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Notes From a Defeatist 

Thursday, Apr 3 2003

Joe Sacco is finally getting the attention he deserves. He is at once a skeptical, conscientious journalist and also among the most original cartoon illustrators to emerge in years. His book-length treatments of conflict in the Middle East and Bosnia are marked by keen insights, accurate reporting and compassion. The recent Notes From a Defeatist, an anthology of Sacco's earlier work, showcases political, historical and autobiographical pieces as well as an informed and biting sense of humor.

The collection opens with the bitterly self- deprecating six-page "Cartoon Genius" and is followed by a series of amusing satirical stories about greedy businessmen, pretentious artists, leftist political ideologues and maniac collectors. But Sacco really hits his stride with "In the Company of Long Hair," which chronicles his activities as a roadie with an American rock band touring Europe. The band members' womanizing, drug use, money and transportation problems — and their exploitation of Sacco — are vividly noted in his highly original graphic style. Characters are drawn from odd angles with enlarged body parts and savage, ugly faces. He eschews the use of panel borders in some portions of the piece, and employs unusually shaped, sometimes curved panels in others. His page layouts are unique, brilliant.

"A Disgusting Experience," also set abroad, is autobiographical. Sacco was born in Malta, and although he moved away when he was 1 and a half, "Every few years I come back." The story documents one of these trips to the homeland. He makes fun of himself and his family, picturing them as unsophisticated; and once more his illustration is striking, texturally mixed, employing distortion, unusual angles and curved panels.

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Sacco is fascinated by military history and strategy. "When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People" (which includes a bibliography and footnotes) chronicles several terrorist bombings aimed at civilians: the 1940­-45 British bombing of Germany, the U.S. bombing of Japan, and the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya. The text here consists of strips of quotes — sometimes brutal, sometimes dishonest, sometimes contradictory — by U.S. and British political and military leaders.

Sacco goes deeper into the topic in a piece about his mother's recollection of the bombing of Malta during World War II by Italians and Germans. In a direct, honest manner she discusses the suffering and dislocation that the frequent air raids caused the inhabitants of her island. And in "How I Loved the War," Sacco's horrified but ironic commentary about the 1991 Gulf War, he explains that the carnage sickens him, but admits to being a "War Junkie."

Comic books and graphic novels are frequently considered an intrinsically limited means of expression. But doubters need only to read Notes From a Defeatist to be won over.

NOTES FROM A DEFEATIST | By JOE SACCO Fantagraphics | 216 pages | $20 paperback

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