Sunday, November 23, 2014

What I'm Reading: Safe Area Gorazde

Gorazde is a town in Bosnia. During the Bosnian war from 1992-95, it was one of four safe areas for Bosnian Muslims that the UN negotiated with the Serb militia. Of the four, it was the smallest and most remote, so it rarely made it onto the news like Sarajevo or Srebrenica. Its remoteness also made it difficult for the UN to supply, so it experienced some of the worst privation of the war, if not the worst fighting. Comics journalist Joe Sacco visited there four times in 1994 and 1995, interviewing mostly Muslim inhabitants and refugees. His regular visits gave him a depth of knowledge and local contacts that most journalists did not have. He published Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95 in 2001.

Despite my love for comics, I was a little skeptical at the idea of comics journalism for something like this before reading the book, but I was completely off-base. The use of comic art gives his journalism the immediacy of photography--indeed, I assume from the level of detail that many of the pictures are photo-referenced--yet the advance of panels provides narrative cohesion that a simple progression of photos could not. Nor do the comics skimp on factual material, with plenty of maps, dates, and names giving the necessary backdrop. But most importantly, Sacco's art gives us real insight into the day-to-day life of Gorazde's citizens, many of whom we come to know well and care for during the course of the book.

Sacco also maintains a journalist's neutrality, although an objective recounting of the matter necessarily implicates Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and Serbian General Ratko Mladic as villains, willing to start a war and slaughter civilians in pursuit of an ethnically-pure Greater Serbia. Sacco's story shows how regular Serbians who had lived in Gorazde since birth were willing to turn against their neighbors and join the Serbian militia. Some of them were forced into it--we see on occasion a Serbian willing to help a Muslim friend, so long as no one sees them so they won't suffer the inevitable reprisals, which was often execution. But other Serbs must have gone along willingly, fighting against Muslims, looting and burning their houses, maybe because they believed in Serb extreme nationalist ideology or perhaps even as a lark.

I'm not sure I can recommend this book widely, because although it is a beautifully done graphic novel on an important event in recent history, the subject matter is so harrowing I think a lot of people simply won't be able to bear it. I found especially awful scenes at the Gorazde hospital, where doctors performed surgery on the critically wounded in primitive conditions, with only the only anesthetic available being brandy. Still, for a teen or adult willing to stomach realistic scenes of a town on the frontline during wartime, this book is an invaluable primary source on the Bosnian conflict.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ranking the Other DC Movies

So far I've ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the Avengers movies, and the X-Men movies.  There's only one major franchise of super-hero movies I haven't ranked yet, and that is the Spider-Man franchise.  But before we get to that, let's finish ranking any extraneous DC movies. This will be easy, because I've only seen one of them.

If you'll recall, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid

Swamp Thing (1982)-- I saw this for the first time two or three years ago, and you know what? It's not bad, considering its terrible reputation among comic fans. I'm going to call it Okay rather than Pretty Good because it is low-budget and the special effects are laughable, but I found the movie perfectly entertaining. Sure, Swamp Thing was obviously a rubber suit, but the acting and script were no worse than most superhero movies. Much better than, say, Thor, which was big-budget but felt straight to video. This was low-budget and felt like all it needed was a little more investment.

Constantine (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)

Yes, I'm aware of Watchmen, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, etc., but those are not DC universe movies and I'll cover them in another post.


And here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

Iron Man
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine
X-Men: First Class
Swamp Thing (1982)
Iron Man 2
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, November 15, 2014

What I'm Reading: Moby-Dick

Call me Joshua. I've finally finished the journey. I started Moby-Dick last fall, read about half in a month, then put it down, intending to pick it up again after the New Year.  In fact, I picked it up again in September and only just now reached the end. I've developed a theory during my reading of Moby-Dick that everyone who reads it comes to identify with Captain Ahab, with the reader's white whale being completing the book itself.

So was it worth it? Was it worth the weeks and months, the dense prose, the bizarre chapter-long digressions on the illustrations of whales in books or the comparisons of whales and dolphins, the obscure references requiring pages of explanatory notes, the whole trip from the north Atlantic to the Indian Ocean to the East Asian coast and then the final fateful encounter in the south Pacific?

Oh, God yes, it was worth it. For one thing, the prose is so beautiful, so biblical and epic. Here's one of my favorite passages, concerning a ship-boy, Pip, who's fallen overboard in the middle of a whale hunt and goes mad during his hours-long sojourn alone on the sea, before the ship comes by to pick him up:
The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad.
That's writing right there. If you don't shiver when you reach the part about "God's foot upon the treadle of the loom" I'm not sure you're fit to read the English language.

The story's well-known enough, and the characters too, I think: obsessed Ahab, good-hearted and conscientious Starbuck, cheerfully cynical Stubb, brave and spiritually attuned Queequeg, and many, many others. What's less well-known is that reading this book is an education in itself, and for that I dub it one of my coveted Shortcuts to Smartness books. You see, not only do you get the famous story, you get everything you ever wanted to know about whales and whaling (and I mean everything), but also hundreds of details about geography, sailing, history, New England life in the 1850s, religion, the culture of South Pacific islanders, and on and on.

So do I recommend this to others? Oh, that's a tough one. I don't think any lover of literature should die without reading this, let's put it that way. As for whether you should read it now, that depends on how much time you have to devote to it, because this is one book that does not reward distraction. But if you're willing to make the commitment, Moby-Dick is truly one of the best books you'll ever read.