Sep 14, 2015

The 40 Years of Comics Project - The Weekly Graphic Novel: Week 4 - Sam's Strip, 2009

I'll share with you the thing that made me leap on this book the moment I saw it on the thrift store shelf: "Sam and his cartoonist assistant owned and operated the comic strip they inhabited."

That was it. A comic about the characters in the comic running the comic that they were in? Written in the early-frickin'-Sixties? Okay, sign me up. And while Sam's Strip doesn't quite hit the usual levels of ontological metatexuality that I adore in my comics, it pokes about at the same places with a savvy and satirical eye. My understanding is that the characters, after the strip was cancelled, evolved into a buddy-cop strip, which I think, ironically, is a great crime against intelligent comics everywhere, but at least these two seemingly self-aware misfits managed to continue to exist after Sam's Strip ceased.

Now, having heaped not quite lavish but kind praise upon the collection, I have to say it's not going to be for everyone. I benefited in my reading of this book by having read Thierry Smolderen's The Origins of Comics just before I read Sam's Strip. With it's genesis in the newspaper culture of the Sixties, Sam's Strip pulls voraciously on the comics that preceded it, and many of the jokes would be completely lost on someone who didn't realize that Happy Hooligan, or Krazy Kat, were precursors to the comic, and not characters created for the comic. From this vantage point, I think we could distinguish Sam's Strip from something like Flex Mentallo (and there's a crazy comparison if I've ever seen one) as a historical metatext, rather than an ontological metatext. Sam's Strip, aside, perhaps, from its address to the reader, never explicitly questions the nature of reality, be it the textual reality or the one the reader inhabits. It proposes a shared universe of comic strip characters, but these characters have little or no existence outside of the bounds of the newspaper comic strip. We can imagine them wandering a blank newsprint limbo, occasionally peering out through a box-like window and making their readers laugh. But they never aspire to leave that medium, or to interact on an equal level with their readership. This, then, would have to be the primary metatext of the book and the strip, the acknowledgement and utilization of precedents, and the concerted effort to make sure they are not forgotten.

And that, in the end, is what makes this book so important. It is the memory of the comic strip, at least up until the early Sixties. As the back matter says, various other cartoonists have taken up such a self-referential humour in the later Twentieth century, but Walker and Dumas were there first.

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