Sam's Strip Review

By | Sunday, December 02, 2012 Leave a Comment
I don't recall hearing about this when it came out a few years ago, but I found a copy of Sam's Strip: The Comic About Comics in Half-Price Books yesterday. It reprints the 20 months of Mort Walker's and Jerry Dumas' Sam's Strip comic from the early 1960s, plus some additional commentary by Dumas. Probably in part because of its relatively short duration, I'd never heard of the strip before so, coupled with the intriguing tagline "The Comic About Comics", I picked it up.

The notion of a comic strip becoming metatextual wasn't new in the 1960s. The Yellow Kid frequently "talked" directly to his readers; Winsor McCay sometimes had his characters interact with the comic strip itself; I recently came across a Li'l Abner sequence from the 1940s in which Al Capp drew himself into the strip. But I think Sam's Strip was the first where the metatextual aspect was the primary point of the strip. Sam not only knew he was a comic strip character, but was frequently seen acting in a manner that openly acknowledged his cartoon status.

In the very first strip, Sam doesn't appear until the fourth panel because -- as readers find out -- Dumas is still drawing him. A week later, Sam is looking up artists in the phone book to replace Dumas. A few weeks after that, Sam finally grabs the brush out of Dumas' hand and draws himself.

There's a constant recognition that there isn't much money in cartooning, as Sam runs the strip on a very tight budget. He tries selling "metaphor tags" to the editorial cartoon department, the strip's "echo point" is just the Silo character shouting from off-panel, characters often don't get ideas because they can't afford to pay for the electricity to flip on the light bulb over their heads...

There's also a very strong sense of context. The strip features cameos of other characters old and (then) new. Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse make repeated appearances, and Happy Hooligan becomes something of a pest since he no longer has his own strip. Donald Duck, Pogo Charlie Brown, and Popeye stop by on occassion. And, in some mixing of the above ideas, Sam rents out the first panels of the comic to an adventure strip and some New Yorker cartoons.
The comic is clever, fun and breezy at its best, though it sometimes flounders a bit when it veers into politics or the more generic could-be-in-any-comic gags. In his essays, Dumas freely acknolwedges this and even suggests that somebody should've taken away his cartooning license for the February 10, 1962 strip. He's also got some great anecdotes about Otto Soglow (The Little King), John Cullen Murphy (Prince Valiant) and Fontaine Fox (Toonerville Trolley). Possibly one with Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) too, but there's a bit of speculation involved there.

The book's presentation is pretty straight-forward. Not an elaborate hardcover with over-designed end papers or anything, just a simple collection of the strip with two short introductions by Dumas and Walker, and several pages of comments and annotations at the end. There's also some samples of Sam and Silo, their next strip featuring the same characters, but in a more conventional genre/format.

Overall, it's a pretty solid book. It does appear to be out of print, but it looks like you can still pick up a pretty cheap copy through Amazon. A lot of copies I'm seeing now are less than $10, and it's easily worth that much. Particularly for anyone with even a reasonable appreciation of comic strip history. It was definitely a good read, and I'm glad to have this in my collection now.
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