stylistically refutes a stable objectivity, agreeing with and encouraging the reader’s skepticism towards the impartiality of his representation. Charles Hatfield describes this self-conscious rhetorical style as “ironic authentication.” Sacco “projects and objectifies his […] inward sense of self, achieving at once a sense of intimacy and a critical distance” in a “graphic exploitation of this duality”—of the objectified illustration of the subjective self—“that distinguishes autobiography in comics from most autobiography in prose” (115). It is also in this subjective self-criticism that Adam Rosenblatt and Andrea Lunsford recognize Sacco’s graphic opposition to traditional xenophobic caricature of the other, in his redirected self-caricature. His grotesque persona, opposed to its more rendered context, also demonstrates that he is “just as, if not more, frail, leveling the power dynamic usually established between the journalist… and the people whose lives he or she records” (79).

Sacco’s thoroughness—a fidelity to minutiae, as opposed to only “relevant” action—and an unglamorous recognition of his own failings, approaches autobiographical legitimation through realist anti-escapism, affecting a sense of confessional intimacy. Even as he begins to articulate his journalistic process, he visually questions it. He portrays himself in self-mocking detail, uncomfortably forcing grins, disinterested and physically distancing himself, “sloshed” on moonshine, out of shape in his buffoonish dancing. He even questions his own ethics as he accepts trinkets, like religious offerings, from a local boy (“We took his junk, of course, everything he had! Our due as foreigners who’d dropped by for pizza in Goražde!” (11.4)). The shallowness implied here peaks in one of the comic’s two layered triptychs. The journalists’ hostess serves them dinner over a background of flashbacks depicting the difficulty of getting essential supplies—a UN convoy’s trek, and a desperate mountain march—that implies the persistent influence and relevance of those experiences in the present through their fusion with it in a single panel. These flashbacks are obscured almost to the point of texture, though, by an inset panel of hot pizza, a swarm of captions telling the reader to “skip it for now!” (Fig. 1, emphasis added), and the journalists’ hands reaching for the pleasurable food rather than its difficult context.

Figure : Pizza triptych, in “The Red Carpet.’ Goražde, 10.2.

With his provisional qualifier “for now,” Sacco does not wholly submerge himself, and tentatively combines persona and self-critical authorial voice in one of few scenes in which his captions become more performative than they are descriptive. As Sacco-the-author self-consciously criticizes Sacco-the-subject through narrative fidelity to detail, paradoxically reinforced by the subjective visual instability of his form, he realizes Hatfield’s ironic authentication, the “show of honesty by denying the very possibility of being honest” (126). In the tradition of autobiographical cartoonists reaffirming their identities through their aggressively destabilizing self-questioning, Sacco reaffirms his journalistic methods and integrity through this same performative questioning. While much of the remaining book focuses on Sacco’s interviews and he occasionally refers to his journalistic standards—of extensive research, verification, and photographic reference—his evidence is not the foundation of his work’s veracity, but only its reaffirmation. Similarly, in the context of Chute’s suggestion that a concentration and proliferation of images available to comics can imply evidence (16), Sacco’s informational volume can only support his candor, as truth is hardly necessary for quantity. What he establishes in “The Red Carpet” is an emotional and charismatic persuasion, not of his objectivity nor of his evidence, but of his trustworthiness as a narrator, achieved through this confessional skepticism.

From Rupture to Recollection

Having established focus, addressed ethic, and begun to craft experience, Sacco mixes his layout’s formal inconsistency with consistency, to experientially persuade his readers of his witnesses’ simultaneously collective, but specific, humanity. “Guides,” the next sequence, explores the city through Sacco’s growing friendship with his translator Edin, a well-connected local who is already a fixture in the book’s visual landscape. Edin, with this personable familiarity, is also the subject of Goražde’s first interview sequence. Establishing his good nature, pleasant face, friendship with the author, and reassuring attitude is important to his individuation before the reader’s established pace is again interrupted.

“Brotherhood and Unity” (18) adds two new elements, the book’s first whole tier devoted to a portrait—Edin’s particularly large face gazing back at the reader—and the scene’s severe black margins and gutters (Fig. 2). The visual weight of this scene’s introduction is key to Groensteen’s “iconic solidarity,” or the interdependence of panels, that “every panel exists, potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others” (146). In the visual and atemporal medium of a comic, contained in its multiframe, the totality of the comic’s layout, this relationship can afford images particular weight because, “once the same motif is represented several times it transports all of its attributes … it is a description that is infinitely restarted, to which we cannot assign a particular site” (ibid., 124). This creates a network of meaning, interweaving the linear narrative with the nonlinear series. This “braiding” functions at both the more concrete level of the image and subject matter, and more abstractly in activating geometry and composition. Even in page layout, through repeated associations with sites, such as Goražde’s gutter style, a “place,” is “a habituated space that we can cross, visit, invest in, a space where relations are made and unmade” as “an activated and over-determined site, a site where a series crosses (or is superimposed on) a [narrative] sequence” (ibid., 148).

Figure 2: Edin’s introduction, in “Brotherhood and Unity.” Goražde, 18.

The impact of this initial black-bordered witnessing sequence extends beyond a disruptive shift such as the ostentatious layout of “The Red Carpet”: through its formal distinction, “Brotherhood and Unity” constructs an additional “place.” Goražde’s witnessing sequences are unified, framed by thick black margins and gutters that neither panels extend into, nor do background panels ever bleed past. Without exception, their panels adhere to an orthogonal layout with none of the freedom of canted captions or dynamically framed action found elsewhere in the book. While Goražde is roughly evenly split between white- and black-bordered sequences, the black ones stand out as the distinct subgroup. They seem to function as a subordinate, secondary series within the greater structure due to their late introduction and atypical aesthetic. The now-familiar Edin, who has the privileged first dialogue in the comic, also has the first dialogue in this series. This first devoted witness interview is immediately humanized by his presence: Edin is not new to the reader, some previously anonymous refugee or soldier, here to harrow the reader with his contextless trauma. He is Edin (as his subtitle reminds), and Sacco’s friend, making him vicariously the reader’s, a tone reinforced by the deliberately casual use of only his given name, rather than a distancing full name. His familiar, slight smile and broken English subconsciously initiate an iconic solidarity within the interview sequences. His particularized humanity informs every subsequent opening interview panel, encouraging a transposition of personhood to the interviewees’ faces and monologues through their formal similarity, while their unique and detailed faces and their subtitled names prevent their reduction to a category. Their names and details make their experiences neither abstract nor alien, creating instead “a human individual who has suffered tremendous hardship, and whose trials and tribulations are, however traumatic, now knowable to us” (Vågnes 162). Edin’s story is merged with Bosnia’s in the initiating sequence, with only quotation marks distinguishing personal interview as distinct from global history. The caption series inform each other in a conversation that visually mirrors the interspersion of Edin’s monologue in Bosnia’s present and the account of its past. Again, this dialogic style repeated in succeeding sections gains its initial relevance in Edin’s first interview. Each of these elements, of content, of structure, and especially of humanity, that Edin activates are made inextricable from the series by its black margins and interstices: these first focus through aesthetic disparity and then, simultaneously taking advantage of both focus and disparity, unify conscious recognition of the series’ difference with its subconscious associations.

This sequence completes the introduction of Goražde’s rhetoric of style. The reader’s initial focus is controlled by repeated and dramatic formal ruptures. Through these focussing sequences, Sacco establishes the book’s braided networks, readying the reader to create experience from conscious and subconscious meaning. While Sacco regularly breaks the reader’s rhythm with his unstable layouts, abrupt transitions, and visual confrontations, the stylistic range as the book continues is relatively stable, less of an assault than this first, brief barrage. His argument shifts at this point into a second mode as its growing network builds momentum out of its formal interdependence, as its imagery and structure inform its future and its past.

Having demonstrated his journalistic method through the formal drama of these first sequences, Sacco is able to reactivate these experiences through his style, which, now established, no longer functions as intrusive disruption, but as his formal language. Through its placement as a beacon of visual simplicity in its dense landscape, his avatar in particular becomes a recurring reference point for the reader, and this visual anchor allows Sacco to continually recall the destabilization and artifice of “The Red Carpet” and its self-critical honesty. In this persistence, Sacco enacts his professed honesty as he, in intertwining their meanings within the caricatured aesthetic, both expressionistically demonstrates experiences and reminds the reader of the experiences’ subjectivity. Even when Sacco caricatures others, his established associations allow him to distort and even attack them, while the same drawings, in their formal disparity from his typical careful aesthetic and their iconic solidarity with preceding caricature, draw self-critical attention to his own subjectivity. Similarly, his style’s meanings and associations established, local formal incongruities within his visual language now recall, rather than rupture, its stylistic code.

Converging Violence

His witnesses’ humanity globally and experientially activated, Sacco is able to transmit their testimony, evoking trauma without reducing it to spectacle. The black-framed, witnessing series has a natural severity. Its rigid, heavy structure offers no visual escape, nor symbolically any other. The blackness is inevitably interpretable as funerary. It also introduces violence to Goražde. It is here that the blackness is first concretely associated with streams of blood, as one victim’s subtly pours out in to the margin, with no particular emphasis or stylization, only a lack of distinction between image and margin (Fig. 3). The subtlety achieved here is in part possible because Sacco has persuaded the reader’s attention, and he no longer relies on ostentatious style.

Figure 3: Wounded, in “The First Attack.” Goražde, 84.1.

When “Around Gorazde” begins with the witness Rasim’s grim stare and nearly immobile expression (109), the reader is already conditioned to identify these sequences as sites of trauma. They need no verbal cues to recognize the threat. The verbal component to this sequence is secondary and largely unobtrusive: unlike the frantic collage of “The Red Carpet,” or the often-canted panels throughout Goražde, in “Around Gorazde” captions rarely intrude on the image other than during diegetic dialogue, instead typically residing in an abutting frame. Despite the substantial text in the scene, this structure allows the graphic slaughter in Visegrad to retain its uninterrupted impact. The borders’ blackness merges with the night sky, the soldiers’ boots, the bloody corpses and the river into which they are dropped, and the omitted backgrounds. Rasim, once the reader has taken in the page, confirms “I was an eye-witness,” flanked by panels of laughing soldiers disposing corpses and of victims screaming at a child’s murder (110).

Again, Sacco uses this sequence to take advantage of the particular iconic solidarity of shock. Previously, in establishing his formal voice, his visual disruptions focus the reader, using the experience to prime a global memory and association. Those earlier interviewees’ stories of tension before violence inform Rasim’s context and the reader does not require his history: his individuation and humanity are already achieved by association. “Around Gorazde” instead uses the content’s visual shock and its much-less-mediated imagery (in addition to the captions’ graphic subtlety, this scene doubles the number of wordless moments), creating a horrific story where, unusually for the comic, the vast majority of the sequence can be understood without any verbal element. This centrally placed sequence influences Goražde’s network, past and future, as Rasim’s horror is transposed to the black series as a whole, realizing previous apprehensions.

While there is a poetry to Sacco’s merging of black content and margin, its symbolic strength matters less to his argument than its experiential strength. Comics have an advantage in building up these motifs, as Sacco describes: “Repeated imagery to me is the power of comics. … You don’t have to mention it. The reader is there all the time with those things” (“Public Conversation,” 60). They have the unspoken power of the still, recurring image. Their nonverbal description creates an immediate experience, while their atemporality (as opposed to film) allows that experience to linger or even to return. The oppressive blackness, already associated with graphic violence in “The First Attack,” does not only realize earlier foreshadowing from “Around Goražde.” As the tension from prior scenes has built to this moment, its fulfillment also informs its antecedents as their apprehensions are confirmed in their future and its present. The experience of black-bordered trauma conditions the reader to associate the others, not in a linear, narrative structure (leading up to, and continuing past, this sequence) but in a global one. The subject matter itself informs this association, as well: Acheson describes the mnemonic power of Sacco’s use of disruption, that the “shock of the panels shapes the memory forging process … The disorder and misunderstanding shock elicits mimics the surreal nature of traumatic experience” (297). Similarly to the disruptive power of “The Red Carpet,” the violence the reader experiences here amplifies the formation of the series’ iconic solidarity. Each element of the series exists concurrently, building meaning and, more importantly, association. When the reader turns to another black-bordered section, or even identifies the distinct dark bands along the book’s foredge, their experienced tension is the result of a trained visual association rather than a linear, narrative one.

The Face as Series

Essential to crafting this mnemonic experience is the acknowledgement that the testimony Sacco transmits is irreducible, a literal, visual rejection of abstraction and equivalence. These experiences of graphic violence share pages with the faces of their witnesses. The faces’ presence activates their iconic solidarity, but it is their visual quality and their placement throughout multiple series that validates the accounts. Scott McCloud describes the power of abstraction in his visual argument of “amplification through simplification” (30). The reduction of an abstract character, he argues, allows for a universality of identification as part of his model of “masking,” through which cartooning allows you to “see yourself […] The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled… an empty shell that we inhabit which enables us to travel in another realm” (36, ellipses and emphases original). The potential of this vehicle for reader accessibility is particularly relevant to nonfiction subjects—especially in a foreign experience—and has been famously used in Maus and Persepolis. Though both pieces superficially suggest approachability in their visual simplicity, Spiegelman incorporates masking into his rhetoric to address the unrepresentable quality of the Holocaust, while a study of Persepolis highlights a danger in McCloud’s suggestion, that the visual obligation presented in the masked cartoon is not “an ethical one. The reader’s empathetic reaction is not to the other; rather, she is in fact empathizing with herself” (Darda 40). It is through acknowledging communication’s ethical complexities and limitations that both books address this problem, that actively admitting failure of total empathy is ethical (ibid., 49); as each ultimately denies their seeming accessibility.

The ethical successes of these two visually simplified works approach a flaw in McCloud’s accessibility argument, because these successes are ascribed to visually acknowledging this limit of representation. McCloud’s reference to “audience involvement” as an element dictated by “the degree to which the audience identifies with a story’s characters” (42) assumes—unforgivably, in my opinion —that degree is measured by the breadth (as a product of ease) of access, seen in his privileged universality of the icon, rather than its depth (as a product of development) seen in specificity. Creating or reading meaning in the generic or iconic image is, as he states, easy. But, the extreme abstraction of a face to two referential points for eyes and an expressive curve for a mouth, that he recommends for the purposes of reader access, transmits a meaning as superficial as it is universal. While the absolute reduction seen in McCloud’s icon is as effective at conveying information as a word, the intellectual awareness of an emotion does not provoke its experience nor its empathy. Instead of informational shorthand, also common to traditional journalism, Goražde approaches expression from a place of visual density in these emotional sequences. Sacco’s demand on the reader is derived from the antithesis of generic minimalism. His subjects are highly individuated. Continuing from Edin’s initiation of the series from his place of familiarity as both an established face and subject, each interviewee is specific. As he talks about his childhood, Edin’s brow creases; he has smile lines and crow’s feet, visibly and naturally stretched in the panel beneath it; missing from the chronologically earlier panel is a slight scar above his right eye; he wears a different jacket and shirt than either the flashback on this page or the scene before (18, Fig. 2). Even tertiary interviewees are marked by age, scars, and facial patterns, as thoroughly unique people. Dr. Begovic also begins his account with his childhood, and has heavy circles under his eyes, not visible in his past; his shirt and jacket are a different style than his earlier clothing; his hair has changed slightly; his narrow eyes and hint of a double-chin are consistent; his ears have a different shape than Edin’s (36). In his illustration process, as an attempt to achieve this specificity and realism, Sacco describes that he “inhabit[s] things. So you have to inhabit other peoples’ pain or other peoples’ aggression. You are thinking in those terms. I mean, it comes down to what does the shoulder do when someone is lifting a club” (“Public Conversation” 65). Like McCloud’s masking, despite its efficacy, philosophically speaking, this treads dangerously close to narcissism, at least in principle.

In criticizing the ethics of war journalism, Aryn Bartley refers to its traditional mode’s abstracting effect, in the same comfortable style that Sacco references in his UN convoy’s montage, one that “erases the individual subjects and suffering that those abstractions represent” (55). The moral response to this, Bartley states, is “to reinsert into representation the stories of the individuals who suffer from war” (ibid., 56). The network for this reinsertion is primed by the final page of “Go Away,” as the verbal and visual rejections of Goražde are juxtaposed with the individuated and expressive people directly affected by such rejection. The subjects are then humanized through their quirks and humor and even their regular presence on the page as normalizing to the reader and distinguishing them as something other than one-dimensional victims. Sacco visually activates this through his focus on the face and its detail. Even without the humanizing aspect of their specific familiarity (some interviewees only appear in the one sequence devoted to them), their visual density and distinction slows the reader’s pace, and their iconic solidarity with other subjects’ humanity is a reminder not to reduce them to synecdochic demonstration to be skimmed for information. The formal departure of these witnessing series from the neutral norm multiplies this deceleration and reader attention. Sacco circumvents narcissism by rejecting McCloud’s vicarious pleasure of his “empty shell,” and the reductionism that facilitates an easy transfer of place and information. Where Maus and Persepolis demonstrate the limits of empathetic cartooning through ironic simplicity, Goražde defies this limitation through distinctly unironic detail. While the engaged audience may, indeed, inhabit the subject’s physicality and situation through their reading gaze, this is a residence informed by care, detail, individuation, and the humanity of the subject in creating the specific rather than the abstract, as ethically required of Sacco in its enunciation and of the reader in its reception. In short, his detail is his call for empathy.

The possibility of achieving a reader’s true empathy is beyond the scope of this article, but the layered complexity of Sacco’s interviews visually articulates his subjects’ personhood and, through its intimacy and associations, encourages an emotional solidarity. These familiar faces and detailed forms remind the reader of the witnesses’ agency through their emphatically returned gazes, encouraged by Sacco’s quiet removal of his visually mediating avatar from these sequences. The focus on the reader’s relationship with the witnesses, rather than with Sacco, in these sequences is reinforced by the subtle, but ever-present, introductory quotation marks reminding the reader that they are reading the subjects’ accounts, rather than only the author’s. His visual self-removal reflects an increasing tendency to, as Chute describes, “[tell] others’ memories and testimonials without rerouting these stories into narratives of his own self-understanding, and without assimilating them into narratives of easy consumption” that—much like his visual density denies masking and its narcissistic illusion of experience—“makes clear his desire to remain responsible to ‘others’ as others” (205).

Figure 4: Fleeing crowd, in “The First Attack.” Goražde, 80.3.

Sacco’s detail again avoids the generalized vicarious spectacle that Bartley condemns, through the parallel reader experiences of the interviews with his visualizations of the interviewees’ accounts. Within a given action panel, the increased contrast and privileging details around eyes and mouth naturally focus the reader’s attention on the visualized subject’s emotional state, amplified through iconic solidarity with the subject’s larger face in panels illustrating their present interview. Often rendering his subjects with indistinct, stiff, or schlubby physicality, there is little spectacle even in dramatic sequences that would distract from this: detail is concentrated in the emotional state of the subjects, reinforced by their individuation through an attention to varied clothes even in images of massed action. Within these panels, no particularly privileged detail, emphasis, or emotion is given to familiar subjects over the crowds of which they are a part (Fig. 4), so their humanity is equal to, not implicitly greater than, that of their peers who compose their context. The witnesses occupy both past and present series in the same pages, imparting their humanity, established during their interviews, to their fellows through their proximity and formal parity.

By illustrating the whole Bosnian landscape—sites of his experience, of his witnesses’ testimony, of drama and of the mundane—with extreme detail, Sacco applies this equivalence of representation as implicit equivalence of value: his consistent visual density validates his witnesses’ experiences. Edward Said writes of Sacco’s work, “The unhurried pace and absence of a goal in his wanderings emphasizes that he is neither a journalist in search of a story nor an expert trying to nail down the facts in order to produce a policy. Joe is there to be [there], and only that – in effect to spend as much time as he can sharing, if not finally living the life that [they] are condemned to lead” (iv). Sacco’s suffusion of detail becomes a suffusion of history, and this specificity of detail and the humanity of expression inform and corroborate each other, to encourage reader respect for the testimony, not as efficient or spectacular information, but as a means to solidarity.


In this article, I have discussed Sacco’s formal argument, as he denies his readers journalistic and emotional distance, provoking a solidarity of witnessing through the simultaneous acknowledgement of humanity experience, and the rejection of vicarious equivalency. While the content of Safe Area Goražde is as much verbal as it is visual, the strength of its rhetoric lies in its visuals. This is not by chance, but by virtue of the paradoxical inefficiency and efficiency of visual communication. Deciphering meaning from the abstract and interpretable demands that the reader engage, in order to deduce this meaning for themselves. But, this interpretive process is also the foundation of an experiential vocabulary that can be instantly and tacitly reactivated. Having relinquished a more traditionally verbal and informational mode, Sacco instead persuades through ethical immersion. Engaging with such innovative responses to the barriers that arise from the particular demands of nonfiction—recognizing the limitations of efficiency and information—is necessary to further the rhetorical and discursive potential of cartooning and, by extension, the comics medium as a whole.


[1] In addition to the scholarship cited, The Comics of Joe Sacco (ed. Daniel Worden, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015) offers a valuable collection of more than a dozen articles on Sacco, often emphasizing political perspectives, that mostly fell outside the scope of this article. Tristram Walker’s “Graphic Wounds: The Comics Journalism of Joe Sacco” (Journeys  vol. 11, no. 1, 2011, pp. 69-88) and Rose Brister and Belinda Walzer’s “Kiaros and Comics: Reading Human Rights Intercontextually in Joe Sacco’s Graphic Narratives” (College Literature, vol. 40, no. 3, 2013, pp. 138-155) both provide comics context for Goražde and visual representation of trauma. Rebecca Scherr’s writing about Sacco’s comics on Palestine, “Shaking Hands with Other People’s Pain: Joe Sacco’s Palestine” (Mosaic, vol. 46, no. 1, 2013, pp. 19-36) and “Framing human rights: comics form and the politics of recognition in Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza” (Textual Practice, vol. 29, no. 1, 2015, pp. 111-131) offer focused visual interpretations of physicality and panel frames, respectively. The most recent collections that include Sacco’s other comics on Bosnia are The Fixer and Other Stories (2009) and Journalism (2012).

Works Cited

Acheson, Charles. “Expanding the role of the Gutter in Nonfiction Comics: Forged Memories in Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 47, no. 3, fall 2015, pp. 291-307.

Bartley, Aryn. “The Hateful Self: Substitution and the Ethics of Representing War.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 54, no. 1, spring 2008, p. 50-71. DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2008.0019.

Chute, Hillary L. Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016.

Darda, Joseph. “Graphic Ethics: Theorizing the Face in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.” College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies, vol. 40, no. 2, spring 2013, p. 31-51.

Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, print-on-demand ed., University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

Hatfield, Charles. Alternative Comics : An Emerging Literature. University Press of Mississippi, 2005.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. 1st HarperPerennial ed., HarperPerennial, 1994.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1st MIT Press ed., MIT Press, 1994.

Rosenblatt, Adam and Andrea A. Lunsford. “Critique, Caricature, and Compulsion in Joe Sacco’s Comics Journalism.” Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts, ed. Paul Williams and James Lyons, University Press of Mississippi, 2010, p. 66-88.

Sacco, Joe. Interviewed by W.T.J. Mitchell. “Public Conversation: Joe Sacco and W.J.T. Mitchell.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 3, spring 2014, p. 53-70, doi: 10.1086/677330.

Sacco, Joe. Safe Area Goražde. 2010. Fantagraphics Books, 2001.

Said, Edward. Introduction. Palestine, by Joe Sacco. 2015. Fantagraphics Books, 2001.

Vågnes, Øyvind. “John’s Story: Joe Sacco’s Depiction of ‘Bare Life’.” The Comics of Joe Sacco, ed. Daniel Worden (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015).

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