The opening panel of “Cartoon Genius,” a story in Sacco’s Notes From A Defeatist (page 10). All images courtesy of Fantagraphics.
Western culture is, at best, hesitant to grant drawings the authority to tell true stories.  But when comics are involved, this hesitancy has historically devolved into open skepticism or hostility. As a result, the handful of manifestos that defend the genre known as “comics journalism” often end up in a sort-of defensive crouch.
Dan Archer, a self-described “graphic journalist,” renders one such tract and confronts one of the genre’s “detractors.” Their objection to mixing comics with journalism? “Because it’s drawn, therefore subjective!” Meanwhile, other critics lean heavily on the bankrupt (but persistent) cultural cliche that comics are an inherently juvenile medium. 
The cartoonist most credited with advancing the banner of comics journalism is, of course, Joe Sacco. And if anyone has the cultural capital to refute toxic assumptions about the medium, it’s Sacco. The man coined the term “comics journalism,” and he has produced masterpieces of astonishing depth and complexity. 
“I guess I’m considered … one of the more serious of the so-called graphic novelists,” Sacco told me in a recent interview, calling his public persona “a little solemn.”
It’s easy to see why. His subject matter is, as he puts it, “difficult” (which is a self-effacing understatement). Sacco has spent decades collecting testimony from survivors and witnesses of genocide, war, and other extreme forms of violence. His meticulous portrayals of people who suffer enormous tragedy — but who end up as mere “footnotes” in Western and colonial histories — are intense. His comics are emphatically on the side of the dispossessed and marginalized, but they resist the temptation to render people as one-dimensional heroes and villains.
As a result, Sacco has become a giant in the comics community and garnered a slew of accolades, including the American Book Award for Palestine (1996), the Ridenhour Book Prize for Footnotes in Gaza (2009), and two Eisners.
By the time The Great War (2013) appeared, Sacco’s cultural prestige was secure. The New York Times judged that the narrative panorama merited both a book review and a news story announcing its imminent publication. Sacco’s moral seriousness was unimpeachable, his blockbuster sales guaranteed. He (probably) no longer had to survive by “prying bread crumbs from the beaks of pigeons,” as he once joked. 
Then came Bumf (2014). And it was — well, not quite a success.
“It sold so poorly, I can’t even tell you,” Sacco told me. 
Bumf is anything but solemn. Drawn mostly during Barack Obama’s two terms as president, it is a surreal and darkly hilarious evisceration of American imperial power. Though it ranges from World War I to the present, much of the book’s motivating ire stems from the disillusionment with Obama’s broken promises of hope and change. The comic replaces America’s first Black president with a resurrected Richard Nixon, who immediately falls in love with twenty-first-century America’s drone war and state-sanctioned terror. Bumf also features nudity on more pages than not (I counted), yet still manages to be the least erotic comic I’ve ever read.
In a deft recognition that he’s betraying cultural expectations, Sacco offers this mock-apology on the publisher’s page: “They expect better things from me. They’ll never put me on a stamp now.” The book feels like a direct attack on Sacco’s image as the standard-bearer of “serious” comics journalism — an indirect piece of character assassination planned and executed by its target.
“It was meant to be something that would … fly in the face of what most people were used to,” Sacco told me.
But, while the book may be “puerile, disgusting, and beyond redemption,” Sacco sees it as an integral part of his oeuvre. 
“I do really consider it a part of my serious work. It wasn’t a throwaway for me,” he said. Then, with a laugh: “People might have thrown it away.”
Mainstream cultural gatekeepers ignored Bumf. Apart from a brief review in The Guardian, most critical engagement with the book happened on comics websites and blogs. Perhaps more surprisingly, comics scholars have barely addressed it.  But it’s not just Bumf; it’s also hard to find people who pay attention to the satirical underbelly of Sacco’s more mainstream comics. Sometimes this side shows itself in uncomfortable observations about his subjects, but such comments are almost always ways to lacerate himself. In fact, a careful reading of Sacco’s books — both his journalism and his more obscure works — reveals a recurring icon: artistic and narrative self-flagellation.
Sacco’s newest book, Paying the Land (2020), was released to widespread, justified acclaim; in its wake, I wish to offer a counternarrative to the typical understanding of Sacco’s comics. (This is driven partly by my love of Bumf, which I think has been criminally undervalued as a comic.) Sadly, the standard reading of Sacco as a “moral draughtsman” often overlooks his self-conscious satire.  In what follows, I try to take his sardonic side seriously by following his portraits of self-satire in and out of his comics.
In doing so, I hope to foster a more nuanced critical understanding of Sacco. He’s not an artist who has put juvenile work “safely” behind him in favor of serious work. Instead, he’s a cartoonist who has taken conventions from the underground tradition and used them to reveal ruptures in the practice of visual witnessing.
From Cartoon Genius…
For fans who have followed Sacco’s career closely, the observation that he draws himself in an unflattering light is, I suppose, hardly a revelation.
Even a cursory glance at Notes From A Defeatist (2003), a collection of his early comics, quickly reveals a recurring impulse towards self-deprecation. In “Meat,” Sacco draws himself as an overbearing defender of pork and beef who dismisses the “moral implications” of eating animal flesh with relish: “Gimme a break. Wanna nibble a celery stick like some rodent?”  In this role, Sacco narrates an argument so convincing (within the comic’s narrative logic, anyway) that his vegetarian opponents end up consuming Sacco himself. The satire literally destroys the satirist, suggesting that the extreme position Sacco’s cartoon avatar adopts is in fact to blame for his demise.
The collection’s opening salvo, “Cartoon Genius,” features a long-haired Sacco living on bread, tomato soup, and his own artistic principles.  The cartoon version of Sacco once had a chance at a career with things like dental coverage and money for an occasional steak. But he “threw it all away to become a cartoon genius.” The appellation “cartoon genius” mocks cliched ideas about the iconoclastic artist who lives solely for their craft. Sacco first declares his aversion to “hack work,” but then (in a sudden about-face) accepts a gig doing storyboards for an old classmate’s corporate client. The comic ultimately has little sympathy for Sacco’s character, and in a seeming act of narrative retribution for “selling out,” his rush job is canceled in the final panel.
But Sacco’s satiric self-portrait in “Cartoon Genius” is multi-layered and not reducible to a simple performance of self-deprecation. The reader is also a target. The Sacco on the page often speaks to us directly and at one point observes: “My pain is your entertainment.” Sure, we can laugh at Sacco for selling out his dubious principles for a steak. But is the reader who draws pleasure from his squalid conditions any better? While Sacco’s description of his own “pain” is swathed in a heavy layer of self-mockery, the strip suggests that his voyeuristic audience should feel guilty for consuming it — in a cheap comic book, no less.
This idea that Sacco is debasing himself for the benefit of his readership also appears in the first issue of Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, a short-lived comics anthology series he edited for Fantagraphics. In his editorial “Manifesto,” Sacco describes his repulsive living situation and explains why hasn’t moved, as he could (allegedly) afford something better:
Why did I need an environment that “reeks of disintegration?” you ask. (Actually, I’m asking on your behalf.) Well, I did it all for you, dear reader, to become a better editor. Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, as I see it, is a companion piece to the disintegration of Western civilization that is upon us … And how better to gear up for the task of editing such a purposeful publication than by living disintegration allegorically, in a small, meaningful way. 
While the tone is sardonic, Sacco’s authentic frustration with the “transparent mockeries of justice perpetrated by the U.S. government at home and abroad” still bleeds through. Sacco edited Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy during the Reagan administration, and the first issue features a satirical advertisement for a “Nicaragua Invasion Contest,” which invited readers to submit justifications (in 25 words or less) for just such an imperial conquest.  Indeed, the scholar Daniel Worden sees the roots of Sacco’s later work as present in this early satire: “This political satire differs in tone from Sacco’s comics journalism, though his political consciousness is evident in all of his work.” 
But political awareness is not the only thread one can follow from past to present. Sacco’s practice of lacerating himself in service of his readers also travels with him, moving from his autobiographical gags into his early documentary comics.
… to Comics Journalist …
This self-satire is most obvious in Sacco’s style of drawing himself. Even as his books become more detailed and realistic, his own self-representations remain noticeably grotesque. His lips and nose are enormous and caricatured. His eyes remain hidden behind the opaque circles of his glasses, and his body language and expressions are often exaggerated. Sacco has spoken on several occasions about the influence of the underground “bigfoot style” on his own work, and he says this visual treatment of himself wasn’t intentional. As he told Portland Monthly in 2009:
When I started drawing the Palestine comics, everything I drew was very cartoony; everything was exaggerated. That was the only way I knew how to draw. At some point I realized, this is serious material, I need to be as representational as I can be, which isn’t that great, but I just sort of left my own character behind. Now it would seem so self-conscious to make myself look completely realistic that I just can’t bring myself to do it. People have also said the more nondescript it is, the easier it is for people to put themselves in my shoes.
Whatever his intention, the effect of Sacco’s less-than-flattering self-portrait is to create a degree of distance between himself and his subjects. He is the anomaly in his works, the outsider (this is also literally true, as he is usually working in foreign countries). This helps remind the reader that he is present for a particular purpose: to gather and reproduce people’s experiences for a comic.
Sacco also achieves this distancing in other ways, some of which are deeply uncomfortable. “America Man,” a three-page sequence near the end of Safe Area Goražde (2000), is one such example.  As a stranger in the town of Goražde, a UN-designated “safe area” during the war in Eastern Bosnia, Sacco is there to gather stories from the town’s residents, many of whom have survived horrific trauma. He opens this particular episode with a sardonic reference to his own privileges as a foreign journalist, or “the palpable fruits of card-carrying membership in the Land of the Free.” Yet this status is double-edged, and it means he must also serve as both witness and comforter to desperate people. Sacco, assessing himself, is characteristically self-deprecating: “I was not always the man for the job.”
An example of his failure to be an ‘ideal witness’ unfolds over the next two pages. During his first trip to Goražde, Sacco gets stuck listening to a Bosnian man he calls “F.” While Sacco’s narrative voice insists he’s listening politely, F.’s English is fragmentary. Sacco’s attention is drawn across the table to another, more legible conversation. But F., noticing Sacco’s detachment, forces himself back into Sacco’s field of vision and attacks his motives: “Journalist… Why you come? Money?”
Over the course of seven panels, F.’s face gets larger and larger in the frame, as he unloads his anger in staccato phrases. He mentions the Srebrenica massacre, in which thousands of Muslims were murdered by Bosnian Serb troops, and accuses Sacco of not “[writing] for Srebrenica.” What F. means by this is not totally clear, and Sacco declines to translate. What’s important is that Sacco is forced to confront his own instrumentalism — his selective use of people’s stories, and his sorting of people into those who are valuable for his comic and those who aren’t. Sacco’s emotional reaction to this is difficult to read: “I wanted to put a hundred thousand miles between me and Bosnia, between me and these horrible, disgusting people and their fucking wars and pathetic prospects.”
Most people would probably prefer to conceal these kinds of unflattering reactions, and including them in a work of journalism is almost unthinkable. Also, Sacco does include a discussion of the massacre in the book — perhaps an attempt to “write for Srebrenica,” even though his book is focused on Goražde.  Yet, Sacco’s inclusion of his own unflattering thoughts here seems to be a productive form of self-denigration, and it reminds us that the position of the journalistic witness is not morally unimpeachable.
While Sacco continues to draw himself as a character in later books, Safe Area Goražde is probably the peak of self-flagellation in his journalism. It’s not that his self-critiques disappear, exactly. But they do become more muted, perhaps with the aim of foregrounding the experiences of his subjects. That’s how scholars Andrea Lunsford and Adam Rosenblatt interpret the progression of Sacco’s works anyway: “Having expressed his doubts about journalism in general, and about himself in particular, Sacco seems to have decided to live with those limitations and move on, allowing other characters and other issues to move to the center of his books.” 
Lunsford and Rosenblatt’s assessment captures the trajectory of Paying the Land (2020) quite well. Sacco’s presence still helps to structure much of the narrative, but it’s telling that his face appears nowhere in the entire first chapter. Instead, the first twenty-two pages are devoted to a meticulous visual recreation of the Dene People’s traditional way of life.  Sacco cedes the job of narrating the opening chapter to Paul Andrew, a Dene man whose descriptions of his own nomadic childhood provide a verbal backbone to the drawings. Sacco’s appearance is marked only by occasional questions and what Hillary Chute would call his “haptic presence” — the physical memory of his hand archived in marks on the page. 
In fact, the most striking image of self-critique in Paying the Land is not of Sacco at all. Confronted with the idea that his own reporting process might be replicating the dynamics of colonialism, Sacco draws the face of a Dene man with the top of his head sheared off and an oil derrick where his scalp should be.  Sacco’s commentary, in narrative boxes that literally cover the man’s face, muses on the implications: “After all, what’s the difference between me and an oil company? We’ve both come here to extract something.” It’s a blunt comparison, but it makes visible the friction between his ethical imperative to document the Dene’s history and the potentially exploitative nature of doing so. In fact, it understands that the very process of documenting might, in fact, have its own traumatic effects.
… to Graphic Novelist
I argued above that Sacco’s grotesque self-portraits have a particular journalistic effect. At the same time, their recurring presence suggests that his hand has refused to let go of a connection to his earliest work.
For his journalism to flourish, Sacco’s satiric impulses — so visible in Notes From A Defeatist — have been suppressed. His marginalized subjects in Palestine, Bosnia, and the Northwest Territories aren’t suitable targets for a cutting pen; satire that punches down just isn’t his style.  Likewise, the detailed linework that makes Paying the Land so beautiful is an approach that he’s forced himself to adopt. Sacco’s description of his process makes it sound like his hand actively resists the movements that produce his most celebrated comics: “I have to sort of pound my drawing into shape for my journalistic work,” Sacco told me. “I can see the strain in it.”
Bumf, then, feels like a savage howl against these limits on Sacco’s self-expression. Stylistically, it feels closer to his late-‘80s work in Yahoo and Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, with its looser linework and cartoony style of caricature. Indeed, Sacco sees Bumf as an extension of his early underground style. It was a book he says is “near and dear to [his] heart,” in large part because he drew in his natural style.
“That’s how I want to draw,” he said. “That’s what my hand tends towards. So it’s almost like a different physical experience.”
But Bumf is not just a return to Sacco’s older methods of cartooning. It’s also informed by thoughts he’s had while doing journalism — thoughts he couldn’t express on the page.
“You really have to keep yourself within certain bounds of what you can say based on the facts you know,” he said. “But sometimes you see things and you feel things that aren’t journalistic but that you kind of want to express.”
So what happens when Sacco lets loose on the page with several decades of journalistic work behind him? For one thing, his self-satire roars back to life in a terrifying way. Bumf features an alternate-universe version of Sacco who gets a position in the presidential administration as a “graphic novelist” where he helps legitimate state-sponsored torture, bombing, and surveillance — the types of crimes he’d normally be observing as an empathetic witness.
In the short episode “Our Hearts,” Sacco’s first job is to help the semi-fictional President Obama/Nixon with damage control — or, uh, public relations.  After a drone strike kills a crowd of Vietnamese civilians, the president rehearses a meaningless platitude, striking a different pose each time: stoic, tearful, victorious (once, he dons a Captain American outfit). Meanwhile, Sacco adopts the role of stage director and offers feedback (“Let’s stick with that first one, Mr. President.”). When the two visit the site of the bombing so Obama/Nixon can deliver his line, Sacco literally carries the president’s podium on his back.
We already know the performance of sympathy is cruel and absurd. But that point is underscored when, two panels after the president’s departure, the villagers are bombed again. In the final panel, the distinctive silhouette of a drone serves as a spiky period to the sordid mess.
Sacco’s self-portrait in these pages is far darker and more cynical than anything we find in his other works. The fictional Sacco in Bumf isn’t just selling out like Sacco the “cartoon genius”; he’s serving as an active collaborator in domestic policies of control and imperial violence. His self-portrait suggests a certain type of journalist, the ones who buy into the notion that they’re “part of a system of power,” as Sacco put it to me. In Bumf, the White House press room has been replaced by an enormous hot tub referred to, cynically, as “the people’s jacuzzi.” 
This critique of journalism is enacted by Bumf’s formal structure as well. Again and again, Sacco confronts us with iconic images of war, but redrawn in his own hand and incorporated into Bumf’s surreal narrative. This includes the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, often referred to as “Napalm Girl” but officially titled “The Terror of War.” In Bumf, the reworked image captures the moment of a drone strike and sets the stage for the events of “Our Hearts” (it serves as the story’s first panel).
In this context, the image is drained of any representational power it might once have held. As a culture, we like to believe that such shocking images of atrocity can change things. A naive logic suggests that shocking the national conscience will translate to changes in policy. Bumf, however, confronts us with a reality where the image-maker — in this case, Sacco, who is now the one literally framing these iconic photos — has been co-opted by the state.
Thus “The Terror of War” now kicks off an endless cycle of power and public relations, in which Obama/Nixon bombs a village, offers an empty platitude, then bombs the mourners. More broadly, all the photos Sacco re-draws in Bumf are incorporated into an unbroken chain of state-sponsored violence that stretches back to World War I. It’s a bleak portrait of modernity, one structured by interminable war in which dissenting images are simply absorbed.
Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sacco is pessimistic about Bumf’s potential as a satirical force. I asked for his thoughts on the role of satire when it comes to confronting the horrors of state repression and violence. He responded with an anecdote about Bumf’s reception:
I was in Switzerland to give a talk at a literature house. And it turns out that the American Embassy is sponsoring the talks there. And for some reason, I’m grouped in with Americans, even though my citizenship is Maltese. Someone showed up from the American Embassy — I can’t remember what level that person was — and, before I gave my talk, just basically said, “You can see how we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of press … This shows that we’re really open to a debate about what our society is and everything.” And that’s when I realized how toothless I was … When someone would use something like Bumf to basically say how great it is that we have freedom of speech.
One of the few characters in Bumf to resist the state — a bomber-pilot-turned-drone-operator named Ginger — gets executed for his crimes. He’s put before a firing squad and then killed off-panel by the story’s enigmatic, cynical, chain-smoking, bird-man (the character who first lured Sacco into the people’s jacuzzi). As Ginger bites a bullet, the bird-man remarks, with a straight face, “We welcome this debate.” 
Ginger’s only crime is that he wants out. Out of the state and its war games. But Bumf’s author — who levels such a savage attack on both — isn’t even worth getting out the firing squad.
All of the Above
When looking at Sacco’s work from 10,000 feet, it’s easy to pretend Bumf is an anomaly.
The very design of the book seems to encourage this treatment, as it feels deceptively self-contained. The typical paratextual features — an author bio, a list of other works, glowing endorsements, and other gestures to a larger reality — are absent. Even the acknowledgments page is atypical. Instead of praising friends, loved ones, and his agent, Sacco thanks Cesare Beccaria and Giorgio Agamben (perhaps equally telling is the fact that the “Also By Joe Sacco” page in Paying the Land neglects to mention Bumf).
Maybe scholars and critics lack the theoretical tools to properly grapple with Bumf. Or — the more likely scenario — perhaps the tools are out there, it’s just that they haven’t been applied. As I’ve tried to argue, we should resist the urge to toss Bumf in the trash or overlook the sardonic parts of Sacco’s journalism. When a cartoonist of serious stature decides to violently upend cultural expectations, we should probably pay attention. I have only scratched the surface, but I hope that my small intervention here can prompt critics, scholars, and interested readers to push what I’ve done much further.
In this, I echo Gerry Mohr of the Miracle Workers, who wrote an introduction for But I Like It (2006), Sacco’s collected comics on music:
Sacco has come to be admired for having elevated serious comics with his carefully drawn and written reportage, and for having given his medium a previously unsought historical weight. Nonetheless his modern reader would do well to observe that such distinctions — between the foreign-correspondent and the gag-writer, between serious and silly — will in the case of this particular artist encourage an incomplete critical understanding. 
References and Footnotes
 I’m indebted to Hillary Chute’s Disaster Drawn and W.J.T. Mitchell’s Iconology for this insight.
 A 2003 New York Review of Books article on Joe Sacco’s earliest work is representative. Its author, David Hadju channels this assumption quite overtly and unironically: “How could the comic book, whose very name is a pejorative synonym for the outrageously fantastical, do any justice to the real world? Can a medium so good at depicting the overblown and the infantile really pare itself down and grow up?”
 Disaster Drawn, p. 197
 Notes From A Defeatist, p. 7
 In a Zoom conversation with Art Spiegelman earlier this year, Sacco said Fantagraphics, Bumf’s publisher, once sent him a $17 check for 6-months of sales in North America.
 Sacco attributes part of the book’s obscurity to the lack of promotion, which was a choice that he made. “With journalism, I understand the idea of explaining what I’m doing,” he told me. “People have questions about your method or what you saw or what you think or whatever it is, but with something like that kind of fiction — I just thought it was pretty self-explanatory. And to give away things is like defeating the purpose.”
 The phrase comes from Christopher Hitchens’s introduction to Safe Area Goražde and has appeared in many reviews and blurbs since.
 Notes From A Defeatist, pp. 52-5.
 Notes From A Defeatist, pp. 10-5.
 Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, Number 1, p. 1
 Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy, Number 1, p. 29
 The Comics of Joe Sacco, “Introduction,” p. 8
 Safe Area Goražde, pp. 190-2
 Safe Area Goražde, pp. 196-205
 The Rise of the American Comics Artist, Critique, Caricature, and Compulsion in Joe Sacco’s Comics Journalism, pp. 83-4
 Paying the Land, pp. 1-22
 Disaster Drawn, p. 206
 Paying the Land, p. 107
 Sacco’s short comic, “On Satire” (2015), drawn in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings, argues against the creation of offensive images that exist simply to “[tweak] the noses of Muslims.”
 Bumf, pp. 67-70
 Bumf, p. 62
 Bumf, p. 109
 But I Like It, p. xiv
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