The phrase "comic book journalism" isn't one that is bandied around very often, but Joe Sacco has proven it can be done and in such a way that it puts a good bit of traditional journalism -- as it exists today -- to shame.
"Safe Area Gorazde" was duly lauded when it was first released -- it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2001 and Time Magazine named it "Best Comic of 2000." Sacco, who had previously won acclaim with his book "Palestine" has moved on to work for publications such as Harpers and The Guardian UK, in which he chronicles the War in Iraq.
This new edition of his timeless report on his experiences in the Bosnian War mixes cold facts and analysis with heartbreaking biographies, amusing slices of life and disturbing depictions of worst in human nature to present something of fearless compassion and scholarship. And as skilled as Sacco's writing is, it's his artistic prowess that draws you in, whether he's rendering the friendly faces of the people he hangs out with or the intensity and destruction of the war that has hijacked their lives.
Sacco is generous with clear explanations of the situation in Bosnia, covering the history, the factions and the troop movements, as well as details of the kinds of atrocities so many thought had disappeared with Nazi Germany. He brings it all down to earth by chronicling his daily life in Gorazde and presenting his lighter moments with the denizens. As you get to know these people, he brings in their stories -- it's a jarring narrative construct as you witness these friendly people struggling for their lives as their own neighborhoods fall down around them. It's a depiction of war as something that happens to real people -- an example of what it would be like for you, the reader, or for the people out there trapped in wars now, whose lives are an abstraction of the wider implications of any conflict.
Sacco's tale is also one of Twilight Zone absurdity at its most grim level -- what if those you once called friends and neighbors suddenly want to wipe you and all your people out of existence, sadistically punishing you prior to your murder and waging the genocide in your own homes? What if your grandmother's house was turned into the scene of a military battle in order to save the existence of your entire nationality? No zombie tale can compare for sheer terror.
This new edition is a timely revival, a reminder of the pre-Bush years and the gray world that existed before this one of absolutes, a work of elegant power that demands your attention.
Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin (Pantheon)
Part science book and part career memoir, Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" takes an amiable journey through the evidence for evolution and what it really means to us now.
Shubin, a paleontologist and professor of anatomy at the University of Chicago, met renown upon the discovery of Tiktaalik, a landmark example of a transitional species. In this case, it was a creature that existed as an intermediate between fish and land mammals. As Shubin and his colleagues studied their finding, they found that so many parts of the Tiktaalik were traceable directly to the structure of the modern human. It looked like a crocodile, but it was us.
His book is also a look back to his own professional experience, unveiling what it takes to be the sort of person to scuttle around digging up fossils. With good humor, Shubin relates the planning required of his job, as well as the grunt work involved and the strange world a paleontologist enters when the wide world takes note of one of his discoveries.
Most importantly, Shubin traces the way science uncovers our past, the interconnectedness of the disciplines that do so and the specimens they study. To deny evolution is to deny all of science, since the entire umbrella is used to collate the data that proves evolution is a process that all life goes through. As Shubin's book well-documents, there is a little bit of the same thing in every creature on earth -- it's how scientists are able to do anything.
In doing all this, Shubin walks a remarkable line -- demystifying the process and the people who do the research, presenting them as human beings that any of us could know, while still giving the scientific data with the depth it deserves, not dumbing down the presentation in order to make us feel less threatened by its lofty perch.
To link it all together, Shubin evokes a biological "law of everything" that stipulates that every living thing has parents -- and that lineage is a chain of simplicity by which we are all linked. It's an eloquent and amusing journey through our biological family tree on Earth -- and a friendy way to catch up on biology.