Bumf Vol 1 by Joe Sacco – A Review

Bumf Vol 1 Cover
Bumf Vol 1 Cover

Bumf Vol 1
Joe Sacco
Fantagraphics Books, 2014, pg 120

It is no secret that Joe Sacco is a particular favorite at By The Fire Light. He has mostly worked within comix journalism, writing a series of books on Bosnia and Palestine, along with smaller pieces on various subjects. He did start his career, however, in the alternative tradition (see Notes from a Defeatist) and Bumf is a return to that world. It is a book he has been writing off an on for some time and is quite a departure from his journalistic efforts.

Bumf is pure satire, biting and dark. I read it when the torture report came out and it was a perfect reflection of the report. A work that is comedic and bleak, picturing a world where the secrets of the government are something to fear. Moreover, Bumf directly tackles some of the practices of the last ten years and finds in them not an aberration, but a continuation of a hundred years of war making, yet another bit of insanity in the name of victory.

The brilliance in Bumf is how Sacco mixes tropes and cliches from the 100 years of war and scandal to create a vision of an America that is darkly funny. Starting with the insanity of the First World War where a general commands his men to run naked across the battlefield to scare the Germans, he mixes in the anachronistic story of a World War II bomber pilot. From these sources Bumf presents a military logic that is anything but logical and leaves soldiers at the mercy of the general’s wild ideas. From there, Sacco adds in the figure of Nixon, an a temporal figure who exists in both in the Vietnam era and in the modern era. He is a devious figure and participates in secret rituals, the same ones that the men who torture do. All these layers of images from history and pop culture, create a satirical view of the United States as anything but free or just. Instead, it is a bureaucratic one where the strange whims of its leaders dictate everything.

The humor is quite dark. In one scene Nixon is given a torture kit and a prisoner to torture. In the next panel his wife is yelling at him to get the dead body out of the bathroom. She doesn’t want it there any more. In the following panels Nixon and his men are shown lugging the body out of the bathroom while his wife is sleeping in the adjoining bedroom. The tortures are also ridiculous. They all wear a black hood, much like the prisoner in the Abu Grave photo, and are naked. For much of the story Sacco follows a couple who walk around naked with their hoods. They are part of a twisted love story that finds them playing out romantic lives while all around them the absurd cruelty continues. They, too, are part of the absurdity, often having sex while Nixon looks on. Into this satire, Sacco also injects a dose of religion. Many of the torturers as they celebrate their bacchanals site passages from the bible, often perverting the quote to fit the needs of the state.

Bumf’s vision spares no one. It is one of the most biting satires I’ve read. What makes it work is Sacco’s humor and willingness to be completely absurd, mixing military tropes from the last 100 years into a surreal cometary that distills the essential madness of these ideas. I was a little doubtful that I would like Bumf. I don’t like alternative comix at times because they can become to self referential and juvenile. Bumf is anything but. It is a true departure from his journalistic work, but a fascinating work nonetheless.

Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces – A Review

Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces
Peter and Maria Hoey
Coin-Op Studio, 2014

Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces is another of my Short Run comic finds. This is might be my favorite of all of the comics I bought there (I still have a few to read). It is some of the more visually adventurous in terms of story telling that I saw at the show.  What caught my eye of course his the art. He has a richly detailed style that pays special detail to textures. The images below don’t quite do justice to the details, which makes for some beautiful illustrative art. Moreover, his ability to change registers between the more comedic and the darker tributes to film noir makes each story stand out.

The other striking element of the book is the different approaches to story telling, both in terms of his construction of narrative and the visual representation of it. The first story, Au Privave (the tittle is from a Charlie Parker song) is four pages of an almost wordless story. At the top of the page floating through the panels are word bubbles that are not to related to a specific character but are akin to a chorus in the life of the Jazz musicians who populate the lower sections of the page. The images underscore a kind of loneliness that the conversation fragments point to. The story is a subtle play on the disappointing life of a Jazz musician. In the The Trials of Orson Welles he gives a graphic biography of Orson Welles, using images from his greatest films. It’s a striking portrait of the enigmatic film maker and Peter Hoey told me when I bought it that he had done extensive research to create the images. It is his longest piece in the book and the blend of film excerpts, biographic elements and the imagery makes it a stunning story. And in keeping with his different approaches to story telling, at the bottom of the Welles piece pseudo news real that describes his back lot problems with the studio. The windy parade was another of his stories that plays with comic story telling conventions. In this one, the page is part of one overall story even though the page is divided into 12 separate panel. On each of the six pages, the story within each panel evolves so that you don’t read the story panel to panel, but page to page referring to each panel in relation to the previous page. However, since the overall page is that of a parade the individual stories are not locked into a panel, but can move throughout the page. All this playfulness and inventiveness makes Coin-Op #5: Plastic Faces an amazing graphic novel.

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Cover Image
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Orson Wells Story
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Jazz Piece

 

Black Sheep #3 by Fred Noland – A Review

Black Sheep #3 by Fred Noland is another comic I picked up at Short Run comix festival. I actually bought the comic from him, which was pretty typical for the the festival. In addition to his few comics he does illustrations and covers for SF Weekly, amongst others. I picked his books because I liked the art and because he said it was the best one. (He also noted that it had strippers at the end.)

This edition follows Ivan an aspiring writer and a silkscreen printer through two stages of his life, one, when he’s in his early twenties and one in this thirties. In each there he is a frustrated and easy to anger guy who surrounds himself with friends who, let’s be honest, bring this out his self pitting side. The first section is the funnier of the two, since Ivan’s friend is a mid 90’s wigger, and has the memorable line, “You know I think I liked you better as a Grunge Rocker than a wigger.” The humor that comes from a clues white guy claiming he knows African American culture is painfully funny. In the second section, the book turns a little darker as we see Ivan hasn’t advanced too far in life and spends his time with yet another friend that stresses him out. In general, spending time with American losers can bore me, especially if they spend significant time with strippers, but Ivan was interesting enough and his aspirations, no matter how blunted by his lifestyle gave him something redeeming.

Along with this book, Noland was giving out a little compendium of mugshots. The faces are comical as well as are his comments below the face. The bets one: “What’s behind this smug look? Homeboy pissed his pants while getting frisked in an attempt to destroy drug evidence. Obviously didn’t work out but he gets an “E” for effort.”

 

Ablatio Penis by Will Dinski – A Review

I picked up Ablatio Penis by Will Dinski at the Short Run Comix & Arts Festival this November. Ablatio Penis is a graphic novel published by 2D Cloud about the meteoric rise and fall of a political star. When I began reading and it was obvious what the politics of the characters were, I had the feeling that the book would head into well worn territory of conservatives with reprobate ideas getting their just deserts. If you don’t like conservatives that might be a comforting read, but it seldom makes for interesting art. I was pleasantly surprised that Dinski was able to create a story where the politician, as slick and manipulative that he is, has some decency and that decency is used against him in a way that shows he wasn’t as manipulative as it first seemed. The answer to whether he deserved what he got, is, I suppose, dependent on your politics and your sense of justice. Either way the ending was refreshing and leaves several open questions for the reader to argue.

What drew me to the book as I was thumbing through the pages in front of the woman from the publisher, was the art. First the cover of book is dazzling geometry of patriotism and catches your eye. Second, and most importantly, his approach to  drawing the panels felt fresh, light and economical. While he is capable of rich illustrations, he also draws mainly small little unbordered panels that contain just one face and a piece of text to the side, as if it was the demarcation between images. It opens up the narrative to quick cuts between scenes and disconnects the exact way time flows. It also allows for a more fluid story telling, where the text and the drawings are not constrained by the typical genre patterns, but contribute to the overall look.

All in all, this was a good find.

 


Child of Tomorrow by Al Feldstein – A Review

Child of Tomorrow
Al Feldstein
Fantagraphic Books, 2013

5b0cbb4257f556c8f92efbd70096b60eChild of Tomorrow is a collection of Al Feldstein’s science fiction work for EC comic’s Weird Science. All of the stories were published between May 1950 and July 1952 and present a fascinating view of an America terrified by the the atomic age. While the stories are science fiction with their requisite optimism, there is always an unease working through these stories, as if the technological future is not going to turn out so well, something more than evident when talking about atomic weapons. A prime example of this fear is the story called “The Utterly Fantastic Events Leading up to the Destruction of the Earth!”, where the creation and testing of the hydrogen bomb ends up pushing the earth out of orbit and into the sun, destroying, naturally, all of man kind. And in typical Twilight Zone style the twist is that the narrator is an alien on some planet warning his students of human folly. Many of the stories for a lack of a better word are silly and the story telling hangs on some twist at the end that makes you realize that the story is about you. It was a rather popular technique showing up in the Twilight Zone and X Minus One a radio science fiction show from the same era, as well as in comics. However, when taken as a whole body of work, the stories have a weight that makes them a fascinating insight into an anxious era, much like the sci-fi movies of the time.

Despite the formulaic nature of many of the stories, there are some clever ones that show wit and self depreciation that suggests the authors didn’t take themselves too seriously. My favorite of the bunch was “The Unbelievable Events Leading up to the Cosmic Ray Bomb Explosion” wherein the writers of Weird Science magazine create a story based on minimal science that ends in the destruction of Washington. There are even scenes of the men laughing at the outlandishness of their command of the science. A nice touch showing had serious they take things. When the issue is published, though, foreign agents get a hold of the magazine and build the bomb described in the story and destroy Washington. The story was clever, loping back on itself in a kind of meta manner, never taking itself seriously and yet giving the writers an outsized impression of their own importance.

chitom-catprevTime travel offers many opportunities for paradox and these stories are no exception. Made of the Future! is the best, and perhaps worst, of these. In the story a man stumbles on to a tour of New York given for people from the future. He sneaks along with them and in the future finds a place that makes instant wives. He brings here back to 1950 and enters bliss. But then she goes out for a walk and never returns and he realizes she must have ended up on the tour and never returned. Despite the leap in logic to her eventual fate, it has some nice touches, especially the notion what comes easily disappears easily. I called it perhaps the worst story because the sexual politics of the story are rather strange. The idea that you can just buy the perfect woman in the future is not a healthy prospect and once again turns women into commodities.

In a similar vein, Space-Warp! has a time travel paradox that has a bizarre romantic conclusion. A space explorer leaves his wife, friends and earth and goes far into space. On returning he finds that everyone has aged and he has lost everyone, even his wife. Or so it seems, then he sees her and calls her name. But it isn’t her, it is her daughter with his best friend. No big deal, the explorer is happy with that and marries her. You might think something interesting might occur here with the emotional consequences of such an occurrence, but no. These are, after all, stories for juveniles.

Despite the short comings of the stories, they are an interesting look into a kind of science fiction that to modern eyes seems quaint and anything but technologically advanced. They are a fascinating curiosity of a lost time and Fantagraphics has done a great job reissuing these.

Goddamn This War! by Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney – A review

Goddamn This War!
Tardi and Jean-Pierre Verney
Helge Dascher, trans
Fantagraphis Books, 2013

e4a0b604e5e23a2777988cfd2b4a1efcJust in time for the 100th anniversary of World War I is Goddamn This War! by Tardi with chronology by Jean-Pierre Verney (translated by Helge Dascher). The book is a brief history of World War I that eschews plot or characterization and instead dwells on the massive incompetence and horrid logic of the war, using mounting barbarities as an indictment of the war. The book seems as if it is narrated by a soldier and in a way it is: the voice of the nameless, a kind of chorus, recounting pointless act after another. Told in little short vignettes that relate everyday life of the war, Tardi shows the pointless of it all. From relating the death of a man while doing his business to showing the graphic moment results of a shell landing in a trench to showing a snow covered field with blood leaking through. No moment of the grotesque escapes his vituperation and sarcasm. If you’re squeamish this is not a book for you; however, there is more here than just war porn. Tardi is reasonably effective in showing the low points of the war (mostly that’s what they were). The basic chronology and graphic depiction of it will give anyone reading this an excellent insight into the war. He does narrate the major events, such as when Italy enters the war or the Battle of Verdun is taking place, what interests him, though, is not the movement of troops or the political implications, but how little it matters. In addition to Tardi’s narrative there is a fine chronology of the war written by Jean-Pierre Verney. Like Tardi’s work it show’s just how badly run the war was and how unprepared the French and British were. The chronology and Tardi’s work make this anything but a typical work of military history. It seems more like the work of the German anarchist Ernst Friedrich’s Krieg dem Kriege (War against War!), published in 1924 and filled with images what really happens in war, the maiming, deaths, etc. It is in this focus on what happened, what the aftermath was like for those with facial wounds, what little support the disabled were given, that his book takes on its real power: the reminder that war is more than just movement of little ticks on a map.

The Great War An Illustrated Panorama by Joe Sacco – A Review

greatwar1Joe Sacco
The Great War-July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme
An Illustrated Panorama
With an essay by Adam Hochschild
Norton, 2013, 24 foot accordion fold out

Joe Sacco’s The Great Way-July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme is a 24 foot long drawing of the first day of the battle of the Somme (for fastidious it is really the 12 hours before and the first 18 hours of July 1st) that attempts to capture the essence of the whole battle in one massive image. The scope of the battle ranges from General Haig shown walking, riding and otherwise planing the battle from his headquarters in a chateau well back of the front, to the detailed horror of the men going over the top. Sacco chose the first day of the Somme offensive because it offered a chance to capture the whole of the battle, complete with its almost naivete, even two years in, to the realities of modern war. Despite all the two years of stalemate it wasn’t until these battles that the British first could see the futile horror of the war.

In choosing to the first day of the battle as is topic, Sacco wanted to have a narrative. While this is a wordless book, he would still have a story to tell. The story is of the great effort made for so much waste: 20,000 killed and another 40,000 wounded on the first day out of a force of 120,000. To show the immensity of the battle he has created a very detailed bird’s eye view of the battle. Starting at Haig’s GQ and moving through the staging areas with their men and material, you move past the artillery which has fired for a full week (to little effect), and on into the trenches where the men prepare, which includes receiving their ration of rum. Once over the top Sacco shows the men in all manner of devastation as they slowly march into German machine gun fire. His depictions of human bodies after amongst shell fire are gruesome. Finally, he moves to rear echelons of hospitals and cemeteries. In all this you can see the unfolding of one of the great military disasters of the war. So many dead for so little gained.

Sacco’s work has always been marked by detail, and this work is no different–it was made for it. Sacco has said that he tried to draw each soldier as an individual. When drawing soldiers that is probably a little difficult since soldiers by their nature are fairly uniform, but if you study the drawings close enough you can see the care he gave to each which makes this a very rich work.

As a single piece of graphic art I think this is his best work, just in its sheer size. As a work of journalism or history, in other words narrative, it is not as good as some of his other works, but it is fascinating and a real refreshing stretch of form. As the centenary of the Great War approaches, this will probably be one of the better attempts to capture it.