Ignatz Update 1: Sammy The Mouse #3

Posted by on February 19th, 2011 at 5:15 AM

In the first of a four-part series about recent comics from the joint Fantagraphics-Coconino Ignatz line, Rob reviews Sammy The Mouse #3, by Zak Sally.

Though it’s flying a bit under the radar now, the joint Fantagraphics-Coconino Ignatz line publishing project has produced some of my favorite comics of the past five years.  While all of the series are clearly labors of love, Zak Sally’s Sammy The Mouse feels as much like therapy-on-the-page as it does a comics narrative.  Like many of the Ignatz artists, Sally is drawing inspiration from 1920s comic strip cartooning, using it as a template to explore some deeply personal aspects of his own life.  Whether or not the personal aspects of the comic refer to current or past events isn’t relevant, nor is proving my particular supposition essential to appreciating and fully apprehending what Sally is trying to do here.  This is a story about purpose, inertia, the road blocks we throw up for ourselves and the ways in which we are forced to interact with a demanding and frequently demeaning world.  This book feels intimate because unlike his past work, Sammy The Mouse has an immediacy to it that’s quite different in tone from his earlier, more distant (but no less visceral) comics.

Anyone following this series should prepare themselves by re-reading issues 1 and 2 before tackling the newest issue.  Sally is delicately balancing a number of visual motifs that double as long-term narrative devices: a bullet flying in the air, a moustache sinking in the ocean, a pair of eyes blinking in the dark, and unseen voices offering direction to lost souls like Sammy and best friend Puppy Boy.  Sammy lives in a shabby, crowded urban environment that’s clearly seen better days, like most of its residents.   Each issue more-or-less resets with Sammy in his house, staring at the walls.  Sally really gets at that feeling that’s a combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia, the awful sensation that the only thing worse than staying inside is going outside.  In the first two issues, events conspired to make Sammy leave the house and have an “adventure” that felt like a seedy, drunken version of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse adventures.  While Sammy was pushed and pulled in all sorts of unpleasant ways in the first two issues, what happened here felt worse.

Instead of an outside force pulling him out, it was the awful realization of how disgusting his bathroom was and how little he really wanted to clean it, despite his using that as an excuse to get him.  In the first chilling scene, Sammy parrots his hidden voice word-for-word in order to create an excuse to leave.  When he visits his friend Puppy Boy, he’s far worse off than our protagonist, working on a “project” in a paranoiac state while sitting in the dark.  The characters are pushed along by their unseen voices, as Sammy is told to bring a shovel and Puppy Boy told to draw a map.  Even drunken loudmouth Feekes (who feels so much like a character based on a real person that it’s palpable) is hiding secrets from Sammy, concealing the presence of the mysterious, silent and vicious Him, a skeletal creature with sharp teeth.  The apparent aimlessness of Sammy’s “adventure” ends with him encountering a barkeep who happens to be a talking fish in a bowl–wearing a moustache.  It’s a very different sort of ending, marking a transition point of sorts.

Sally’s comics have an ugly physical quality to them that I’ve always liked, but the two-color process he uses here pushes the ugly/beautiful tension even further.  The ugliness I refer to is the deliberate messiness of certain corners of the page: a squiggle here, a patch of darkness there, or the employment of a ragged or scratchy sets of lines.  The blue/sepia color gives the book an air of being something old, of being an artifact of sorts.  Animation seems to be as much an influence as comic strips, both in terms of the character design (Disneyish anthropomorphic animals gone to seed, but with an organic design rather than as part of a specific parody) and the overall look.  The colors add to this cartoon effect and set off some of the more ragged lines with a genuine sense of beauty.  Sally is careful not to overdo it with color, leaving lots of white space as Sammy tries to negotiate his world.  The care and thought that Sally put into adapting his comic into the Ignatz format shows on every page and makes the story resonate all the more.

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