I’ve started this review a half a dozen times. At first I started off talking about Joe Sacco – blah blah premier graphic journalist working today, blah blah Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, Journalism etc. I did this as a set up because I was then going to go into the review of Bumf and say – well, I stopped at that point. I scratched my head. Bumf is Joe Sacco doing political satire. It’s silly. Scabrous. Rude. Biting. The kind of thing that lazy reviewers will compare to Robert Crumb when it is more like Peter Bagge. So then I started writing a review that talked about politics – because some people (let’s call them ‘idiots’) think politics is boring. Politics is boring. Why would anyone talk about politics when you can talk about Joey Essex? Or that Gemma bird from I’m a Celebrity? Not that she was on I’m a Celebrity for long. Was she having a laugh or what? And I bet she got all her fee. No wonder Ant and Dec were pissed off at her eh? The idea behind this version of the review was that I was going to say, you can understand why someone who wrote hard political comics would maybe want to dash off – and we’ll come back to that ‘dash off’ in a minute – some unhinged … and then I stopped again. Because what I didn’t want to do was come across like one of those people who is selective in their reading of Joe Sacco. I have a copy of But I Like it, Sacco’s collection of early comics, which tells of life on the road as a cartoonist for a band. I know that there’s more to Sacco than the earnest politico. But then I stopped again because any fool who reads Sacco knows there’s more to Sacco than ‘earnest politico’. It’s worse than reductive to say that.
I looked at the book again. It’s broken into a series of short pieces that include dates, so you can see when some of this stuff was put together. Much of it (although by no means all) was written in 2013. You get the sense it was written much more quickly than Sacco usually works. Parts of it look as if they were produced more quickly than the stuff Sacco usually produces. This is what I meant by saying ‘dashed off’ before. (But then satire is reactive, satire moves at speed, satire dates – so it’s hard, we acknowledge, for satire to be produced in comic form within a book). I presume (and I say this willing to be proved wrong) that Sacco worked on this stuff when he was producing The Great War. Which, again, makes a lot of sense: The Great War is a piece of art. I was going to say (and by now you can see that in writing this piece there’s always a danger of saying one thing as if it was the whole story when it’s only partially true) that The Great War didn’t require the same sort of narrative decisions as his other work – because it is a huge drawing of a particular day in history – but of course it did require narrative decisions, because he is telling a story, albeit over a single picture. At the same time, however, undoubtedly, The Great War was different from his other books, was, in some senses, a departure. You get the impression, as a reader, that it called for a new discipline from Sacco. There wasn’t really place for humour in The Great War. You can, then (and should, we think) view Bumf as a by product of The Great War (hell, it’s even subtitled ‘I Buggered the Kaiser’). It might make you more forgiving. If you feel you need to be forgiving.
Bumf is scattershot. One stream of the book follows Nixon, who wakes up one morning to find he is Obama. He gets to see – courtesy of a turkey who we think is probably meant to be Cheney or Rumsfeld? – the underside of the modern world, which allows him to destroy lives via drones as if he is playing on a computer game and witness a vast orgy in which a grand stream of people are buggered (except they don’t look like they’re being buggered, it’s basically a chain of naked people playing donkey). Elsewhere, Sacco himself is both a graphic novelist seduced (by the self-same turkey) into writing a contemporary love story for the masses and a sort of wartime graphic novelist who can’t go fly a plane into battle because he can’t fly a plane. These streams veer into one another and twist and – let’s just say if you want narrative coherency you’re looking in the wrong place (and part of that is the point and any disappointment that comes with expecting such a thing is to miss the point). Nixon-Obama is taken through a door to a room on the other side of the galaxy where he gets to see the sorts of shenanigans that took place in Abu Ghraib, and of course he likes it and wants to recreate a little torture chamber in his own bathroom in the White House which of course goes too far. Two of the torturers he meets watch an ordinary woman walking down the street (in one of the best sequences in the book) to buy a pint of milk and determine that she must be a terrorist of some kind. When she is brought (to the other side of the galaxy) for torture, a strange (satirical and yet curiously bittersweet) romance develops. Along the way there are lots of naked people, lots of bottoms and penises and sex. It’s high octane in the same way that, say, a writer like Terry Southern can be high octane. This is satire turned all the way up to 11.
So. This is Sacco letting off steam. He can let off steam if he wants to. Should he have published this stuff? Yeah, if he wants to. His prerogative. The artist can follow his muse wheresoever it takes him. Is it the kind of book I can imagine wanting to re-read? In truth, not so much. Am I glad I read it? I guess. Would I recommend it? Only in the sense that I think Sacco is the kind of artist who warrants extraordinary devotion (he’s important) and so I expect his fans would read everything. Do I feel humourless for not embracing this and saying, yeah, yeah, read it, you’d be crazy if you let this pass you by etc? A leetle bit.
Any Cop?: If you’re a devotee and a completest you’ll want this. Of course you will. If you’ve had Sacco on your mental radar as a graphic artist to check out at some point, don’t start here. This isn’t what you would call indicative.