sacco_harpers.jpgJust read Joe Sacco’s “Down! Up!” from the latest Harper’s. A new strip from Sacco is a relatively rare thing, and 16 new pages is certainly a welcome event, especially when they’re this good. Reporting from Iraq, Sacco has sat in on a couple of American officers training a group of Iraqis to be soldiers in the country’s new army. You know, the ones that are getting killed faster than pretty much everyone else there.

Sacco shows how training this fledgling bunch of civillians to effectively combat the insurgency is no picnic for the Americans, who necessarily have to be tough since people’s lives will be depending on the effectiveness of these men under fire. At the same time, the dilemma of the recruits is made apparent: “If you work for the Americans, the Mujahadeen will kill you; if you work for the Mujahadeen, the Americans will kill you; and if you stay home, you won’t earn any money.” It is distressing to see how these ordinary people, most of them obviously unsuited for the army, are so desperate for work that they will enter what is likely the most dangerous job in the country. Without editorializing unduly, and without actually showing us any of the dangers they will be facing – it’s a very stripped down, at times almost claustrophobic story – Sacco makes us fear for the well-being of these people.

This is achieved through his use of the comics medium: while his draughtsmanship is never elegant, it has gained a lot in expressiveness over the years. His use of posture and facial expression is essential to the effectiveness of the story here. And being the astute observer he is, he also manages to mine the situation for humor: I can’t help but laugh at the crudity of wit of the drill instructors, for example, when the recruits are not able to keep up with the endless pushups assigned to them as ‘punishment’; ‘fucking the ground’ – it’s funny and cruel and ultimately emblematic of a thoroughly unhappy encounter of people who should really all be active elsewhere, off the ground.