The Balkan war of the 90s was weird from my point of view. I mean, it was the first time I saw ‘soldiers’ who carried assault rifles but wore jeans and T-shirts. Aren’t they supposed to have uniforms and stuff? Joe Sacco’s War’s End sums up the war pretty succinctly in one picture in the beginning of the book, where the subject of the story can be seen walking up a hillside listening to a Walkman, wearing city clothes and slinging an AK47 over his shoulder. Ethnic wars are a special kind of dirty, and even though there were uniforms, it was still a rough, disorganized affair in a lot of ways.
Sacco spent about a year or two in Bosnia in order to make this book happen. Appropriately, he barely appears in the work, as he’s basically a supporting character. Instead, the two stories in this book focus on a soldier/guitar player/artist/disco lover’s life during the siege of Sarajevo, and a journalists’ journey to find and interview Radovan Karadzic, the man charged by the ICC with war crimes including genocide. They’re essentially interviews, and they do an excellent job of telling the story of the war from the perspective of people who never wanted it.
And really, that’s the best perspective of any war. You want the real story behind a war, you read it from the viewpoint of a person who ran into it on the way to the grocery store, not the guys who make money off the killing.
Soba is the subject of the first story, and it is a series of episodes strung together to give us a view of how Soba lived during the war and how he dealt with it, along with a view of Sarajevan night life and culture. During the war he disarmed land mines, and then he spends his nights dominating night clubs. He recounts snippets of the war, talks about his attempts to get recognized for his paintings and songs. It’s an excellent profile and it’s a pretty sobering read.
The second story, called “Christmas with Karadzic”, involves Sacco more but still centers on the efforts of two journalists, Kasey and Jack, as they look for Karadzic and try to interview him without getting arrested in the aftermath of the war.
The writing is about what you’d expect from a good journalist- an almost verbatim retelling of what Sacco has written down from his interview subjects. In essence, these are character profiles done in the middle of a war, and Sacco excels at showing you the human side of conflict. He also adds his own thoughts and descriptions of events throughout, giving the reader a good feel for a given scene. The feel that comes through again and again is how the war has scarred literally everything, to the point where you can’t even talk about dancing without knowing that you’re only doing it to keep the nightmares away. It’s an alternatingly excited and sobering narration. The second story has a more consistent direction, but the first story has better atmosphere.
I like how the narrator panels try to fit themselves into the art, either hanging around the edges of a panel or curving their way through a picture trying to stay out of the way as best they can to let the images tell stories. The art itself is very highly detailed as well as highly stylized. Characters’ Slavic features are highly accentuated to an almost caricature-like status, like a Mad Magazine cartoon, which is pretty ironic when paired with the dark subject matter. It helps show how the war has worn people down, as though it gave even their faces callouses. Shadow and texture in Soba’s story are characterized by thin, dark criss-cross lines to provide a cynical feel to it. The second story is a lot cleaner in its feel, as if to emphasize the war’s more peaceful aftermath, with smoother shadowing and grey, lighter details on characters. It’s still got that cartoony feel to it, while cars and buildings have a more authentic style to them.
I think it’s pretty much a given that if you spend time in a warzone and then make a book about it, it will logically be an excellent work- because I mean, if you screw up and make an awful work you just kind of stop existing. I mean, you’re obligated to avoid making a terrible piece of literature. Sacco is very good at avoiding disasters, as shown here. He’s got a book on his time living in Palestine in the 90’s, so hopefully someday I’ll be able to review that for your review-reading pleasure.
TL;DR: War’s End is a compelling work on a war pretty much everybody forgot, and if you like to be aware of how terrible our species can be, pick it up.
War’s End is written and illustrated by Joe Sacco and published by Drawn and Quarterly. Go ahead and buy it from the Amazon link up there.