Notes From a Defeatist is a collection of the first stories Joe Sacco published. In other words, it’s the kind of book you publish when you become famous.

Sacco certainly deserves that fame – he’s one of the best-known war correspondents of our time and without doubt the most famous of those that use the comic book format for their war reportage. If you’ve never read Sacco this is not really the place to start, you should rather seek out his masterworks about the Bosnian war,The Fixer or Safe Area Goražde, or his book about the situation in Palestine, Palestine and Footnotes in Gaza.

But Notes From a Defeatist is primarily interesting as the origin tale of an artist. How did he become this token war correspondent of the comic book world?

Sacco was born in Malta and raised in Australia and the US, where he studied journalism. But journalism bored him to tears so the hobby, drawing comics, soon became his main job. But interestingly through them he would find his way back to journalism, since most of his main works are highly journalistic works – even if they subscribe to artistic values as well.

NotesFromaDefeatistThe previous paragraph is something I used in a radio show about Sacco’s Bosnian tales (as well as other Balkan war comics – it’s here, but in Icelandic) – and then I would add: “It’s worth pointing out I had to find those biographical tidbits about Sacco from the internet, we’ll learn precious little about his past in his comics.”

But the Sacco that was a mystery to me back then springs up on the pages of this book. Sadly, we don’t see much of his journalistic career – I would have loved to see his views on uninspiring newsrooms. But it’s like he only started to take his drawing seriously after that chapter in his life.

What we do see is mainly this decade where he is trying to find himself – after he abandons journalism and before he truly makes it in comic books. The first story, “Cartoon Genius,” is a funny look at the idealistic artist that knows he has stories to tell, but mainly things about how on earth he can pay the bills, and even eat the occasional steak. Yet in between he comforts himself by convincing himself of his unproven genius.

“Social Studies” is a flashback to his school years, albeit through others, already there he has put himself firmly in the role of the bystander. Unfortunately, his University friends are not half as interesting as his wartime friends. Some of the chapters are more of an exercise in style than anything else – “Eight Characters” are exaggerated portraits of men with names like Zachary Mindbuiscuit and Mark Victorystooge, and mostly focus on how men become the victims of either their own greed or their own ideals. Those are uneven stories about the extremes and the contradiction of the human animal, which became so much better when he found real humans that were equally exaggerated, albeit more nuanced.

Cartoonist on the road and the war in Malta

Sacco’s war stories have a touch of chaos to them, echoing the war itself. That style gets it’s first tryout in “In the Company of Long Hair” – a travel story about a road trip a band takes in the 80’s where Sacco seems to take on duties of both comic recorder, roadie and manager (in the sense of supplying the money when needed). It’s great to see a travel through this 80’s Europe, with Its border guards suspicious of young Americans with long hair. But this is still self-inflicted chaos, anybody can go home at any time, and it’s like Sacco senses the lack of real urgency, he seeks out the chaos, but he wants it to be real, about life and death.

That point truly hits home when he moves to Berlin and becomes obsessed with the first Gulf war. On the bars of the west it’s the barbarism further east that captures his imagination, his deepest conversations are with his Palestinian friends and you sense watching obsessively on a TV screen won’t be enough much longer. Yet through this story, “How I Loved the War,” you also see the typical socially aware westerner, full of opinions about faraway wars.

Also included are two actual war stories – and they are truly the best chapters of this volume, proving where Sacco’s real talent lies. The first, “When Good Bombs Happen to Bad People,” actually show his ear for dialogue better then his drawing skills, it’s more text than images and in a way the history of bombings as a collage poem. As the name implies this is about the bombings of the good guys – but even the good ones turn into real bastards during wartime. Sacco digs deep into the archives and uses them to tell the stories of British bombers carpeting Germany, the US bombings of Japan and much later, of Libya. The last part is the least surprising, this is the sort of newspeak we’ve also heard regarding the Gulf wars.

The WWII chapters are a more shocking read. This is our heroes, from the Good war, sounding like cartoon villains, through their very own words. When the war starts it’s all principles; air strikes on civilians is beneath them, wars should be fought between armies. But just a few short years later the tone is wildly different. Just the terror itself, the crushing of morale, seems to be the goal, as we can read in both very scientific and very poetic language.

A high-ranking British official turns scientific: “If we assume that the daytime population of the area attacked is 300,000, we may expect 220,000 casualties. 50 percent of these or 110,000 may expect to be killed. It is suggested that such an attack resulting in so many deaths, the great proportion of which will be key personnel, cannot help but have a shattering effect on political and civilian morale all over Germany …”

Meanwhile Time Magazine sees the poetic side of the slaughtering: “A dream came true last night for U.S. Army aviators; they got their chance to loose avalanches of fire bombs on Tokyo and Nogoya, and they proved that, properly kindled, Japanese cities will burn like autumn leaves.”

Sacco points out how the systematic bombings of Japanese cities has been largely forgotten through the horrors of the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even if some of them were more devastating in every way. Japanese houses at the time were easily flammable, so they would burst into flames quickly as the Americans rained down the bombs and left a million people in Tokyo homeless and between 80 and 130 thousand dead.

CarmenSacco.jpgBut how was it to actually live through constant bombings during WWII? Even for years? Sacco can’t give us a first-hand account of that – but his mother can. The best chapter in the book is actually by Carmen M. Sacco, illustrated by her son Joe. “More Women, More Children, More Quickly” is about growing up in Malta in the 30s and 40s.

Malta was strategically important for both the Axis powers and the Allied powers and Carmen was but six when that bomb threat became very real, in 1935, because of Mussolini declaring war on Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia). Then the kids got their first gas masks, even if those had already been trashed when the real air raids started. And would last for three years.

This is Sacco in his element, showing how war shapes ordinary lives. Army leaders and newspaper headlines play a supporting role at best while ordinary families are the heroes, the battle to live off food rationing, seeing your neighbors bodies on the streets – and watching a little girl do her very best to make it all the way to school – while the bombs fall all around.

Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson