I can think of three possible meanings for the title of this comic. In my youth, ‘bumf’ was short for ‘bumfluff’, the fine hair that grows on the faces of teenage boys. That meaning is irrelevant. More recently, ‘bumf’ has signified the kind of material that people put stickers on their letter-boxes in a futile attempt to stave it off. Given that Joe Sacco’s reputation rests on meticulous journalism, and this book is scurrilous, quasi-libellous satire, perhaps the title suggests that this book is filling in time until he gets back to his real work. If so it’s ironic, because this is as serious a piece of commentary as you’re ever likely to come across.
The third possible meaning is indicated by the book’s subtitle, ‘I Buggered the Kaiser’. But perhaps, given that Sacco writes US English, that meaning would require the form ‘buttf’. (For reasons I don’t understand, anal rape of adult males is fair game for US humorists and satirists, unlike just about any other class of sexual nastiness.)
Anyhow, in Bumf Sacco casts aside his responsible-journalist persona and emerges as a satirist in the tradition of early Robert Crumb and pre-Maus Art Spiegelman. The front cover has an inset caricature of Richard Nixon, archetypal abuser of presidential authority, saying, ‘My name is Barack Obama … and I approve this message.’ Obama’s name is never mentioned again, but the main storyline – or one of them, the other one is the World War I epic referred to in the subtitle – features a resurrected Nixon who presides over the post-Abu Graibh, post-Snowden world of US surveillance, drones, rendition and torture machinery, and wonders, among other things, why there’s a beautiful Black woman in his bed.
There’s full frontal nudity on most pages, and quite a bit of it is en masse. And though the naked people tend to be plump and hedonistically involved, there’s something desperately pathetic about them – like the souls in Gustav Doré’s Inferno.
You’ll notice that in the foreground of this grimly cheerful image there are scenes of sexualised torture. There’s a lot more of that.
To extend the Dante comparison, Sacco puts himself in the frame – not as a privileged visitor like Dante, but as a graphic novelist who is complicit in the propaganda and violation of human rights that Nixon/Obama sanctions.
If you’ve seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s chilling documentary about Edward Snowden, you won’t find it easy to dismiss the extremity of Bumf as pure fantasy. The Nº 1 in the title suggests that there is more to come.
One of my regular birthday joys is that I can expect comics as birthday presents from my sons. This year, I was given Bumf and The Wake.The latter came in a plastic wrapper, with stickers proclaiming it to be the winner of the 2014 Eisner Award for the Best Limited Series. That makes it an excellent birthday present even before the plastic has been broken.
Sadly, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It’s as dystopian as Bumf, and plays with our fears about climate change in powerful ways, involving giant tidal waves and huge monsters rising from the depths of the ocean. The plot, which involves a rewriting of human evolution, is bold, inventive, and well resolved. The images are powerful and dynamic. But I’m just not part of the target audience. Where Bumf is animated by rage at abuse of power, The Wake plays on despair and that form of human self-loathing that infects parts of the environmental movement. Completely understandable, but something that needs to be resisted rather than indulged.