In his essay about Jonathan Swift, George Orwell refers to “the irresponsible violence of the powerless,” a quotation prompted by recent publication of BUMF, Vol. 1, a surreal, undisciplined, ecstatically offensive bit of political satire by Joe Sacco.
Sacco has made his name as a cartoonist-journalist of sorts; his two best-known books, Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, are first-person accounts of geopolitical atrocity on a massive scale. His staggering 2013 work The Great War was a 24-foot (and wordless) tapestry, for want of a better term, about the carnage of the Somme that had the emotional impact of, say, a collaborative effort between R. Crumb and Hieronymus Bosch.
BUMF is roughly what one would expect from someone who had been thinking about the Israeli-Palestine conflict, Bosnia, and World War I for way too long. Unlike his other works, BUMF is a pure flight of fancy, a surreal and gleefully anachronistic Mobius strip-style narrative in which a World War I colonel might breezily cite Garfield and discuss Sacco’s own Eisner-winning career. BUMF is a delirious exercise in mashup, working in references to 9/11, the Kaiser, “Bunga Bunga,” drone strikes, Nixon’s enemies list, the street execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém in Vietnam, Abu Ghraib, black sites, the Checkers speech, “Mission Accomplished,” the NSA, and whatever other outrage happened to cross Sacco’s field of vision. It’s completely undisciplined, but that’s part of the point, it’s just as irresponsible as Jonathan Swift was. And Sacco’s unearthly skills as a draftsman haven’t abandoned him either. If anything, BUMF reminds me of the surreal vignettes of the Firesign Theatre.
Sacco usually inserts his somewhat Steve Albini-like self into his works, and BUMF is no exception; given the punk rock subject matter of Sacco’s 2006 But I Like It, the Albini comparison may be more apt than is initially apparent. Sacco is nothing if not a self-consciously “pencil-necked” left-wing artiste type filled with more than the usual amount of righteous rage. BUMF is a scabrous howl from Sacco’s political id. The plot that occupies the first chunk of the book has to do with the aforementioned British colonel, named “Singo-Jingo,” and his (apparently successful) plan to “bugger” the German Kaiser Wilhelm as a way of bringing the unceasing butchery of the Great War to an end.
R. Fiore at the Comics Journal put it well when he wrote that BUMF expressed “the helplessness of what you might call the genuine left to transfer its revulsion at targeted killing and government metadata collection to the general public.” BUMF may be fueled by impotent rage at the atrocities of 1914 (the Somme) and 1994 (Bosnia), but the proximate cause for the anger in BUMF are above all the disappointments of the current occupant of the White House. A central trope of the narrative is that of deceased and disgraced President Nixon waking up in the body of Obama; while Sacco takes aim at George W. Bush as well, the underlying point seems to be that all presidents, no matter how liberal or idealistic, are Nixons in the end. Obama has left Gitmo in place, did nothing to stop the information-gathering of the NSA, and has approved the use of drones to murder even (in theory) American citizens under the right circumstances.
If nothing else, BUMF is the ideal holiday gift for your favorite unruly political crank.