Art Spiegalman's Maus is renowned for having dramatically pushed foward the artform of comics with his very personal tale of his family's experiences in the Holocaust.
Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde now pushes the form even further, taking us into the fractured Bosnia of the early 1990's with the eye of a journalist. The narrative concerns the city of Gorazde, a predominantly Bosniak (Muslim) area that is surrounded by Serb territory and which is only connected to the rest of the soon-to-be Muslim-Croat federation only by one narrow road on which UN convoys run. At first the story appears light-hearted as Sacco makes friends with the inhabitants of the town and gets his bearings - but as these inhabitants tell us their stories the truly gruesome nature of this conflict is unveiled and grotesquely illustrated through Sacco's detailed artwork. The narrative is supported not only by Sacco's illustrations (which provide a very realistic sense of the atmosphere of the place - something lacking in many other non-fiction books covering this conflict) but also by substantial research - at several points Sacco takes some time to explain the often confusing historical background to the conflict.
My only complaint is that the scope of the story is somewhat narrow and comes off as a bit biased - we never see anything from the Serb or Croat perspectives in this book, and that's a signifigant lack. But given the focus on a particular geogpraphic location it does to some extent make sense.
Anyone interested in the history of the Balkans or the recent conflict should certainly read this, as should anyone who is a fan of comics that truly push the artform in a new direction and show what it is capable of.
I've never been a big reader of comic books. Most of my exposure to superheroes was through films and television, and I'd never even heard of graphic novels (apart from a few 'comics lit' titles like Maus) until I began working at Barnes & Noble. After a truly horrendous experience trying to recommend something in the section to a grandmother who probably knew more than I did, another bookseller took pity on me and handed me a list of "must-read" titles; at the top of that list was The Long Halloween.
Written by Jeph Loeb (who was also a writer/producer on Smallville and Heroes) and inked with cinematic flair by Tim Sale, The Long Halloween is set early in Batman's crime-fighting career. The Caped Crusader teams up with Lieutenant Gordon and district attorney Harvey Dent to topple Carmen Falcone's crime organization. Their efforts are complicated by Holiday, a serial killer who strikes on holidays, eliminating members of Falcone's family before they can be brought to justice. As the obsessive quests to stop Holiday and bring down Falcone wears on, all three men will be pushed to the breaking point; for one of them, there will be life-altering consequences.
What grabbed me right off the bat (no pun intended) about Long Halloween were three things. First, the cinematic quality of the story and illustrations; this was a story begging to be adapted into a film (and you can definitely see its influence on The Dark Knight). Second, the characters are very grounded, very real, and very human, even in the increasingly freakish world Batman inhabits. Third, the script is loaded with homages to The Godfather, which shows Loeb has excellent taste. The Long Halloween is ideally positioned early in Batman's career (and chronologically takes place around six months after the events of Frank Miller's classic Batman: Year One), allowing Loeb to move freely without being too tied down to 70 years of the Batman mythos, and to show how the criminals in Gotham transitioned from 'traditional' Mafia families to the bizarre rogues gallery we usually associate with Batman.
The Long Halloween is a great read, period. Whether you're a die-hard comics fan, a casual reader, or not into comics at all, it's a book that draws you in with its three-dimensional characters, its compelling story of the lengths we'll go to pursue justice, and its outstanding artwork.