Mort Walker & Jerry Dumas on 'Sam's Strip'

Imagine a comic strip where anyone could show up – where Blondie might stroll through, or Prince Valiant might charge through on his mighty steed. Imagine a strip where all artistic styles co-existed, produced without the aid of cut-and-paste or Photoshop.

Now imagine that strip existed almost 50 years ago…and people didn’t get it.

From 1961 to 1963, a little strip called Sam’s Strip treated readers to a comic strip that knew it was a comic strip. The characters talked to the readers, rearranged their sound effects, and often welcomed walk-on roles from characters usually found on other parts of the comic page. While the effect was a bit much for readers back then, it maintained a loyal following among cartoonists and comic aficionados.

Now, thanks to Fantagraphics, Sam’s Strip is back and finally getting the respect it deserves. “We always thought that the strip had a lot of potential,” says co-creator Mort Walker. “Problem was, when it was in newspapers, people just didn’t get it! If we had something with Blondie in our strip, someone would say, ‘What’s she doing in that strip? She belongs at the top of the page!’ They just couldn’t quite get the satire.”

Walker is, of course, the 85-year-old creator of such legendary newspaper strips as Beetle Bailey and Hi and Lois (little-known fact: Lois is Beetle’s sister). He’s also created a number of lesser-known but fondly-remembered strips, such as Boner’s Ark and Gamin & Peaches. Sam’s Strip, which he co-created with longtime collaborator Jerry Dumas, has enjoyed revisiting his surreal past with the new collection. “You always put something personal in every strip, so it’s wonderful to see all these old strips again,” Walker says.

Jerry Dumas recalls how Sam’s Strip came about from working with Walker four days a week collaborating on gags for Beetle and Lois. “We’d do gags just for each other, little gags about comic strips -- Jiggs and Maggie meeting Charlie Brown, or Happy Hooligan wandering through present-day comic strips,” Dumas says. “We wound up with a bunch of gags like that, that we’d come up with just to make us laugh, and we thought, ‘Hey, this could be a comic strip!’”

Dumas coined the title Sam’s Strip to echo the alliterative Beetle Bailey. They would come up with gags together, with Walker writing and Dumas providing the art for the finished strip. The result was the classic three or four panels of gags turned upside down. Sam and his assistant Silo were in some ways your typical comic strip protagonists who grumbled about wives, the government and making a buck. But they also argued with their cartoonist, directly asked the reader if a gag was working, and regularly welcomed visits from everyone from Krazy Kat to Popeye to an entire characters convention that took up a week of strips.

Some readers suspected the strip was just recycling old artwork. “I remember the great magazine cartoonist Martha Blanchard asking me, ‘Well, you just cut and paste, don’t you?’” Dumas says. “But it wasn’t. It was a very laborious job of copying." Indeed, Dumas meticulously drew every character in their original style without outside help. “Jerry had a very authentic reproduction of the characters,” Walker says. “He worked very hard at that.”

In his strips, Dumas was called upon to recreate everything from George Herriman’s squiggly cat and mouse to the meticulous illustrations of Alice in Wonderland’s Sir John Tenniel. “Penciling and inking Sam’s Strip was a big learning experience for me,” Dumas says. “My writer friends would sit down and copy whole paragraphs from Ernest Hemingway or any writer they admired, and learn from the physical act of typing those words in the same sequence. This was similar!

“The week we did the characters convention, there would be like 30 or 40 comic strip characters had to draw in one panel. Sometimes it took me three weeks of steady work – I was doing Beetle and Lois at the same time. So yes, I learned a lot from copying those old strips!”

It was also a more complicated strip for Walker to script. “It was a lot more difficult in some ways, because it was very special,” Walker says. “When I write Beetle Bailey, I can always do jokes about him being lazy, and everyone gets it. But to write a strip that is making fun of existing characters is a much greater challenge.”

In today’s era of copyright wars, Sam’s Strip seems like even more of an anomaly – it freely used characters from the other comics as it pleased. “We didn’t bother getting permission!” Walker says. “The only one that ever challenged us a bit was Disney, and we just ignored it and used the characters because we weren’t doing anything wrong – we weren’t trying to sell products or anything like that.

“I think it’s legitimate to do satire. If you’re going to write a book of satire on Marilyn Monroe or Madonna, you’re not going to get their permission, because you’re going to make fun of them! But we never really had a problem.”

While Dumas and Walker didn’t have trouble with copyrights, they did run into trouble in another area – readers. Editors had warned the cartoonists that the strip might be “too sophisticated” for readers before it started, and eventually, Dumas witnessed this first-hand.

“My insurance man saw the strip featuring Blondie on in the newspaper on my kitchen table, and asked me, ‘How can she be in your strip and her strip on the same day?’” Dumas says. “I realized maybe newspaper editors had a point. If a smart guy who graduated from Yale couldn’t get our jokes, maybe we were in trouble.”

On the other hand, Sam’s Strip enjoyed a loyal following among an audience who got the self-referential humor. “The cartoonists loved it,” Walker says. “They thought it was a great strip, and we got all kinds of mail from them. One of the problems we had was we appeared in the Journal-American. When it went under, we weren’t in New York any more, and the cartoonists couldn’t see it then.”

After 20 months, Sam’s Strip was no more. But that wasn’t the end of the line for Sam and Silo. In the mid-1970s, when Dumas and Walker were approached by a syndicate about reviving the strip, they created a new vehicle for the characters, entitled simply Sam & Silo. The two were recast as bumbling cops in a small town, and this more traditional formula proved a hit with readers. Sam & Silo is still running today, with Walker and Dumas still rendering their adventures.

As Dumas says, “They’re just two completely different strips, though with the same two guys.”

The two cartoonists stay busy, with their work enjoying continued popularity. Early Beetle Bailey strips were recently reprinted in the U.S. by Checker, and the strip is hugely popular overseas (according to Walker, “It’s big business in Scandinavia”). “The frustration of being ordered around by somebody to do something – everyone can relate to that,” Walker says. “I think Beetle represents that – the common man caught in that morass of rules and regulations. I don’t even think of it as an army strip…it’s a world anyone can understand.”

Though they haven’t looked at Sam’s Strip in years, the two have enjoyed putting the new collection together. “It’s fun to look at those gags again, and to know that a whole new generation of readers will be coming to it for the first time,” Dumas says.

“I just hope people enjoy it, and tell other people about it,” Walker says. “We don’t intend to make any money on it – we’re just doing it for fun and self-satisfaction.”

And maybe people are finally ready for a comic strip about comic strips. Dumas says that when he was overseas promoting the book, a young man came to the front of the line and said he preferred Sam’s Strip to Sam & Silo. Dumas asked him why. “He just looked at me with this little smile, and said, ‘More bizarre.’”

Says it all, don’t you think?

Sam’s Strip: The Comic About Comics is available now from Fantagraphics, with special commentary by Jerry Dumas and historical footnotes by Brian Walker. Fantagraphics also has a career-spanning interview with Mort Walker out in The Comics Journal #297.

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