Looks Like a Job for "The Fixer"

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The best journalism contains some art and the best art contains some journalism. Any nonfiction report on the world around us needs some art, in the form of narrative or metaphor or linguistics, to bring life to mere facts. Concurrently any work of art worthy of the name will report something new (either in content or form) to the audience. Joe Sacco, intrepid cartoonist, has been snooping around the borderlands between these disciplines for several years. His first important series, "Palestine," (1995) about life in the holy land during the first Intefada, gave us something radically new: a comic book that was immediately relevant to the real world. His next project, the graphic novel "Safe Area Gorazde," (2000) gave vision to otherwise unrecorded atrocities of the Balkans war of the early nineties. Now at last Sacco has come out with a new hardcover book, "The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo" (Drawn & Quarterly; 108 pp.; $24.95), his most refined work of reportorial art yet.

"The Fixer" focuses on a foreign war correspondent necessity — the shady local who takes you to the hot spots, translates, and generally greases the wheels. Sacco's fixer is Neven, who he meets in a hotel lobby in 1995. At the time the Serb nationalist siege of the city was slowly lifting but sniping remained a terrifying constant. Sacco's greeting at the reception desk was to be shown a map and told, "This is the hotel. This is the front line. Don't ever walk here." Sacco needs Neven to introduce him to people with a story to tell. Neven needs Sacco because the foreign press has mostly abandoned Sarajevo now that the major fighting is over.

Unlike Sacco's previous books, where he illustrates the stories of various people he interviews, "The Fixer" uses one individual who personifies a particular place. Neven, a native Sarajevan born to a Muslim mother and raised by a Serbian father, constitutes the traditional cosmopolitaness of that once most tolerant city. The mark of the Sarajevan, Neven says, is "a mixture of so many things: a love of art; a love of other people; and an amount of sarcasm and irony." Sacco, in counterpoint, accompanies this mythic passage with a full-page image of a dark, lifeless, abandoned space between blasted out buildings. Through Neven's personal history Sacco gives us the inside story of fighting against the Serbs during the siege. This job fell to loosely associated, legalized gangs headed by popular warlords. Trained in the Yugoslav army as a sniper, Neven joins a paramilitary unit made up of "distinguished sportsmen, all-in-all criminals, or a little bit of both," and commanded by Ismet Bajramovic, AKA Celo, a violent, handsome ex-convict with intense charisma.

Sacco gives us the history of these morally ambiguous warlords who he describes as "military pop idols." While defending the city they confiscate storehouses, evict Muslims from their homes, conscript citizens by gunpoint and are eventually implicated in massacres and "ethnic cleansing." Neven adds his own story to these, like the time he shot an enemy through his gun holster while falling backwards. Or did he? Sacco parallels his increasing doubts about the authenticity of Neven's tales while getting deeper into the warlord's atrocities. By the end, "The Fixer" becomes as much about the haziness and relative importance of the truth as about the history of the Sarajevo siege.

Neven and Joe Sacco in "The Fixer"

Joe Sacco's increasing skills as a shaper of non-fiction narrative have their equal in his skills as a shaper of images. He works in a realistic style closer to the lithographs of pre-photography newspapers: finely detailed, textured black and white images that mimic the look of the real world. The beauty of Sacco's work is that he gets to have it both ways. He combines the verisimilitude of documentary imagery with the arrangement of the most carefully scripted fiction. One panel, of a bunch of jovial paramilitaries enjoying their booty, laughing, sprawled on couches, seems lifted from Hogarth in its formal arrangement of bodies. Other, subtler uses of imagery seem at play too. One panel has the nave Sacco reaching for his wallet as the waitress' round serving tray forms a halo around his head. Sacco's panels in "The Fixer" will reveal more each time you examine them.

One thing Sacco hasn't improved, because he's already the best at it, is his layouts. He has a natural gift for arranging images for maximum dynamism and variety, while never fatiguing the audience's eye. One full-page tour de force shows Neven in his element, drinking with his buddies at the local bar. Two major panels — one of him racking pool balls and one of him gesticulating -- make up the top and bottom of the page. Smaller close-up panels of Neven or clicking billiard balls have been "laid" askew around the page while little boxes of text ("Neven versus Dutch," "Five Games") draw your eye across the page in the correct sequential order. Consequently, in a convergence only possible in this medium, the page itself reflects the excitement and exaggeration of Neven's barroom tales.

"The Fixer" continues one of the most creative and unique visions in the arts today. Joe Sacco has single-handedly created a media sub-genre: comix journalism. He brings alive the life and world of a funny, friendly, dangerous, mysterious person who seems a pure product of his place. He's a perfect comicbook character ... but he's real.

"The Fixer" will arrive in smart comic shops and regular bookstores in early November.