Jerry Dumas and Mort Walker are most famous for their work on the Beetle Bailey comic, but back in the early sixties they also produced a short-lived strip that went on to become a cult classic. Sam’s Strip only survived for a relatively short time, two years from 1961 to 1963, when compared with Beetle Bailey‘s ongoing 50+, but it produced enough content to fill a book of almost two hundred pages.
To an extent this is what makes this Sam’s Strip anthology so interesting- that you can hold the whole run of a comic in your hands without doing your limbs damage, and that it comes in a form small enough for you to take in all it has to offer without feeling like you’re researching rather than just reading.
More crucial though is the fact that Sam’s Strip was an interesting comic in its own right. The phrase ‘ahead of its own time’ is one that’s bandied about frequently when discussing it, and even now the juxtapositions within it are occasionally surreal enough to cause amusement through their sheer audacity.
Popeye might turn up for a single strip, or any one of a number of other famous comic characters, drawn in their own style that isn’t necessarily at all consistent with the simple lines of Sam and his unnamed assistant. These odd interjections work though because Sam’s Strip is as much an examination of comics as a comic itself.
Sam himself is a comic strip writer, confusing the narrative voice in a way that lets the comic get away with its metacomical hijinx without causing uncomfortable jarring with any more conventional ‘stories’ that are going on. These do crop up occasionally, such as in the series of strips where the unnamed assistant is setting up the ‘mouse pack’, his version of Sinatra’s rat pack, except that the members are all men put upon by their wives instead.
The flitting between self-reflection and more standard comic book gag strips would possibly seem self-indulgent if presented in longer form, but within the space offered by the grand sum of three panels, there’s just no room for it to crop up. Just from a basic layout perspective, the strips fit beautifully onto the book’s pages too.
There are three strips on each page and the paper quality is great. As small a fact as it may be, the near-flawless execution of the book helps to make it feel like more of a prestige package, a celebration of the series rather than just a cheap cash-in. There are also several pages of annotations on some of the strips, and care has been taken to make sure that these don’t distract any readers looking to just read leisurely through the comics themselves.
Beside any strips that do have notes, there’s either a little icon graphic of Sam’s head or the comic rendition of Jerry Dumas’ head. The notes are printed at the end of the book. Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas have also written quick forewords about Sam’s Strip, book-ending the strips themselves tastefully.
The effect is that this Sam’s Strip anthology is a book with a lot of affection for the series, but not much reverence. This is how it should be too. Firstly because it means that, although the book will largely be bought by fans of the series, it’s still accessible for absolute newcomers. It’s also a bonus because it means that unfunny moments of the series don’t cause you to cringe. In a newspaper comic series like Sam’s Strip, there are guaranteed to be comedy moments that fall flat, especially when you add more than forty years of ageing into the equation.
On the other hand, considering this high figure, Sam’s Strip still feels remarkably fresh for the most part. The more specific political gags may have consigned themselves to the relic box, but the strips that chip away at the fourth wall in particular frequently raise a smile, and occasionally even a laugh. For those already familiar with Sam’s Strip, this straightforward but well-made collection is a thoroughly worth purchase.
Sam’s Strip: The Comic About Comics is out now.