Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Book Review: SAM'S STRIP by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas (Fantagraphics Press, 2009)

There's a reason why "conventional wisdom" is called "conventional" -- more often than not, it's passed the test of time and is sound. Sometimes, however, "conventional wisdom" takes on a life of its own and oversimplifies a situation that is really much more complicated than is commonly believed. Such appears to be the case with SAM'S STRIP, a short-lived but ingenious early-60s comic strip by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas that, according to EVERY comment about it that I have ever read, prominently featured past comics characters doing constant "guest shots," yakking it up with the strip's protagonists (the bulb-nosed, apparently neckless Sam and his skinny, bespectacled, nameless sidekick/assistant), being feted at "comics characters' conventions," etc., etc. Well, this slender volume reprints the strip's entire run, and... remember what I said about "conventional wisdom"? The "comic about comics" (so claims this book's subtitle) did give other denizens of the funny papers a chance to "slum it" in Dumas' bare panels, but that conceit was only a small part of the fun. In fact, Walker and Dumas' inability to, in the immortal (albeit somewhat paraphrased) words of Gadget Hackwrench, "choose a thing... one thing... and stick with it" may be the reason why this witty, engaging effort never found an audience and ultimately died after a year and a half.

The core idea of SAM'S STRIP is that Sam and "Silo" (who'd get that name in a later Walker-Dumas strip that resurrected the characters but otherwise bore little resemblance to the original) are proprietors of their strip and engage in near-incessant "fourth-wall" breaking and ruminations about the ups and downs of running a panelological concern. They have closets full of punctuation marks and cartoon props, debate about the appropriate format for the strip (with the somewhat egotistical Sam usually having the more inflated notions of what the subject matter should be), and are constantly aware of their pen-and-ink insistence. For the early 1960s, this was high-concept indeed. It was only natural that Walker and Dumas should get the idea of featuring other characters in walk-on roles, though they did usually play it safe by employing fellow King Features characters (Blondie, Krazy Kat and Ignatz, Popeye) or figures who had long since vanished from the scene (with Fred Opper's Happy Hooligan -- whose attempts to "crash" the strip became a running gag -- getting the most "mug time"). On several glorious occasions, Walker and Dumas trotted out a big-league cameo, as when Sam sees Charlie Brown driving by (!) and muses, "I knew having that big automobile account [i.e. the PEANUTS Ford Falcon franchise] would change that kid." The problem was that the creators didn't use these inter-strip get-togethers nearly as much as they should have. Instead, they whiled away a lot of their time with politically themed, time-dependent gags trading on the "New Frontier" administration of John Kennedy and the contemporary Cold War atmosphere. There's even a diabolically obscure reference to Vaughn Meader, the comedian who had 15 minutes of fame because of his uncanny vocal imitation of JFK. At various times, Sam identified as a Republican (when he and "Silo" discuss a good GOP candidate for 1964, "Silo" suggests Walt Disney -- who definitely had the right ideology!) and "Silo" as a Democrat. A casual reader who stumbled upon the strip one day and assumed it was some kind of politically-charged strip a la POGO could be excused for the mistake. These Cold War gags not only date the strip to a certain extent, they also detract from the strip's "primary mission," i.e. its "meta-comical" explorations and those delightful crossover visits. Perhaps Mort and Jerry had trouble thinking up enough self-referential gags to fill six days' worth of strips each week (the strip never had a Sunday page); if so, more's the pity.

SAM'S STRIP is definitely worth getting if you're a serious comics fan, or someone with an interest in the Kennedy era in general. The fact that I can logically recommend the volume to both groups, however, only points up how blurred the strip's focus could be at times. It's a highly fascinating misfire, but, I'm afraid, a misfire nonetheless.

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