What's Going On?

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We've had seven centuries to understand this Balkans thing, and still it's not happening. "Three antagonists is one too many. Maybe it's two too many," says Joe Sacco, who spent 4 1/2 months in the former Yugoslavia to report his epic comic book, Safe Area Gorazde (Fantagraphics; 230 pages; $28.95), due out next month. "People can follow what's going on in a soap opera but can't follow what's going on in Bosnia."

Like Art Spiegelman's Maus, Sacco's book juxtaposes the pop style of comics with human tragedy, making the brutality of war all the more jarring. Though Sacco hasn't made the logistics of the conflict much easier to comprehend, his detailed, personal reporting does show how nationalism can lead once friendly neighbors to burn one another's houses. And even though his drawings don't offer the drama that superhero comic books deliver, their relentless flatness captures Bosnia more convincingly than photographs or Christiane Amanpour. "With a comic, you can drop the reader in there," says Sacco, 39. "It's a continued image. A photographer takes one image, but a cartoon can show you an atmosphere."

That atmosphere is filled with pages about teenage girls who barely have enough to eat but beg Sacco to bring them back Levi's 501 Blues ("But they must be originals," they cry) and front-line soldiers so desperate to believe in an outside world that they memorize TIME stories about the Paula Jones episode. "How much can you read about victims? After a while you want to read about people as human beings. Then their victimization seems all the more egregious," says Sacco. "I'm interested in the little things, like what people still care about when they've been deprived of everything: jeans, lipstick, Pulp Fiction, what's happening in the NBA."

As in his 1996 comic Palestine (which won an American Book Award), Sacco is able to tell a balanced story that never gets sentimental. With a journalism degree from the University of Oregon, Sacco has strong reporting skills that he meshes with his longtime love of drawing. "Maybe I'm a B journalist," he says. "But I'm a really good cartoonist who does journalism." He spent his 20s bouncing around a slew of frustrating writing and copy-editing jobs, including a particularly bad one with a newsletter for the Notary Association. There's not a lot of breaking news in the world of notarizing documents.

That training caused Sacco to write about politics instead of how he hates his parents, the milieu of most underground comic book artists. "A lot of them spent their high school years feeling alone and alienated. I had pretty good teen years," he says, while sitting in a Manhattan restaurant, eating what he keeps referring to as "adult food" ("These greens are a little bitter"). "I was short and all, but I wasn't picked on." Now, Sacco, still boyish looking, says he has abandoned most of his belongings and left Portland, Ore., for New York City. He's sleeping on a friend's couch in Brooklyn while attempting to break into the national media and maybe pick up some magazine assignments--covering the wars in Africa, for example, or the Rudy Giuliani-Hillary Clinton race. But he concedes there isn't much cash to be made in drawing long, depressing cartoon strips. That's when he starts to sketch a disturbing-looking chicken with a human head who's misunderstood by both human and chicken communities. He calls it the Human Poultry Item. "This is the character who's going to make me rich," he says. And sad as it is, that chicken-man does seem easier to understand than Bosnia.