by Derek Royal
Comics historians rightly point out that the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s helped to give birth to the contemporary graphic novel…or to be more accurate, a specific kind of graphic novel, what many today would call “alternative comics.” This makes sense, in that one can trace a noticeable lineage from many of the seminal underground works — e.g., The Adventures of Jesus, Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and American Splendor — to the various memoirs, satires, histories, and experimental comics that came to define the 1980s and 1990s, such as Maus, Love & Rockets, Hate, Naughty Bits, and Palestine. Yet in the case of Joe Sacco and his most recent book, Bumf, Vol. 1: I Buggered the Kaiser, this trajectory seems to go in the opposite direction. An author known for his alternative comics creds has created what is, in essence, an underground comic.
Bumf is a weird and arrant narrative with an astute political edge. It’s the kind of work you might expect from Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith, or S. Clay Wilson more than you would from the creator of Palestine and Safe Area Goražde. The plotting is circuitous, associative, and absurd, and the closest we get to it in the Sacco canon is Notes from a Defeatist and, to a much lesser degree, But I Like It. But even those books, or the stories composing them, retain a semblance of realism and are anchored in the actual. The same cannot be said of Bumf.
The book functions on various narrative levels, with Sacco overlaying what at first appears to be unrelated stories embedded in different time periods. Bumf begins with a World War I narrative, with the artist himself serving as one of the characters: a group captain of an air squadron who doesn’t know how to fly a plane, so instead stays on the ground to help his commander in his plans to “bugger the Kaiser.” Juxtaposed to this is a story of President Barack Obama, except this Obama looks and acts exactly like Richard Nixon, complete with the five o’clock shadow and unsettling paranoia. He is handled by a nameless, nebulous figure — more on him later — who orients the president in the art of torture and the truth behind his powers. Still another storyline is woven into the others, one surrounding an off-panel surveillance team observing the activities of a young woman, eventually taking her into custody under suspicion of indiscernible non-activity. All of these narrative threads come together on a recently discovered planet in the Andromeda Galaxy, a territory outside of the reach of the Geneva Convention (and possibly the laws of physics) that has reached a secret agreement with the United States. On this desolate and surreal landscape we find hooded detainees, interrogated combatants, and the disturbing apotheosis of President Obama/Nixon.
If this sounds completely alien to the kind of work you’ve come to expect from the author of Journalism and Footnotes in Gaza, as off-planet as the Andromeda setting in this graphic novel, then you’d be right. Sacco’s latest work may be outlandish, but its outlandishness is all part of the message. There are multiple targets at play here, making Bumf arguably the most politically charged comic the writer has created to date. Sacco brings together the atrocities of the World War I, America’s entanglements in Vietnam, Nixonian politics and paranoia, the tragedies of 9/11, George W. Bush’s failed policies in the War on Terror, America’s dubious alliances during this “war,” government surveillance, and the unrealized promises of the Obama Administration. And peppered throughout the narrative are not-so-subtle references to (in)famous media wartime visuals, especially as they relate to the Vietnam War and Guantanamo Bay. Sacco uses these to connect seemingly disparate historical events, illustrating the underlying threads woven throughout the American project that create the aforementioned outlandish tapestry. Two of the most effective examples of this occur in the titular section of the book, “I Buggered the Kaiser,” where home-front protests against the First World War take on the look of the Kent State massacres of 1970, and where the war with imperial Germany is represented via the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém by South Vietnam General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. By connecting historical events in this manner, Sacco is not only making a broad statement about American hegemony, but also commenting pointedly on the contemporary cultural/political moment.
Sacco’s satiric indictment is timely. It comes during the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, a perfect opportunity not only to “commemorate” the occasion but to underscore the emergence of the United States onto the world stage. The first four sections of the book, the earliest created for Bumf, are all anchored in this time period. Indeed, one highly detailed two-page spread of the battlefield is reminiscent of Sacco’s earlier The Great War: July 1, 1916: The First Day of the Battle of the Somme, a magnificent wordless 24-foot-long accordion-fold panorama that captures the absurdities and the horror of the Somme. These images of armies and wartime atrocities eventually resurface toward the end of Bumf, where President Obama/Nixon — now hooded à la Abu Ghraib…although at this point in the narrative, almost everyone is hooded as the infamous detainees — honors the commander who buggered the Kaiser, complete with celebration, legions of hooded figures, and a reference to the iconic V-J Day in Times Square photo.
Standing behind all of this chaos is the nameless, nebulous figure working for the president, a Dick Cheney-inspired shadowy presence who seems to have his hand in all of the nefariousness. He’s a chicken-like — chicken hawk? — character with a cartoonish human head, and he proves to be the power behind the throne. In fact, this figure functions as the narrating framing device of the book, introducing the events with a biblical Genesis-like manner. If there’s any lingering question as to who this strange creature may reference, the back cover of the book — the last strip in Bumf — put it to rest. There, we see the nameless human-headed chicken, possibly in retirement and fishing in Wyoming.
This first volume of Bumf pulls no punches and is certainly one of the great comics of late 2014. And I’m assuming that this is the first of a planned multivolume title, since “Vol. 1” is prominently displayed on the cover. But might this first-volume designation be nothing more than a ruse, something planted to confound our expectations as to where Joe Sacco may be going next, something akin to the absurd national security misdirections composing much of Sacco’s narrative? If so, then Bumf may truly be read as a modern-day underground, waging guerilla cultural warfare against readers’ sensibilities as well as their expectations.
Check out Bumf, Vol. 1 as well as other books by Joe Sacco: