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.

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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.

Journalism by Joe Sacco – A Review

Journalism
Joe Sacco
Metropolitan Books 2012, pg 192

Joe Sacco’s work has long been a fascination of mine. The comics medium has a lot of potential, but even the most serious work is unable to distance itself enough from its roots in either style or in content. Sacco’s work, on the other hand, opens up different directions for comics, not so much in style as he is still in a realist vein, but in subject. It is the content that shapes the power of his style rather than the reverse (here I’m thinking of a Charles Burns whose style is amazing, but the story isn’t as much). In his journalist works published to date (I’m not going to count Notes of a Defeatist which is very alt-comic) he has focused on telling long stories that dig into an issue, telling as best he can, different sides of the issue. Even works like the Fixer seem to come out of his larger work on Bosnia, Safe Area Grozny.  Journalism, on the other hand, is a collection of pieces written for various publications over the last decade or so, ranging from embedding with the Army in Iraq to a long report on migrants in Crete to an investigation on the lives of Dalits in India.  The publications range from Time magazine, which includes some of his only colored work, to a French magazine devoted to comic journalism. The wide ranging publication history leads to less consistent work, as Sacco points out in several of the introductions that follow each story. Still there are some gems in the collection, especially his report from Crete, India, Chechnya, and the story of embedding in Iraq. The first three are also the longest pieces in the book and, therefore, offer the fullest look at a particular subject, akin to a full length magazine feature. It is in the longer stories his trade mark style of interviews presented as a mix of close ups, dramatized scenes as the interviewee narrates the story, and Sacco as character asking the questions, although in these pieces he doesn’t seem to characterize himself so comically. Some of the stories seem old news, but they are still powerful. In the Chechnya story there is a hopelessness both with the situation of the refugees and the aid agencies that just cannot cope with. The story of the Dalits of India is as equally hopeless and one can not help but wonder if there is ever a way to lift the Dalits out of poverty. While the previous two stories seem the farthest away, the refuges from Crete (he is originally from Crete) offers a story that should both be familiar to Americans and Europeans, detailing the problems with unwanted migrants. Crete has received numerous migrants from Africa who want to go on to Europe. It is a small country that has been unavailable to adequately cope with them. Unsurprisingly, there are problems and nativist groups who want to chase them out. Sacco gives a well rounded treatment of the story and both the “what right do you have to come here” and the “what right do you have to keep me out” view points are given in depth treatment, which is all one can ask of a journalist.

The question after reading the journalistic pieces is does comics journalism work? Or more to the point can it be taken seriously? I think they definitely work, although not in the sense of a daily newspaper. What he is writing is long form journalism, which is what he is best at. (There is one opinion piece from the NY Times and it isn’t that great, which he admits). Writing takes time and drawing the detailed kind of narrative he does even longer. His body of work, as this book attests, shows a solid journalist whose commitment to a story is strong. Still, I can’t see his work in major media (whatever of that there is left) yet. Not for his faults, but because, as I have long thought, few authors have managed to blend narrative demands with artistic in a way that doesn’t leave the reader wondering if the art work was really necessary or a better writer should have been added to the project. Sacco avoids both problems. It is too bad the only comics journalism magazine that I know of is in French.

You can read  his story about the war crimes tribunal which appeared in Details (which caused no end of problems for him when interviewing the subjects)at the publisher’s site.

 

Blazing Combat – A Review of Banned War Comics

Blazing Combat
Fantagraphics Books, 210 pg
(Download a 3 story excerpt from the publisher)

I have a penchant for reading these things, especially if it was banned in some way or another as Blazing Combat was when it was published in 1966. Of course I wanted to see what would get it banned, but also how war is represented. Can something interesting be said in the comic form that hasn’t been said already. While I read with relish the works of Joe Sacco or Spiegelman’s Mouse, it has been a while since I’ve read a war comic that follows the more traditional format of a war comic: short vignettes about soldiers, usually with heavy interior monologues, noting the hardship but at the same time the purpose as something hideous, but necessary.

Perhaps half of the stories fall into that category: soldiers in combat fighting a surviving because that is what one does. Usually the tension is not about glory in a campaign, but about entering action as a cocky youngster and coming out a humbled survivor, or  a veteran doing what he has to do and hoping to survive once more, with the understanding that it is the enemy who cannot survive. While it is possible to inject a note of triumphalism that suggests glory is one’s goal, comics often, because of their lower profile, can question this more than movies (here I’m specifically thinking of films and comics between 1945 and 1980). Blazing Combat, to its credit, avoids that trap and there is seldom a note of triumphalism.  Instead, as the editor notes in the interview at the end of the book, it is more about soldiers talking to soldiers, the phenomenon I’ve noticed in survivor accounts where one does not dwell on the horrific, instead it is the shared experience, which the survivors know were horrific, that is the means of understanding. When I read the description of the book as banned for its anti war stance I thought I wouldn’t see anything that suggested dutiful ambivalence. But it is that shared expression that can have its own power. Unfortunately, too, it can come across as triumphal.

What got the book  banned, though, are the stories of futility that show nothing in war has any value. One story shows  takes place during the Spanish American War and shows two Americans are shown talking about how they can’t wait to see combat, which is juxtaposed with an American killing a Spaniard in hand to hand combat and walking away in horror. In another, the WWI British ace William Bishop is not noteworthy for his skill as a pilot. There were others such as the Red Barron who were as good and are remembered still to this day. What sets him apart is he survived the war. In other words, fame is pointless if you don’t survive. And in the most scandalous for the time, a story follows a Vietnamese villager who tries to save his land from an American patrol. The outcome does not make the Americans look good. It is especially prescient since it was written in 1965.

As a work of comic or social history it is interesting. As something to read and enjoy it is a little tedious. How many times can you read a five page story about a youngster learning the hard way what war is? If you want to see an approach to war in comic form that tried something different, this is your book. However, if you want entertainment (or great insight), not so much. But I think that its name says it all: Blazing Combat. Typically this has a connotation of excitement and adventure, and sometimes that bleeds into the stories, because it is difficult to create a war comic that even in its most nihilistic, is not partly about glory. If humans are capable of saying, Vive la Muerte (Long Live Death) as they did at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, it is possible to enjoy the action of Blazing Combat, even if the name is ironic.

I will say the art for a comic is actually quite interesting and shows and good range of styles, though it is still in the comic vein.

Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco – A Review

Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel
Joe Sacco, 432 pages, Metropolitan Books

Joe Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza is his most ambitious work to date, both in page size and in the depth of his reporting. It is not only a book about current events as all of them are, but a detailed examination of events in Gaza in the mid 50’s. The search for witnesses of the events in Khan Younis and Raffa not only make the book more involved, opening questions of memory and truth, but also creates a contrasting history that is frustrating in its continuation of a conflict that has existed over 60 years.

The book is covers two different areas, the events in Khanunis and Raffa and what led up to them, and the events in Gaza during the early 2000’s before Hamas took over Gaza. Sacco spends most of his time investigating the history in part because he wants to look at some lesser known events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Sacco it is not only the events themselves that are interesting, but the process of creating the story, the way memory is shaped by the survivors, current events,  and those taking down the stories. Sacco makes it clear that the memories of the survivors and witnesses to these events vary in reliably. Often Sacco would find people who mixed events, or, worse for Sacco, wanted only to push a political agenda. When Sacco finds a fidayeen veteran he shows repeated scenes of the man talking about events he thinks are important, avoiding what Sacco is after, but Sacco continues on, sure the man has the story he is looking for. Eventually he get what he is looking for, but throughout the book is the interplay of the journalist and the story. As the he goes deeper and deeper into researching the story it appears he becomes intoxicated by the act of searching for the story, knowing what will actually be relevant. In doing so, he controls the narrative, yet his depiction of the process is a refreshing reflection on the act of journalism. Sacco has always been aware in his works how journalists become adventure seekers and how that distorts part of the story. His Christmas with Karadzic in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996 is probably his clearest expression of the phenomenon.

From all the interviews and archival research (20 pages of the book are reprints of archival documents) Sacco tells the little known story of mass killings of Palestinian refugees in Khan Younis and Raffa by the Israeli Army. While exact numbers are not clear, all together a few hundred may have died in these incidents. In Khan Younis the survivors tell of a systematic rounding up of men between 15 and 60 and their mass execution and the forced quick burial. Since most of what happened in Khan Younis was witnessed by just a few survivors, Sacco only has a couple testimonies of Palestinian men who escaped the shooting. There are plenty of post incident witnesses, the women and children who helped in the burials, along with UN reports that say something happened, and Israeli reports that say the soldiers were panicked and shot in self defense. Sacco’s rendering of the survivor’s testimony is vivid and it is clear that he thinks that the Palestinian story is what happened.

The events in Raffa, on the other hand, were less brutal and so there are many more survivors. In Raffa, the Israeli army rounded up all the men and sent them through a gantlet where they had to jump over barbed wire while being clubbed by soldiers. Sacco notes that the memories of the survivors don’t always agree, but from each of repeated images he finds he structures a narrative that he thinks is most likely what happened. As with Khan Younis, the Israeli’s come off as brutal and arbitrary, more interested in killing and terrorizing than finding fidayeen in amongst the refugees. The story of Raffa is the most compellingly researched and has the best interplay between memory and journalism.

But what preceded the incidents? Sacco explains some of the history that had occurred since the 1948 war when Palestinian refugees spilled into Gaza. He notes that the border was easy to cross and little by little a series of tit-for-tat  killings and attacks by refugees, Israeli’s and Egyptian sponsored terrorist squads called the fidayeen, led to a state of violence where the refugees in Gaza became victims of power plays between Egypt and Israel. The cross border attacks had gone on for several years and both sides had hardened their positions substantially. Sacco includes a quote from Moshe Dayan who noted that Israel had to be strong, but in doing so the Palestinians, too, would harden and continue to fight. It is amongst these incidents the larger incidents in Khan Younis and Raffa occurred.

For Sacco, it is relatively obvious that the Israelis committed the abuses described in the books even though they deny they did. He notes that even right wing historian Benny Morris agrees that there were killings in the two refugee camps. However, given the state of tensions between the two sides it seems impossible for something even resembling agreement to be reached on what happened.

The notion of agreement and the problematic search for the past, continually surfaces amongst the modern day inhabitants who are only interested in the present and continually tell Sacco why do you bother with the past, it doesn’t help the present. Recovering the past doesn’t feed one, but given the endless tit-for-tat that can consume one’s perspective, a look back at the historical can help. Sacco’s nuanced reflection on one little part of the past is an excellent look at some of the events that had served to lock the conflict in its current stalemate. Unfortunately, his book will probably be taken by many as belonging to one side.

Vertigo’s Unkown Soldier – A Review

For the past year and a half Vertigo has been publishing an updated edition of DC Comic’s Unknown Soldier that takes place in Uganda during 2002 -2004 when the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was terrorizing the country. The Unknown Soldier is a man whose face is always in bandages, the characters in the story never know who he is (in the original the reader didn’t know, either), and though he does not have super powers but he does have some sort of extraordinary strength. In Vertigo’s series he is an American born doctor, the child of Ugandan immigrants, who is overcome by a spirit, a presence or perhaps just guilt and scars his face in a moment of madness and then picks up a gun, something as a doctor he was opposed to, and begins to kill those who attack civilians. Eventually, he will kill child soldiers who are part of the LRA. As one might guess, the series is graphic and violent and doesn’t shy away from details, perhaps occasionally overdoing the blood, which is probably to be expected from comics. As the story progresses, the Unknown Soldier becomes involved with an ex-CIA agent who lives in Uganda and is playing all sides; he meets a movie start and humanitarian; befriends a young ex-child soldier; and takes up residence in a Acholi village that lives in fear of the LRA. The Unknown Soldier’s adventures is quite a collection of ideas and tries to pack in as much as it can in 20 brief pages. The most valuable part of the collection is the depiction of the war, the refugees, and the war crimes that have afflicted that part of Africa. While just a litany of atrocities lends itself to a numbness, the series does explore without exploitation (although it is wrapped in an adventure comic) the complexities of the war, the child slavery and the political instability that have thousands as refugees. Except for the LRA which is rightly depicted as pure evil, all the other actors, be it the government, the UN, or the west are depicted as a mix of competing interests, both good and bad, that typically leave the locals vulnerable. Moreover, over the life of the series the picture of the LRA becomes more and more perverse and it is almost hard to believe something so perverse could exist.

Where the series seems to error is, first, in the mystical voice that seems to talk to the Unknown Soldier and give him the ability to be a soldier. It would be nice for a comic not to be tied down to the comic formula which seems to always need something supernatural to explain reality. While it is a convention of the genre, it makes it seem as if all one needs to defeat an army single handedly is a little bit of magic or training, which is pure fantasy. Second, adding the ex-CIA agent to the mix distracts from the story and injects and element of a spy thriller. The ex-CIA agent is used as a historical agent, a way to go back through history and examine how the Uganda had fallen into disarray, some of it the fault of the west. In that sense the agent makes sense, but as an element of action and suspense it takes the suffering and turns it into a back drop for adventure.

The series overall is interesting and the writer, Joshua Dysart, has done quite a bit of research, traveling to Uganda several times. Yet contrasted to an author such as Joe Sacco who refrains from fictional narrative, the Unknown Soldier uses too many of the conventions of the genre which adds layers of interpretation to events that are already complicated. This is not to say only a Ugandan can tell the story and to his credit Dysart brought in a Nigerian artist to guest draw two issues, but the layers of action adventure tend to obfuscate. Sometimes fiction isn’t necessary, but at least the story is out there. I do plan to continue to keep reading it if I can remember to buy them.

Joe Sacco at Town Hall 1/13/2010

I went down to town hall to see Joe Sacco present his newest book, Footnotes In Gaza. It was 30 minute PowerPoint presentation with slides from his book followed by close to an hour of questions. The presentation was interesting, although if you read the book you’ll get a pretty much the same information. However, since he has made himself less of a character in the book it was interesting to find out how he had put the book together with interviews and historic photos. The book itself is his biggest to date: 400 pages of drawings and another 20 of source material in his largest format book.

I was able to ask him how he paid for the trips to Palestine and Bosnia and he said it was all self financed. I suppose it makes sense, because he said he didn’t know any one in Palestine the first time he went their in the early 1990’s. He is a pretty even handed reporter and so the question and answer period was mostly about how his working style and how he developed the story. One questionnaire, noted that this book was less comic than Palestine, and Sacco agreed because it wasn’t about a newbie trying to find out how to report a story, but a work of history by someone who knows the ropes a bit more. He also noted that using the comix medium has its advantages over the documentary film because he can draw a scene with hundreds of extras, while documentary film makers can only afford a few extras.

Naturally, there were a few nut jobs that made no sense and the more controversial the topic the nuttier they are.