Sam’s Strip: The Comic About Comics
Review by KC Carlson
After a slight delay, Sam’s Strip by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas is now shipping from Fantagraphics Books, and it is everything that I hoped it would be. (I previewed this book last fall, in one of my columns for Westfield Comics, with some sample strips.) It features the complete 20-month run (October 16, 1961, to June 1, 1963, almost 510 daily strips), with excellent reproduction.
There are two separate sets of annotation in the back of the book — historical (explaining all the topical references in the strip by comics historian Brian Walker (The Comics Before 1945, The Comics Since 1945), and anecdotal notes by Sam’s Strip co-creator and artist Jerry Dumas. Dumas’ notes are both very self-critical, as an artist, as well as very amusing in telling tales of encountering other artists whose characters were being used in the strips.
Amazingly, although not really surprising for the time, none of the other artists or syndicates ever complained about their characters being used in Sam’s Strip, including big-name creators like Walt Disney or Charles Schulz (although both creators received the original artwork of the strips their characters appeared in as gifts from Dumas). Obviously, nothing like this could ever happen today, especially with the modern-day caretakers of both Disney’s and Schulz’s legacies — or at least, not without large amounts of money exchanging hands.
(On a personal note, as a child, I wrote a fan letter to Mr. Schulz, for which I got a much-treasured personal reply. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to see a letter from “Sparky” to Jerry Dumas reproduced in this book, on the very same stationary as my letter! Sorry, having a geek moment…)
One thing I was not prepared for in reading the entirety of Sam’s Strip was how politically oriented and then-topical it was (thus, the obvious need for Walker’s excellent notes). One of the semi-regular characters in the strip is the much-used “man with the battered globe-head” from many, many editorial cartoons of the era. The Yellow Kid, who first appeared in editorial-type cartoons, also was an occasional visitor. And one strip even features Thomas Nast’s “Boss Tweed” caricature.
Oddly, several other characters from other comics strips almost became semi-regular characters. Happy Hooligan appeared frequently, as an inept (what else?) comic foil to Sam. Humpty Dumpty, as well as other Alice in Wonderland characters, also appeared with some frequency. They must have been favorites of Dumas, as it can’t have been easy to copy Sir John Tenniel’s style frequently.
One of the better Dumas anecdotes is the story of how other artists assumed that he just cut and pasted the other characters into the strip. Dumas reminds us that the strip was produced much before affordable photocopiers were developed and that every re-creation of other characters in the strip was done entirely by hand — a remarkable feat in seeing the complete run of the strip. The now famous (and celebrated) “Comic Characters Convention” week, featuring dozens of other characters in each strip, actually took several weeks to produce.
But Sam’s Strip was much more than just a series of guest appearances from other comic strips. The series played with the occasionally absurd conventions of comics itself, from word balloons and sound effects to action lines and panel borders. Many of the best gags of the strip revolve around the office “cartoon prop closet”. Something never commented on in the strip greatly amused me — how Sam’s desk randomly changed from being a basic desk, to something occasionally more ornate, to finally a basic wooden crate by the end of the strip.
Not everything worked in the strip. A lengthy series involving a “Mouse Pack” club (a henpecked husbands’ version of Sinatra’s “Rat Pack”) quickly devolved into some badly-dated stereotypical anti-wife jokes. And a magical fairy character named Pixy, although cute, tilted the strip way too far into the realm of absurdity with the introduction of magic into the already chaotic goings-on. The former idea didn’t have anything at all to do with the concept of the strip, while the latter just took the freewheeling concept too far.
Besides the annotations, the 192-page book also includes introductions by both creators about Sam’s Strip‘s origins, including lots of unpublished sketches, photographs, and sales brochure material. Closing out the book is a short overview of the follow-up strip Sam and Silo, with much gorgeous and lyrical artwork by Dumas that makes me long for more.
Finally, a big tip of the hat to the fine folks at Fantagraphics for getting Sam’s Strip back into print after all these decades. As usual, they have spared no expense in putting together a visually excellent package. And, as Sam’s Strip wasn’t that popular in its own lifetime, Fantagraphics should be commended for taking a chance on a project that probably isn’t going to be an instant best-seller for them, although as “cult” projects go, it’s one of the very best. If you ever had more than a passing interest in newspaper strips, you owe it to yourself to check out this collection. And if you’re the type who loves “inside” jokes, meta-references, or just love material about how comics work, Sam’s Strip is a lovely companion, of sorts, to both Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as well as Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art. There’s an even more direct link to Mort Walker’s humorous The Lexicon of Comicana. (A complimentary — it says so on the press release — copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)