If you were to ask a comic book fan about their favorite decade of comic books, you’d obviously get a wide variety of responses depending on when they began collecting, but “the eighties” would be high up on most collectors lists. That decade saw the rise of the “direct market” and comic book shops; a new level of maturity in comics represented by “Watchmen” and “Dark Knight Returns”; and the rise of the independent comic book market. From “Cerebus” to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” new and innovative concepts found large audiences. Among those success stories was “Sam & Max,” which chronicled the adventure of two anthropomorphic detectives – Sam was a six foot dog who dressed like a detective, and Max was a pretty excited rabbit. The two were a unique duo and their popularity continues to this day, with a new “Sam & Max” video game on the way from Telltale Games. Series creator Steve Purcell took time out of his busy schedule to chat with CBR News about the game and to remind some younger readers why people can’t get enough of the coolest animal private investigators.
“Sam & Max call themselves Freelance Police,” Purcell explained to CBR News. “It’s like guys playing cops and robbers, but for real. They take it upon themselves to deal with wrongdoer in the most overzealous and gleeful way. The stories are always excuses for the pair to exchange colorful banter with each other, which we hope the audience finds entertaining. They cruise around in a customized ’60s Desoto painted like a rat rod squad car. The original idea grew out of comic books my kid brother and I drew when we were kids in the ’70s. I did a few comics and then had the chance to adapt the idea as a LucasArts game in 1993. They was also a top ten rated animated series on Fox Kids for a season.”
With the success of that first game, the new “Sam & Max” project was born, though over the past few years of aborted sequels, some fans feared that there might not be a game. Enter Telltale Games, whose 2005 announcement of a new “Sam & Max” game caused cries of joy through the fan community. “Dan Conners, Kevin Bruner and some of the team from the cancelled ‘Freelance Police’ wound up starting Telltale Games,” he explained. “Since they’re a talented bunch with an interest in creating story games, already knew these characters backwards and forwards, and they’re right in the neighborhood, the decision was easy.”
There’s also a series of new web comics (including a nifty comic generator) featuring the animal detectives, which have led some to wonder if a new “Sam & Max” series might be forthcoming. “As far as the web strips they are completely separate from the game story. They are my excuse to do some comics material, deal with the idea of Sam & Max being out of circulation for many years and give Sam & Max a presence for the fans while they wait for the episodic games to appear. There’s been a bit of a hiccup as I got busier with other Telltale stuff, but I should be back on a ‘schedule’ shortly.”
The game will also present a unique experience for fans, with “seasons” of “Sam & Max” represented in the game. “The idea is to break the story down into smaller doses of concentrated gameplay. The stories will each be self-contained, but with a continuing thread that links them throughout the season. That allows them to start coming out the same year they are started, an idea which is very appealing to me.”
A large part of “Sam & Max’s” appeal was the manner in which it balanced humor with drama. But in today’s comic book market, where death and gore are the norm (in superhero comics), and superheroes seem even more dominant than ever, Purcell isn’t sure that “Sam & Max” could become so huge in today’s market. “I think if anyone connects to the characters, it’s because they are best friends that speak a common language. I think a lot of people have close friends who share the most obscure references or private jokes with each other. It’s like a shorthand language. Readers have told me that they just get into a mode where they just start tuning into the style of the banter so that the most unexpected reference becomes the expectation, if that makes a whit of sense. The police trappings are a good way for me to find oddball scenarios to drop ‘Sam & Max’ into so they have something to make wry comments about.”
Still, Purcell isn’t one to look back with regrets, citing his success as an eye-opening experience for both him and many in the industry. “The self-publishing boom opened a lot of eyes,” said Purcell. “To publish your own material became a very accessible idea. You could put out whatever story you wanted for not very much money. The books were such low runs that some became collectable. Then when the speculation market became too huge, the whole thing blew up. People were producing books just to enter that world of collectability. Still I didn’t do the publishing myself. Steve Moncuse, who was doing ‘Fish Police’ published my first Sam & Max comic. My book appeared later in the black and white cycle so, though I didn’t make a ton of money doing it, the book itself opened doors for me as a sample of my work. I was able to get paid to do the next three ‘Sam & Max’ books, one from Comico and two from Marvel/Epic.”
Talking to Purcell, his passion for the “Sam & Max” characters, stories, and comics is plainly evident — so much so that you have wonder why he stopped doing comic book work. “I love doing comics, but at the same time it’s grueling, tedious work. I enjoy writing them and roughing them out, but I consider the inking or finish step a slog.
“In 1993 I had committed to a three-book anthology miniseries for Marvel/Epic. There was to be a three-chapter Sam & Max story written and drawn by me and then other stories with new characters drawn by other artists. The series was called ‘The Sam & Max Show.’ At the same time I was offered the chance to do a ‘Sam & Max’ game with LucasArts. I quickly realized I couldn’t do both. My previous two Epic ‘Sam & Max’ books were not really marketed well – they were hard to find on the stands when they were released so I had no reason to believe the mini-series would be any different. So I opted for the game. I spent close to a year on it and it was well worth doing. Somehow they’re still selling copies of ‘Hit the Road.’ After that I spent much of my time working on the TV show and starting a family so there wasn’t much time left over to do comics.”
And while fans might see the new “Sam & Max” video game and web strips as portents of things to come, Purcell reminds fans that there are no plans for a “Sam & Max” revival. “I’m not going to start doing comics for a living any time soon. I’d like to continue the web strip and collect that into a book. I’d like to someday finish the unfinished story I have in my drawer and I’d like to re-release the old comics for people who were never able to get them. If I ever did a ‘Sam & Max’ series again I’d only do it for an older audience. Although the show we did made the best of having to skew younger, I think ‘Sam & Max’ works better when they’re a bit more unwholesome.
“My only change in approaching ‘Sam & Max’ recently has been to include some cues in the new game material to let the audience know who it’s for,” continued Purcell. “I’m trying a logo that’s a bit less cuddly and thinking about the color palette so it feels more directed to its audience. I don’t want to get too dark and gritty but I don’t want the audience to be confused and think they’re buying a kid’s game either. Ultimately I just want ‘Sam & Max’ to maintain their sense of slightly questionable fun.”