WARNING; ADULT CONTENT BELOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
What the hell do you do when you’re acclaimed and beloved; when you blazed the ground of your own goddamn genre and become famous for being the first guy ever to do that special thing that you do so well?
If you’re Joe Sacco, what you do is produce a comic that’s a full 180 degrees away from books like Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza and Safe Area Goražde. You cast off the bounds of reality, of propriety, of tight narrative and exacting detail and the kind of thing that gets discussed in the pages of The New York Times Book Review. You produce the brilliantly scatological Bumf.
Bumf is wild, weird, surreal wonder. It’s a panoply of penises and a particular piece of political satire, with a plot –if you call it a plot – that meanders from scenes that evoke World War I to scenes that evoke bad porn to scenes that evoke the most horrific videos that Al Qaeda ever released. It’s a brilliantly bombastic burst of underground urgency, the voice (on paper) of a man with roots in punk rock who needs to break away from bring beloved and get back to vomiting his intense rebellion onto the comics page.
Bumf is a work of a very unique sort of insolence, the sort of material that a man produces to prove he will never appear on a stamp (to quote a line from Sacco on Fantagraphics’ website). It’s a “fuck you” to the critics, like Crumb drawing cumshots again or Joe Strummer giving up the dance music to wear the Mohawk again. Bumf repelled me, intrigued me, made me laugh, made me angry, confused the hell out of me and made me desperately hungry for more of this type of truly cutting edge material.
The thing is, a book like Bumf is liberating not just for Sacco but also for the readers. It’s the id on display; thoughts on Obama as the new Nixon, thoughts on Sacco as an artist laid naked to the world, thoughts on philosophy and power and art and whatever the fuck else you can find in a book like this. It’s open. It’s unprotected. It’s peculiar. It’s compelling. It’s also exhausting my thesaurus and has me writing in circles.
Bumf opens with a familiar scene: Genesis verse one, chapter one: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” We get the usual images of open space and a placid and innocent Adam and Eve in a paradise filled with happy cavorting animals. Flip the page and we’re greeted with a two-page spread, Jack Kirby-style, though the image presented is a vision of humanity so deeply, gloriously black with its images of lice-ridden hookers, towers aflame, men hanging themselves and Nazis on the march (among many other images; it’s a virtual Where’s Waldo of horrifying comics images) that it makes the reader giggle, tremble and feel unsettled all at the same time. The page is a statement, a manifesto of sorts, a comment that this is not the Joe Sacco whose oeuvre is studied in World Studies 101. This is the work of a Joe Sacco who once played a guitar way too fucking loud.
Then the book flips to what seems to be a World War II bombing raid, and as the scene follows the artist surrealistically into flight, Bumf launches into its neverending parade of grotesqueries (an early two-page spread is a horrific depiction of World War I as bleak as anything in fiction), dead dogs, old men’s naked dicks, hooded acolytes, the resurrection of Richard Nixon, and a seemingly endless parade of scenes that are so bizarre, so personal and compelling and intriguing, that you get the sense that Sacco is playing back all those thoughts to all, dreamlike, and begging consumers to make sense of it.
Like all dreams, Bumf has enough reality to it to tempt the attentive reader to find sense and discover deeper meaning. Indeed, I’m finding myself fighting the temptation to apply some sort of narrative overview to this seductive and often thoroughly upsetting graphic novel. But that’s my “old Sacco” mind, the reader who thought Footnotes in Gaza was one of the most haunting graphic novels ever produced and wanted to find truth in every pain-filled face he drew.
But in Bumf, Sacco draws many faces hidden by masks, and maybe in that recurring image lies the power of this book: where previous graphic novels drew readers in with the haunted eyes of people under intense pressure, Bumf shoves readers away with hidden eyes. You can watch this Bumf(uck), Sacco seems to be saying, but he’s not really doing this work for you. This is a comic for Sacco himself. I’m just glad I got invited along to see what the fuck he created.