KC-Comic Strips Aren’t Comic Books Getting Naked

 height=(WoW OCT 08)

by KC Carlson

Since I've been reading and collecting comics for 40-some years now, there generally isn't too much that gets me really excited anymore. These days, I'm down to a handful of "Holy Grail"-type reprint projects that just aren't going to happen: DC Archives for titles like Sugar and Spike ("Why, DC, Why?"), Rex the Wonder Dog, and their 50s Western books (yeah, yeah, I know the stories aren't much to write home about, but that artwork sure is pretty); Marvel Masterworks of Dan DeCarlo's run on Millie the Model (She's dreamy!); anything by artist Bob Oskner (Dobie Gillis, Jerry Lewis, Angel and the Ape, Supergirl); and a few other fave projects. Yeah, I know these might come together someday in some lesser format like the Showcase Presents line or Marvel Essentials, or even digitally on DVD-ROM or the internets. I like these formats, but it's not the same - or as convenient - as holding a book.

But, just in time for the holidays, I'm getting one of my long-time wishes fulfilled - Fantagraphics Books is publishing the complete run of Mort Walker & Jerry Dumas' cult classic comic strip Sam's Strip.

So what is Sam's Strip? Well, it qualifies as an obscurity under the modern definition of the word - it doesn't have its own Wikipedia entry (although it's mentioned in others). Thankfully, there's always Don Markstein's Toonopedia, which seemingly always pops up when I'm researching something old and odd. And the grande dame of comics herself, Maggie Thompson, has weighed in on this book in a recent Beautiful Balloons blog post. So it's not just weirdos like me that are excited by this book.

Debuting in newspapers in October of 1961, Sam's Strip ran daily until June of 1963 - a total of about 20 months. At its peak, it appeared in only 60 newspapers, but had dropped to 48 by the time the strip folded. It never became popular enough to have a Sunday strip.

So, why all the fuss about a failed comic strip? Well, check out these examples and be ready to discuss this a few inches below:

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As you can see, Sam's Strip is not your average comic strip.

 height=As the title implies, Sam (no last name ever given) has decided to run his own comic strip, with the assistance of his unnamed friend. From this bare-bones premise, two wonderful things happened: First, Sam's Strip was populated by the stars of other concurrent comic strips - including Blondie and Dagwood, Snuffy Smith, the cast of Pogo, Popeye, and many others - most of whom just walk through the background of the strip, as if they were walking across the comic page of the newspaper from their own strips. (Perhaps Sam's Strip was on the way to the bathroom.) Plus, classic older characters came out of retirement to make triumphant re-appearances - Krazy Kat and Ignatz, Happy Hooligan, Andy Gump, Jiggs and Maggie, Mutt and Jeff, and even the oldest comic character of them all, the Yellow Kid! You just never knew who would pop up next.

Granted, this kind of thing happens with some frequency in today's comic strips, usually to wish a long-running character a happy anniversary, or in tribute to a fellow artist. But in 1961, this just wasn't done!

 height=Second, in the background of every Sam's Strip (and occasionally right in the reader's face) was a discussion of the forms, structures, and conventions of the comic strip. As if the fact that all the characters coexisted here wasn't weird enough, word balloons became real, tangible things. Characters would hang from the panel borders. Sam would occasionally rent out half of his strip to an adventure strip (drawn in a realistic style) because they needed the extra space (and Sam needed the money). A character from the strip across the page wants to borrow a cup of exclamation points. In one classic strip, Sam accidentally gets off the bus at the wrong stop and ends up in Krazy Kat's Coconino County, complete with Herriman's surrealistic backgrounds. In another, Sam hangs his newly acquired "poetic license" on the wall. "It allows me to use words like 'BOING' and 'WHEEE' and 'KLUNK' and things like that," he explains. "Seems like the government is regulating everything these days."

(Mort Walker would later follow up on the discussion of comic conventions and onomatopoeia in his 1980 book, The Lexicon of Comicana, a very funny book that every comics lover should own.)

In Backstage at the Strips (1975), Walker describes who-did-what on the strip: "In a neat switch, I became his (artist Jerry Dumas) assistant, contributing gags and doing his lettering. I still love that strip; apparently a lot of other people do, too." Dumas actually becomes a character. In one strip, Sam, trying to deal with a crazed Happy Hooligan, calls out "Quick, Dumas, the ink!" Result: Instant inkblot covering Hooligan. ("Yoiks! Foiled again!") In another strip, Sam goes about placing identifying labels on everything in the strip. (Chair. Phone. Man.) In the last panel, a disgruntled Dumas opines, "If you don't like the way I draw, just say so!"

How meta can you get?

"We've been encouraged several times to revive Sam but have resisted it," Walker explains. "It was a lot of work for Jerry to research all the old cartoon characters and to copy styles. And we ran into some weird complaints. One reader just couldn't understand why Blondie appeared in our strip. 'She's supposed to be up there in her own strip, not in yours!' The satire just didn't sink in. Another reader chided us for using Happy Hooligan. 'Can't you think up any characters of your own?'"

 height=Despite a small, but loyal, group of comic fans and historians (not to mention metaphysicians), Sam's Strip went the way of far too many good things - away. But fans remembered it and occasionally a batch of strips would get reprinted, either in The Menomonee Falls Guardian or Nemo: The Classic Comics Library. Walker himself published a small collection - Sam's Strip Lives - in 1963 that is apparently next-to-impossible to find these days. (I've never seen one.) But none of these reprintings were of the complete run of the strip in one place. In December, Fantagraphics will rectify that with the publication of Sam's Strip: The Comic About Comics, a 208-page trade paperback that collects the entire 20-month run of the book, along with first-hand accounts of the strip's creation and much unpublished art and photographs. And you can order it at the bottom of this column!

Christmas can't come fast enough for me this year!

(And, by the way, Sam and his assistant (who finally got a name - Silo) were revived - in 1977, again by Walker and Dumas - in another strip, this time called Sam and Silo. Unfortunately, they came back without all their comic associates and without all the metatextual jokes. But the relatively simpler strip has turned out to be a second-time-around success, as the strip is still going strong today, propelled by the wonderful cartooning of Jerry Dumas, who took over the full chores of the strip in 1995.)

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Since we're talking about comic strips for a change, isn't this a great time to be re-discovering some of the great comic strips of the past? Bookshelves seem to be exploding with lovingly packaged, complete, chronological collections - produced by knowledgeable people and publishers who generally know what they're doing. Some are calling it a "new golden age for classic comic strip collections."

Well, let's not go completely crazy here. Yes, there has been an explosion of interest in comic strip collections in the last couple of years, but it's been on the backs of hundreds and hundreds of American strip collections going back to around a century ago (see the Platinum Age section in any recent Overstreet Price Guide), and even older if you consider European collections (the Victorian Age). And let's not forget that the birth of the comic book began with the pulp paper reprints of newspaper comic strips in the early 20th century, before it mutated into something altogether different in the 1930s, when they started developing original material.

 height=Comic strip collections, of various quality, have been around for a long time. In the 1960s, I actively collected mass market paperback collections of Dennis the Menace, B.C. , The Wizard of Id, Peanuts (although even then, I preferred the larger Holt, Rinehart and Winston collections, that I received for Christmas from my grandmother), and other titles. And many of the collections of today probably would not exist without the groundbreaking work of such indy publishers as Kitchen Sink Press, Eclipse, Fantagraphic Books, NBM, Ken Pierce, Blackthorne, Gladstone, Remco, and many more. Plus, publications such as The Menomonee Falls Gazette and Guardian, Comics Revue, Nemo: The Classic Comics Library, and Cartoonist PROfiles (among others) helped keep interest in comic strips high. In point of actual fact, most of the material that's being raved about today previously saw print by some other publisher, including the ones mentioned above.

So why are people crazed about strip collections today? First and foremost, it's the strips themselves, all of which are classic examples of great American art. But it's actually how they're being presented that is making the difference this time around. It revolves around phrases like complete, archival, and production values - all aimed directly at the collector, but hopefully with enough mass market interest to support the long-range goals of many of the series being contemplated. The increased comics presence and sales in bookstores is also a major factor in giving smaller publishers the courage to launch these long-term publishing series.

It all seemed to take off when near-complete archival collections of modern classics The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes (both published by Andrews McMeel, the undisputed kings of current strip collections) started bending bookshelves and injuring people within the last few years. I, myself, barely escaped serious facial injury while reading one of the 10-pound Far Side volumes while lying on the sofa late one night. I drifted off for just a split second - but that's all it took for the book to come crashing down on my face, flattening my glasses while pushing them deep into my nose. No matter - yok-loads (technical book-selling term) of copies of these slipcased bookshelf collections sold, making other publishers go "hmmmmm."

 height=One of these publishers was Fantagraphics, already well-known for their high-quality collections of classic comics, including Krazy Kat, Little Orphan Annie, Prince Valiant, Popeye, and many others. Shortly after Charles Schulz's death, Fantagraphics began their ambitious The Complete Peanuts series. It was warmly and popularly received and became the standard bearer for many strip collections of its kind, from many different publishers (some of which imitated its format and design elements). Since then, Fantagraphics has begun Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace in yet another great format (cubular!), has rebooted the classic Segar Popeye (Thimble Theater) series in giant hardcovers, and has excited fans with their announcement of plans to re-start their unfinished Walt Kelly's Pogo series from scratch. Fantagraphics has been doing these kinds of collections for a long time now and are highly recommended by me, especially for their strong design and production work. However, they seriously need to address the seemingly growing problem of missing or repeated strips in some of their Peanuts and Dennis collections (all corrected in subsequent volumes). You can't call them Complete if they are missing strips.

 height=IDW has received kudos for their new collections of Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, and Milton Caniff's run on Terry and the Pirates, the latter two driven by former Eclipse Comics publisher Dean Mullaney under the "Library of American Comics" banner. Dean's a guy that knows a thing or two about putting strip collections together, and these books have distinguished themselves by the amount of supplementary and historical material included in each volume. Reproduction is mostly first-rate. I understand there has been some griping about the size and reproduction of some of the Sunday strips, which normally I would agree with, but you have to take into account the fact that a larger format would either affect the price point of each book or cut into the amount of material in each volume. There is no perfect way to publish pre-war strips in two different formats side-by-side, and publishing the in-continuity Sunday strips separately is equally unacceptable. With the planned long-rage publication of both Tracy and Annie, I think this is an acceptable compromise to keep the price point reasonable for the long haul of these series.

I should also point out that IDW/Library of American Comics is responsible for the recently released Scorchy Smith And The Art Of Noel Sickles. I unfortunately haven't seen the book yet, but fellow Westfielder Wayne Markley raves about it every time I'm on the phone with him. Since he's been reading and collecting almost as long as I have, I completely trust his judgment. Wayne sez "check it out!"

 height=While we're talking about Milton Caniff, his other classic newspaper strip - Steve Canyon - is currently being collected by Checker in roughly year-by-year volumes, starting from the very beginnings of the series. Checker specializes in affordable trade paperback collections, with generally excellent, if somewhat small, reproduction. Besides Canyon, Checker also publishes collections of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon (in full color), the Max Allan Collins-written Dick Tracy strips, and in December will offer a comprehensive collection of The Yellow Kid. Checker has also received praise for its dedication to publishing the complete (and occasionally obscure) works of Winsor McCay, best known for the much-reprinted Little Nemo in Slumberland. The first volume of Checker's version of Nemo is now available in a limited hardcover edition. Checker also recently published Mort Walker's Beetle Bailey 1950-1952. Again, I haven't seen this book yet, but it's a must-get for me as I love Walker's early art style. And I believe that this is the first time that these strips - especially the pre-Army era - have been comprehensively collected.

Speaking of Little Nemo, the hands-down best version of this incredible strip has to be the massive edition published by Sunday Press Books. Winner of two Harvey Awards and one Eisner Award, Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays is a truly amazing book with one major caveat: it's very pricey. But if you have the spending power, it's worth every penny - It's the way McCay's work was meant to be seen! The sequel - Little Nemo in Slumberland: Many More Splendid Sundays - is out this year and also garnering big raves.

 height=Sunday Press Books was also responsible for one of the biggest "Oh, WOW!" comments ever heard in a comic shop the day we unpacked copies of Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, another physically huge volume of goodness, illustrated by the amazing Frank King. Walt and Skeezix are, of course, the stars of Gasoline Alley, one of the very rare comic strips where the characters actually age in something approximating real time. The dailies of this groundbreaking strip are currently being lovingly collected by Drawn and Quarterly in two-year chunks under the series title of Walt and Skeezix and designed by Chris Ware. In addition to the strips, each volume features lengthy introductory material about creator King by Jeet Heer, effectively becoming a serialized biography of this great cartoonist.

 height=Slightly lost in the shuffle of collections that get more publicity is the work quietly being done over at Classic Comics Press, who are concentrating on three great comic strips - Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage (5 volumes), Gus Edison and Irwin Hasen's Dondi (2 volumes), and Stan Drake's The Heart of Juliet Jones (Volume 1 out in October). That these are great collections by some of the best artists in comics should be obvious by the caliber of whom they've managed to line up for introductions for each volume: Walter Simonson, Kurt Busiek, Joe Jusko, Eddie Campbell, and Doug Beekman for Mary Perkins On Stage; Jules Feiffer and Roy Thomas for Dondi; and Leonard Starr for The Heart of Juliet Jones. I can easily think of about a dozen guys who'll be wanting to write about Stan Drake.

I'm sure that there are some things I've forgotten and even more upcoming that I don't know about. It truly is an exciting time for fans of classic strips! But it's a risky game the publishers are playing, because many of these series ran for decades - which means lots of volumes of each series - and many of these volumes are not exactly inexpensive. Plus, as we've seen over and over again in this industry, the lure of over-saturating the marketplace with the latest hot "thing" is often a temptation that overwhelms everybody.

 height=As much as I'd like to have them all, there's no way that I could afford everything that I just raved about above. So I implore all of you to choose carefully which series you want to read or collect, and remain loyal to them. Publishers, don't rush to press with just anything you can, because you think "now's the time." Please take the long view, plan ahead to start new series as others wrap up, and don't attempt more series than you can effectively produce - or that your audience can afford. As fans, we generally want the complete series (or within reasonable boundaries, like the Caniff Terry's). There have been too many great unfinished series in the field of strip publishing. Painful ones like Kitchen Sink's Li'l Abner or Fantagraphics' original Pogo series. Too many unfinished or incomplete runs for Dick Tracy or Steve Canyon as well.

Like the late, great Sgt. Esterhaus from Hill Street Blues told us every week - "Let's be careful out there."

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KC CARLSON used to have shoeboxes filled with comic strips that he cut out of the newspaper every night. They mysteriously disappeared - along with all of his baseball cards - at some point in the early 1970s. He often wonders if they ran away because they were overwhelmed by all the comic books.

Got comments or questions about this column? You can contact KC at AuntieKC@WestfieldComics.com

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