Running from October 16, 1961 to June 1, 1963, “Sam’s Strip” was a mixture of fourth-wall breaking, political commentary, and gag cartooning of both the highest and lowest order. Created by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas, better known for their works on “Hi and Lois,” “Beetle Bailey,” and the sequel to “Sam’s Strip,” “Sam and Silo,” this strip had a short run — less than two years — but remains a cult classic and has finally been collected in one volume by Fantagraphics.
The concept of “Sam’s Strip” is that Sam is the star of a comic strip, has a skinny sidekick (who goes unnamed until getting a name in “Sam and Silo”), seemingly employs Jerry Dumas to draw his strip, and has numerous run-ins with other comic strip characters. Sam is egotistical, sometimes quick to anger and a shameless panderer, willing to do anything for a laugh. Many of his “adventures” revolve around his trying to come up with gags to amuse the audience; of course, many of his gags are the oldest cliches in the book, but the level of awareness gives them new life. There’s something strangely funny about Sam demonstrating slipping on a banana peel and pointing out the lines drawn to indicate movement, and then repeating the fall but omitting the lines so he can brag that it’s the first time that’s every happened.
His run-ins with other comic strip characters are amusing even if you don’t know who everyone is. Walker and Dumas are very adept at making most of those jokes work on two levels, where the character’s role is obvious to those unaware of its pre-existence, while those in the know will get an extra kick out of it. The appearances by these characters highlight Dumas’s extraordinary art skills as he replicates each and every character. In his introduction to this volume (Walker also provides one), he says that he took painstaking care to trace and copy the characters, which surprised other cartoonists who assumed he simply cut and pasted them.
The use of other characters work not just because of Dumas’s abilities, but also because of the designs of Sam and his sidekick, very basic, understated designs that seemingly anyone could draw – but, their baseness make guest characters stand out even more. The contrast between Sam and John Tenniel’s Humpty Dumpty (from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”) is remarkable, and draws the eye. While Sam and his sidekick’s looks would have blended in (which suits the nature of the strip, I think), the guest characters just pop off of the page. My favourite strip actually involves a serious, action-adventure strip renting the first half of that day’s “Sam’s Strip,” partly for Dumas’s fantastic artistic contrasts, but for the sheer absurdity of the presentation and joke.
What surprised me most, though, was the amount of topical humor in these strips. A vast number of strips are devoted to current events, particularly those involving President Kennedy and the Russians. One recurring character is the Planet Earth, who Sam and his sidekick actually try to set up with a rendition of Peace from a political cartoon. These strips are very rooted in their time, but also deliver jokes and messages that almost anyone could understand (particularly with the help of Brian Walker’s annotations).
These strips aren’t perfect and some gags are repeated far too many times, or just plain aren’t funny, but this collection made me laugh at least once on nearly every page. Dumas himself comments in his own set of annotations, which includes his honest feelings on the strips, not having read them in 40 years. Besides naming his favorites and his least favorite strip, he shares some very funny and amusing stories about his fellow cartoonists, including how “Sam’s Strip” seemingly inspired a “Little Orphan Annie” storyline.
Though it lasted less than two years, “Sam’s Strip” was a pioneering strip whose use of characters from other strips continues to this day with various crossovers between strips. “Sam’s Strip: The Comic about Comics” is a must for any fans of comic strips, and includes very insightful introductions by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas. Once again, Fantagraphics delivers a stellar package