Thursday, December 25, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #359: Bumf, Vol. 1 by Joe Sacco

Physical laws don't usually apply to literary careers. There's no reason to ever expect them to do so. But, once in a while, it's the only way to explain an otherwise inexplicable change.

For every action, there's an equal and opposite reaction.

Joe Sacco has spent the last twenty-five years -- nearly his entire career in comics -- carefully documenting real events and putting them down on paper, studying sources and interviewing hundreds of people to get as close to the precise truth of events as he possibly can. Throughout that time, he's been drawn to wars and conflict: Palestine, the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia, The Great War. He's been sober, balanced, careful, serious, as close to unbiased as he could get.

But, clearly, there was another Joe Sacco inside, yearning to break out. The shadow Sacco was the opposite of all of those things: wild, anarchic, accusatory, phantasmagorical, profane, angry, demanding, and itching to turn real-world concerns into a fabulistic, metaphorical, bizarre story. And that Sacco burst forth this year, with a 120-page screed against war, torture, ubiquitous surveillance, drone strikes, the Obama administration, and anything else he can aim at, under the title Bumf, Vol. 1. (Online, the book carries the subtitle I Buggered the Kaiser, but the book itself doesn't anywhere declare that to be its title -- it is the title of one of the stories/sections inside, though.)

Bumf is explicitly in the tone and style of the old underground comics; Sacco wants to draw direct parallels between the US of Vietnam and the US of Iraq/Afghanistan, and between Richard Nixon and Barack Obama. (As you can see from the cover, one of his main characters is Obama drawn as Nixon.) Sacco himself is another character, as he has been in his nonfiction comics, and he's as secondary and peripheral here as he was in those stories: Sacco-the-character is there to chronicle and publicize, but he doesn't do things.

Sacco uses complex shifting metaphors -- which is probably too fancy a way of saying he's screwing around with ideas and visuals around these things that are obsessing and infuriating him -- around wars and drones and surveillance and torture, until, in the late pages of Bumf, he's drawing huge groupings of people, all naked except for sacks or eyeless headsman's hoods, involved in horrific acts offhandedly or almost gleefully. Like the undergrounds, it's all held together mostly by Sacco's insistence that it does hold together -- it's nearly stream of consciousness, with characters who are signposts for ideas and roles rather than people, and leaps from one audacity to another. (Though none of those audacities, pointedly, offer any hope.)

Sacco dates each of his pages, so the reader can see that the first twenty-one pages dribbled out between 2004 and late 2010; this story has been long gestating. But the bulk of the book was drawn between March 2013 and May 2014: something triggered Sacco to dive into this stew of profanity and anger and push it forward quickly.

Bumf is one long scream of impotent rage and frustrated hope, full of sex and violence and the mixture of the two -- all pushed into the background by Sacco's alternate-world version of the numbing bureaucrat-speak that justified all of those same things in the real world. It's not a book for anyone happy with the current situation, as Zap wasn't for anyone happy with the Vietnam War. But it's an amazing imaginative achievement, and very unlike anything we've seen from Sacco since very early in his career.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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