The darker side of the 'toon

Cartoonist Joe Sacco’s latest book is a ‘howl of outrage’ against U.S. foreign policy. His work and others before him helped change a medium.
By: /
December 5, 2014
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It has been nearly 15 years since U.S.-based Fantagraphics Books released Safe Area Gorazde — the brilliant comic treatment of the Bosnian war by writer and illustrator Joe Sacco.

Several releases of Sacco’s work followed: Palestine; The Fixer; Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt (a collaboration with writer Chris Hedges); and 2013’s The Great War — a unified image of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Through it all, Sacco collected separate political observations, which would amount to Bumf, his most recent book, released last month. “Bitingly satirical, its pages swiftly reduce western foreign policy over the past century to a series of ineffably stupid and calamitously prideful war games, and the US presidency to an airless void of buffoonery and corruption,” The Guardian said in its review.

OpenCanada spoke with Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics Books Associate Publisher and editor of Bumf, on Joe Sacco’s talent, comics as a vehicle for political commentary, and the pioneer cartoonists that have taken aim at policymakers and foreign policies over the past two centuries.

Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde is one of my favourite pieces of journalism. Do foreign policy and comics make a better match than one might think, or are they odd bedfellows?

I don’t think they are odd bedfellows. They might sort of appear odd from the outside but I think as you probably experienced, a book like Safe Area Gorazde being a comic, it just puts you in a place and a time more easily than photojournalism or written journalism; its just kind of immersive in that way. I think it has a very advantageous quality in that respect, I mean, let’s face it, there’s probably swath of the population that would never read a prose book about the conflict in Bosnia that led to that book, but yet swallowing it in a graphic novel form is somewhat palatable.

I loved the different levels of insight readers get at once — from the dialogue to the titles at the bottom, to the action of the characters. Joe Sacco often draws himself in there as a journalist or observer. In much of traditional reporting, you don’t get that extra layer of how the journalist got the story, or their place in it.

I think that’s true. And, aside from what I was saying about any advantages the medium of comics might have, it still ultimately takes a singular talent like Joe to put the medium to effective use. I think that’s why you don’t see more works like Palestine, or Safe Area, there just aren’t that many people who literally have that skillset to pull that off. But when you do, boy, it’s a pretty transcendent work of journalism and I think it has become something more than just sheer reportage.

So tell me about Joe Sacco’s latest book.

Bumf is this sort of culmination of stuff that has been swirling around in Joe’s brain for over a decade. This is something that’s he’s been working on in his spare time while he’s been doing bigger projects, like The Great War fold-out book that came out last year. Whenever you do a book like Palestine or Safe Area, they are really labour intensive projects; they take years. All art can be difficult to create, but there is a real, sheer practical amount of labour that goes into a book like that, that can be really daunting and trying. [Bumf] was his way to just blow off steam and I think the kind of meandering quality of the plot, the way it threads together all these sort of vignettes, it’s sort of reflective of the sort of miasma of thoughts and opinions and things that have outraged him. He’s managed to kind of codify it into this what’s effectively a howl of outrage over American history and foreign policy from Nixon to now.

Can you give some examples of the range of the vignettes?

I’ve read a couple of reviewers who have compared it to the old Firesign Theatre skits which I think it’s a pretty apt analogy, Monty Python could be another good example where skits morph into other skits and they take on something of a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts quality.

Joe is actively working through a lot of issues he’s had probably since he was a young man, following the Watergate expose and reading All the President’s Men, I know that was a huge influence on him.

And now he lives in this world where the government routinely commits crimes that are effectively legal that would have been illegal in Nixon’s day and you know it’s this howl of outrage against everyone — Republicans and Democrats. I think he’s just as disappointed with the Obama administration as anyone, probably because he had higher hopes for them. The way that he can thread all these sort of disparate elements into one focused work of rage and satire is really a tour de force in my mind.

BUMF

Are there other must-reads for foreign policy buffs who might be discovering comics as a medium?

There are very few people who can pull off something like this, as Joe did. The obvious antecedent would be the old Undergrounds [Comix] from the late ’60s, which were really charged with anti-Vietnam philosophy, even if it wasn’t explicitly satirizing the war in Vietnam, it was fuelled by this counter-culture outrage and distrust of the government. I think that was the first time you kind of saw that manifest in comics.

There are probably earlier examples like MAD magazine which was probably the first thing to really pull back the curtain on the wizard and try to foster a healthy distrust in what the media feeds you. So it kind of went from that in the ’50s to this much more trenchant and focused and explicit, transgressive movement that came about in the late ’60s and into the ’70s and then it kind of dissipated. There were always great political cartoonists who try to take this stuff on but they don’t tend to do it in a narrative way. And I think Joe is really kind of sui generis in that respect. I can’t compare it to a lot.

There’s a great book that was published in the 1980s called Ed the Happy Clown by a Canadian cartoonist named Chester Brown. That was wonderfully absurd and often rather poignant, a take on a lot of what was going on in the Reagan era — to the point that Reagan in the book is depicted as the head of this character’s penis. And that’s a book that I look back to in the last 20 to 25 years that I see as a precursor to the work in Bumf. But even that’s not a perfectly apt comparison because that was more absurdist-for-absurdism-sake rather than a focused satire and I think Bumf really is a focused satire of what Joe sees going on in the world around him. I think he’s trying to compare the mistakes of today to the mistakes of the past, as the way of illustrating not only how we continue to repeat ourselves, but probably how we dig ourselves into an even deeper hole.

Has there been a growth in this kind of comic that depicts real-life events or political contexts. I’m thinking of Persepolis, for instance.

I think there’s a real appetite for more of it. I think the appetite has outstripped the amount of material that’s out there. And I think that, frankly, with all due respect to Persepolis which is a phenomenal book, part of that unfilled appetite is what has helped a book like that really take off. I wish there was more of it. You can think of specific examples — there’s been a series of books by [French Canadian] Guy Delisle of some of his experiences travelling in China and Burma — and there are plenty of works of non-fiction in comics although they tend to more in the memoir vein than the more bigger picture world view.

Are there any closeted comic fans among our policymakers or politicians?

That’s a great question; I don’t really know the answer. I’ve often heard over the past six years that Obama is a comics fan. I heard that he grew up being a comic book collector but more of the kind of classic comic-book-nerd vein; you know Spiderman and Conan the Barbarian or whatever. But I would certainly like to think that his natural intellectual curiosity would have led him to Joe’s work at some point. I know that [MSNBC’s] Rachel Maddow is a huge fan of Joe’s; she’s actually cited his books on the air a few times.

I do know one of the greatest results of Joe’s career over the last 20 years is that he has been embraced by his fellow journalists. He is a journalist-journalist in that way; I think most journalists can instantly recognize why his work is good, probably even better than a lot of people approaching it from a comics background. I’d rather see a journalist unpack the best parts of Joe’s work than even a comic book critic.

And traditional journalism outlets, namely newspaper and magazines, have long embraced cartooning, as you mentioned.

There’s definitely a rich history of cartoonists tackling foreign policy or any kind of government wackiness, going back to things like Punch. There are a lot of traditions even dating back to the 19th century with Thomas Nast [an illustrator for Harper’s Weekly in the mid 1800s], all the way up to the present.

Do you see a difference in the market for this in North America versus internationally?

Joe’s books do well internationally and in the U.S. He’s a real singular case; he’s managed to really build an audience in the way very few cartoonists can. I do think that internationally, at least in terms of Western Europe, there’s a little bit more of a willingness on the public’s side to accept comics that deal with some of these larger themes.

For better or worse, the American comic industry was so stultified for decades because it was really just a children’s medium and it really kind of cohered into this specific industry aimed at lowest common denominator material for young boys. That really stultified the growth of the art form for a long time.

Even though comics are essentially an American art form like jazz, I think that places like Europe and Japan were a lot more progressive in recognizing the broader qualities of the medium and how it could be used to tell stories on just about every subject and how it could express this range of human emotion just as well as any other medium would, like film or prose or poetry. But due to some very specific reasons related to business and industry, the art form settled into this state of arrested development pretty much from the ’30s into the ’60s.

It was about marketing.

It became a self-fulfilling prophesy that American consumers just came to think of comics as equating with superheroes and with genre work that was aimed at younger readers, to the point that I think if you were an aspiring cartoonist, very few people were thinking about trying to force the medium into something that it wasn’t at that point. You’d have people who did try, whether it was Jules Feiffer or Harvey Kurtzman, or eventually Robert Crum, there were these people that were coming about, but I think it held back the growth overall for a long time.

But I think now we’re in this era where the graphic novel is not a foreign concept to most people, especially amongst younger people, and those kinds of preconceptions are a little less entrenched.