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Drawn to Quality Journalism

(This  Stripped column originally appeared in the October 1-7, 1998 Long Island Voice. Click on the artwork for a larger image.)


"At least someone somewhere is drawing the line — if only a legal line — on carnage as we stumble out of this century of horrors."

—Joe Sacco in his "The War Crime Trials" piece in Details magazine, September 1998

by Beth Hannan Rimmels

Why does the marriage of art and words equal stupidity in most Americans' minds? In this country, and in Hollywood in particular, comic books are always seen as dumb — unless they make you a lot of money. Take, for example, the dismissive tone expressed by Ethan Reiff, one of the great minds behind the new Fox TV series Brimstone.

"It's going to be gritty and stylized realism, but on the other hand, it has its otherworldly, supernatural elements," Reiff told TV Guide for its Fall Preview issue. "It will never be a comic book. That's the line we draw."

Me too, Ethan, because chances are your series won't be as good as most comics. There are many, many more well-written, thought-provoking, entertaining comics out there than quality network-TV shows. As Exhibit A in the case to prove that comics can be enlightening, powerful and meaningful, I offer up Joe Sacco's "The War Crimes Trials" in the September issue of Details magazine.

Last spring, Details comix editor art spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize and Guggenheim Award-winning Maus (Exhibit B), assigned Charles Burns (Black Hole), Peter Bagge (Hate) and Sacco (Palestine) six pages each in the July, August and September issues for cartoon-journalism assignments. While each is an extremely talented creator, journalism is Sacco's specialty, so it's not surprising that his segment is my favorite.

Sacco's job was to cover the International Criminal Tribunal investigating atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. Sacco makes no attempt to lighten the proceedings in The Hague — doing so would be a mockery — but the irony of statements made by some of the principals is amply highlighted. Nikola Kostich, a former Milwaukee district attorney and Serbian-American who is a defense lawyer at the tribunal, says Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was "a lot of fun" when Kostrich met him. That's not the sort of description one expects to hear in regard to a man designated as "most wanted" for genocide and war crimes.

These tribunals are particularly important for breaking new ground in the aggressive pursuit of the perpetrators of horrific sexual assaults. Prosecutor Patricia Sellers-Viseur told Sacco that "prior to these proceedings, war and rape were seen as virtually inseparable... 'Like May sunshine and flowers, like salt and pepper.' "

For most Americans, these war-crime trials are a confusing maze of accusations and evidence, made all the more incomprehensible by the ancient, tribal nature of the Balkan conflict. Even for those who are trying to pay attention, the names are hard to pronounce, let alone remember. That's one of the many reasons why these trials aren't water-cooler conversation like Bill and Monica. Sacco does a brilliant job of making the tangled mess clear, concise and powerfully disturbing. True, he's covering but a small segment of the trials — he only has six pages after all — but he manages to illuminate the whole of the horror.

All of which makes you wonder why cartoon journalism isn't a regular feature in news magazines, which are constantly groping to find new ways to tell stories in the electronic age. A piece like Sacco's serves as an invaluable introduction to a slice of recent history that has been reduced to a jumble of contradictions in a media-mad world.

Where is the risk in using an effective medium to describe what the war-crimes trials are all about? How short-sighted can people in the communications business be? As Salih Karabdic, a survivor of the siege of Sarajevo, told Sacco, "Somebody ordered it, somebody did it and somebody tolerated it. And all are guilty."

Media Connection: On 'Nuff Said this week, hosts Ken Gale and Ed Menje talk to long-time DC production man Bob LeRose. They'll discuss comics production, but will mostly listen to LeRose's stories about the people he's work with and the antics of creative people sometimes get up to. Joining them in the studio will be John Workman, who worked with Bob. 'Nuff Said airs from midnight Sunday, Oct. 4 to 1 a.m. Monday, Oct. 5 on WBAI-FM (99.5).


Column 1998 Long Island Voice. Artwork 1998 Joe Sacco.