Crosscurrents March 2001

Maus Culture

Maus Culture

From DC and Marvel to the latest wave of serious graphic novels, the comic book has come of age

The closest a character comes to the cartoonish is Sacco's portrait of himself, always drawn in the same outfit, facial proportions a little out of whack, wearing glasses that blank out his eyes. Although he is present throughout the book, his self-portrayal suggest that he is not the story; he's just another awkward journalist. I was reminded of my childhood hero Tintin, himself ostensibly a reporter, composed of a few simple lines suggesting a face, surrounded by a carefully delineated world.

Panel from 'Safe Area Gorazde'

From Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco

At 240 pages, it took me awhile to warm up to Safe Area Gorazde. Accustomed to comics having more of a cinematic story arc, I kept waiting for one to kick in. It was a little like settling into one's seat at the multiplex for the latest Hollywood no-brainer and being shown Frontline. But little by little, Sacco layers details—of his experience, of the history of the former Yugoslavia, of survivors' tales, but most importantly, of what he saw. Not only does Sacco render brilliantly the crater-pocked streets of Gorazde, the faces of amputees in bombed-out hospitals, the uniforms of the Serb military, but he draws in detail the design on the package of the ubiquitous Drina cigarettes and the hairstyles of the girls he meets who ask him to bring Levi's 501s from Sarajevo.

Panel from 'Safe Area Gorazde'

Faces of terror in Sacco's Gorazde

Such accumulation of exact visual detail pulled at me. Comic books, unlike movies or television, let the consumer choose when to cut from image to image, and I found myself lingering on certain of Sacco's more horrific drawings of Serb atrocities. Soon, those images were haunting me. I finished the book shaken and slightly embarrassed to realize that I had finally gained a decent understanding of the Balkan situation—and I had gained it with a comic book in my hands.

Maybe comic books originally created heroes who could transmogrify, and stretch, and fly, because no other medium could do it so well. Since then, film has caught up with and swiftly surpassed comics as the eye-candy of choice. No one I know wasn't mesmerized by the admittedly bone-rattling effects in the otherwise hokey The Matrix. And comic-book adaptations have become giant business: a film version this past summer of The X-Men shocked analysts by raking in more than fifty million dollars its opening weekend, and deservedly so. Director Bryan Singer finally got a comic-book film right. His (by industry standards) subdued blockbuster was a fan's film—a superhero's origin tale devoid of camp. This year also saw the art houses descended upon by the flying Wudan warriors of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, characters who, before the advent of wire-bound stuntwork and digital wire removal, were probably better suited to a comic-book page.

With movies becoming more like comics, perhaps comic books can return the favor and encroach on the terrain left open by an increasingly effects-driven movie industry. "In a world where PhotoShop has outed the photograph to be a liar," Spiegelman has said, "one can now allow artists to return to their original function—as reporters." Safe Area Gorazde was as good a documentary as I've experienced in any form in a long time, and certainly the only comic book I've come across since Maus that I would recommend to my grandfather.

On the back of Little Lit: Folklore and Fairy Tale Funnies, a new anthology for children edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, is the quip, "Comics—they're not just for grown-ups anymore!" It sums up the current situation perfectly. Despite the adolescent culture we've backed our way into over the past half-century, there is still a critical prejudice in favor of adult material over children's material. The consensus among most people, including those who dole out TV awards every other week, is that The West Wing, a silly fantasy for adults, is a more intelligent show than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a witty allegory of adolescence. As I survey the new landscape of adult comics—and much as I admire the achievements of Spiegelman, Sacco, and the rest—I nevertheless hope there is still room for comic books about mutant vigilantes. I hope the talented artists don't all migrate away from genre writing, looking for greater prestige on the display tables. In the meantime, I'll enjoy the new respectability afforded to comic books in general. Maybe I'll take Tintin with me on the train. Everyone will think I'm smart.

Peter Swanson is a freelance writer based in Boston.
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