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Notes from a DefeatistReview - Notes from a Defeatist
by Joe Sacco
Fantagraphics, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Sep 2nd 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 36)

Joe Sacco is a talented graphic artist best known for his works Palestine and Safe-Area Gorazde.  (I have to confess I haven't read these other works.)  Notes From a Defeatist collects work from 1986-1992.  It is organized into eleven parts, which are not chronological, but instead according to different themes.   Part Two, "Eight Characters," is all from 1987, except the last couple of stories, which are from 1991 and 1992.  Each story profiles a different loser character with a stupid name, such as Oliver Limpdingle, Arnold Homecastle, or Stanton K. Pragmatron.   They are energetic and angry, poking fun at modern life and the emptiness of people's preoccupations.  Sacco's drawing in these is classic comic book exaggeration of features and slapstick humor.  Part Four, "In the Company of Long Hair," is a record of Sacco's experience touring Europe with a rock band as their official artist/T-shirt seller.  As "true-life stories," it's more gripping and the drawing is more inventive, although it still relies very much on the standard comic book form.  At 32 pages long, you start to get to know the different characters better and you get a sense of the tensions and camaraderie that develops through people staying in such close quarters for several months. 

However, the book really shows off Sacco's talents when it comes to Part Five, "A Disgusting Experience," and Part Seven, "When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People."  It is in these parts that Sacco addresses political themes head-on, and his drawing style becomes far more innovative.  In these pieces, he addresses the horrors of war, and especially mass bombing, mainly in the Second World War.  Here the pictures fill the whole page, with a column of white on black text in a column on the left.  The drawing is intricate and detailed, and while it is still very stylized, it's far more sympathetic to its characters, except when they are the people whose decisions led to the bombing. 

Part Eight, "More Women, More Children, More Quickly." tells the story of his relative Carmen Sacco as a resident of the small island of Malta, which was heavily bombed between 1935-43.  Part Nine, "How I Loved the War," tells of Joe Sacco's growing preoccupation with war and his thoughts as the first Gulf War took place in 1991.  Those comics that feature the artist are a little less interesting, because really most readers will have little interest in his personal life -- what is powerful in his work is his concern about politics and his anger for the lies that people tell about war in order to justify their actions. 

Notes From a Defeatist is a difficult book to read from cover to cover because it becomes repetitious after a few stories, and the tone is always full of anger, occasionally mixed with some grief or humor.  Nevertheless, Sacco's work is extremely accomplished and at least some of it makes a powerful statement.  This collection is probably best for those who are already familiar with his work and have enjoyed it. 

 

© 2003 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Link: Fantagraphics Books

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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