Shaenon Garrity reviews Sam’s Strip: The Comic About Comics by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas

Posted by on January 6th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Fantagraphics Books; 192 pp., $22.99; B&W; Softcover; ISBN: 9781560979722

Of the many comic strips, several of them short-lived, created by Mort Walker in the 1950s and 1960s, Sam’s Strip has accumulated the greatest mystique among cartoonists and comic-strip aficionados, first because of its extremely short run in newspapers, second because of its subject matter.  Written by Walker and drawn by Jerry Dumas, Sam’s Strip was, as the subtitle of the new Fantagraphics collection helpfully explains, “the comic about comics.”  The characters were aware they were in a comic strip, commented regularly on their fictional existence, and interacted with characters in other comic strips both classic and contemporary.

Alas, this conceit didn’t charm the public nearly as much as it did the members of the National Cartoonists Society, and Sam’s Strip died after 20 months in syndication, having appeared in a then-measly 60 newspapers.  (Nowadays, a cartoonist who gained 60 newspapers in his first year-and-a-half might be tempted to stick it out, although he still wouldn’t be making a living.)  Fourteen years after the strip’s demise, Walker and Dumas turned the characters into cops and transplanted them to a new strip, Sam and Silo, which continues today, now written and drawn entirely by Dumas.

Sam is a typical product of the Walker studio, physically reminiscent of Sarge from Beetle Bailey in a porkpie hat.  His most distinctive feature is his lack of a mouth; his collar goes all the way to his nose, although sometimes the corners of his mouth are visible when he smiles.  His personality is vaguely bolder and brasher than that of his milquetoast sidekick, unnamed in Sam’s Strip but christened Silo in Sam and Silo.  Attempts to add additional characters, like a sexy pixie named Pixy, fizzle.  The strip’s only other recurring characters are cameos from other comic strips, including Dick Tracy, Popeye, Blondie and Dagwood, Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse, the Toonerville Trolley skipper, and Happy Hooligan (it’s a running joke that he’s looking for work).  An editorial-cartoon representation of the Earth, with hangdog face, also drops by regularly.

Walker and Dumas clearly take pleasure in working in callbacks to classic comic strips, often with in-jokes only a handful of their readers were likely to catch.  Several strips are built around dense comic-strip crowd scenes, most notably in the “Comic Characters Convention” storyline in the week of April 30, 1962, which bursts with lovingly drawn representations of dozens of characters.  Dumas also does a fine pastiche of John Tenniel for a couple of strips set in Wonderland.  At other times, Sam and Silo claim to spend their free time wandering into the neighboring strips on the comics page, where they play cards with Dagwood or quaff corn squeezin’s with Snuffy Smith.  In the endnotes to the book, Dumas comments that he and Walker never ran into any legal trouble for appropriating characters; on the contrary, both Charles Schulz and the Disney Studios wrote to ask for the original artwork in which their characters appeared.  This type of casual homage, without advance permission, would almost certainly be impossible today, but at the time other cartoonists took Sam’s Strip as harmless fun.

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And harmless it is.  The trouble with reading Sam’s Strip today is that these types of metatextual gags are now associated with edgy, cynical comics.  Characters break the fourth wall in Doonesbury and Bloom County (in one of my favorite Bloom Countys, Milo complains that Opus’s maudlin search for his mother is like something out of a bad comic strip, causing Opus to ask timidly, “Do you think ‘Terry and the Pirates’ was a bad comic strip?”), in self-referential webcomics, and in The Simpsons.

Sam’s Strip doesn’t belong to that school of humor.  Aside from the self-referential material, it’s exactly the same humor as in any other Mort Walker strip: interchangable old jokes purchased from gag writers interspersed with topical humor carefully pruned down so as not to offend anyone.  There are political jokes about that hotheaded Khrushchev and how great it’d be to tear down the Berlin Wall — mildly conservative, yet not pugnacious enough to get any honest American newspaper subscriber up in a lather.  (A series of strips about Sam hiding in a bomb shelter is somewhat more amusing, primarily because the concept is transparently an excuse for Dumas to draw nothing but the bomb shelter chimney for a week.)  The political humor seems especially toothless considering that Sam’s Strip ran at the same time as Pogo in its glory days — not an easy point to forget, since Sam and Silo talk about Pogo.

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There are also running jokes about how old Sam’s car is.  And how much Silo dislikes his wife.  And how much Sam dislikes women in general.  Remember the days when comic-strip characters could spend a full week talking about how much they hate women without anyone questioning their heterosexuality?  I don’t.  I was born in 1978, thank God.

There’s a constant tension in Sam’s Strip between the airiness of the high concept and the mundanity of most of the actual jokes.  It doesn’t help that Sam and Silo are ill-defined characters, better at reacting to gag setups or dropping one-liners than producing humor out of their own personalities.   And yet many of the metatextual gags are funny and fun.  Sam and Silo pull sound effects out of the closet, navigate around ink blots, throw stuff at the panel borders to see if it sticks, and apply “shudder lines” to their bodies to read scary books.  In one strip, Sam addresses the reader: “I’m not real, see?  I’m just a thought!  I only exist in your mind!”  He promptly disappears, which only aggravates him.  The next strip finds Sam still trying to explain that he’s a fictional character, while Silo confides to the reader, “I’m real.”

Dumas’s drawings of classic comic-strip characters are excellent, especially his Krazy and Ignatz (his approximation of George Herriman’s lettering is less perfect, but still a strong effort).  One gets the feeling that Walker and Dumas enjoyed all the fourth-wall-breaking and comics-industry inside baseball but didn’t think they could fully commit to that material for a mainstream audience.  So it’s two days of Happy Hooligan jokes, two days of jokes about congressmen and used cars.

The result is a frustrating, compelling curiosity: the soul of an underground comic trapped in the mortal coil of a Hi and Lois.  Its 20-month run seems too short a season; what would Sam’s Strip have become, into what strange shape might it have mutated, after five years, or 10?  It might not have been good, but it would have been interesting.  The Fantagraphics collection includes two sets of endnotes: a set of brief notes by Brian Walker explaining some (but not, unfortunately, all) of the more dated references, and longer notes by Jerry Dumas reminiscing on some of his favorite and least favorite strips.  Recalling the effort that went into drawing all those different comic-strip characters (the “Comic Characters Convention” week took three weeks to draw), Dumas comments, “After a couple of years I could see that I might not want to be still scratching away at all this thirty years hence.”  Maybe not, but now where can we go for our Toonerville Trolley jokes?

Images [©2009 Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas]

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