In praise of the scissors of my youth.

Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway

When I was 14, I was the perfect age for Steve Purcell's Sam & Max. Funny animals and reckless violence, but nothing too harsh. It was 1995, and a big new collection of Sam & Max comics had just been released. I was still a year or so away from tossing out most of the comics in search of grander things, like going to bed with a girl so all my anxieties would vanish in a puff of orgone, which is exactly what happened.

But I never tossed out my Sam & Max book. It looks like this:

Er, it looks like that only scuffed up and falling apart.

I'd probably at least heard of Sam & Max before; the stuff had sure been around for long enough. Purcell had been working on the characters -- a gun-toting dog in a suit and a naked lagomorph who go around solving funny cases as 'freelance police' (and what else are so many pop culture private eyes?) -- since his younger brother created them, leaving his comics around for Steve to deface with comedy. The older Purcell then took the characters to art school, and eventually into the enchanted and very stable world of b&w independent comics publishing with 1987's Sam & Max: Freelance Police Special Edition, released through Steve Moncuse' Fishwrap Productions (c'mon, you remember Fish Police). One issue was released.

Purcell was a friend and peer of then-upcoming comics artists Art Adams and Mike Mignola, but he never worked as heavily in comics; Adams would illustrate his script for the 1988 Gumby's Winter Fun Special at Comico, while Mignola would draw Rusty Razorclam, President of Neptune from 1996's Dark Horse Presents #107, and those two works make up just about all of Purcell's non-Sam & Max sequential work, save for his goth-tinged Toybox stories from Piranha Press' Fast Forward #3 (1993) and Dark Horse's Hellboy Christmas Special (1997). (EDIT: And, as Nat Gertler points out in the comments, there's always Marvel's Defenders of Dynatron City tie-in series!)

Not that the dog 'n bunny stuff threatened to crack the Earth's plates - various shorts appeared via Fantagraphics (Critters #19, #50) and First Comics (Grimjack #52), Comico released an issue in 1989 (Sam & Max: Freelance Police Special), Epic published another issue (Sam & Max: Freelance Police - note the subtle flavors of these titles) and a collection of shorts (Sam & Max Freelance Police Special Color Collection) in 1992, with unrealized plans to do a multi-artist miniseries titled The Sam & Max Show, Adams and Mignola onboard to contribute.

But perhaps the most crucial comics began release in 1990, when Purcell began drawing Sam & Max strips for The Adventurer, the catalog magazine for computer game publisher LucasArts. Purcell had begun working there in art and animation, and his characters essentially became the Howard and Nester of the publisher. LucasArts was one of the giants of graphic adventure gaming back in the genre's glory days, and Sam & Max eventually got their very own game, Sam & Max Hit the Road, in 1993.

Which, now that I think about it, is probably how I first really heard of that stuff. It's also, more or less, why this thing exists:

Yes, it's a new reprint of that ol' 1995 collection, updated to include all subsequent completed Sam & Max comics. Which ups the page count by less than 30, since Purcell became even less of a frequent comics person as years passed.

All of the older book's contents are included, save for its back cover art (and if you look real close at the front cover, you'll see that its center drawing is actually an alternate version of the old cover's art, rather than a detail). The fold-out parts of the old book have been converted to double-page splashes, with one of them even integrated into a preexisting larger story (unless that's how it was to begin with, and it got changed for the initial trade). There's 45 color pages, with one of the b&w stories from the old book restored to color, although other once-color stories remain in b&w, and some of the newer color strips are also now in b&w. One of them has also apparently been redrawn in part, to cover a sudden lack of photographic images present in the original.

The new book -- smaller than a typical trade paperback at 9.25" x 6.5" -- is published by Telltale Games, the people behind the successful current series of episodic Sam & Max computer games; it's probably not too much of a leap to suspect that the book is poised to act as a 197-page, $19.99 supplement to the gaming stuff, arriving at around the same time as a dvd collection of the 1997-98 The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police kids' television cartoon to bring all bits of the franchise back into print.

It's all right; how many young Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans even knew that stuff started out as a comic? As far as multimedia franchises go, Sam & Max might lack the Turtles' popularity and prolificacy, but it's got a sense of consistency that's inspired some loyalty across stretches of years marked by false starts, or simply nothing. When the pieces do appear, none seem terribly out of place.

I think that's a good way of thinking about Purcell's comics too: nothing quite out of place. Reading this stuff again after a few years really hammers home how orderly Purcell's chaos tends to be - his short comics are perfectly tuned little gag machines, right from their earliest professional examples. While Purcell's art becomes more assured in terms of draftsmanship as time passes, there's little hesitation about where to insert just the right aside, or how to get a faux activities page to flow.

His longer stories (and I think the longest one in here is 30 pages) are more anecdotal, seeing the characters march around from set piece to set piece ("Spontaneous combustion! What a stroke of luck!"), sometimes with only a broad connecting theme to guide them, but the pacing is so assured that nothing even seems aimless; I don't know if there was much improvisation going on at the drawing board, but Purcell's grasp of panel-by-panel build from small gags to big one always at least gives the illusion of order. Even jokes that seem to serve no purpose other than to amuse Purcell himself, like a habit for mixing up Sam & Max's names in homage to his brother's old comics, hang inside his world with such conceptual authority that the reader presumes they must mean something. They fit.

It helps that Purcell always draws his animation-ready characters into a detailed world, although the exact type evolved over the years. Early tales are heavy with mock noir shadows and touched with Will Elder chicken fat, and the former sort of takes charge of the latter as time passes, and Purcell continues to revise his work in a more design-heavy direction. Note the transformation of Max from his puffy, tactile 1987 self:

To the slick, geometric construct of 1998:

(don't ever say 'geometric construct' again, Sam)

The latter shorts -- and Purcell hasn't drawn any long Sam & Max stories for print since 1992 -- see the artist's world contort totally into a curved, funhouse mirror type of reality, perhaps aimed to bolster the property's then-running cartoon show with a lighter, more 'direct' look than the heavy elements of the earlier comics. It's still detailed, and carefully composed, but moving in a different direction.

But even Purcell's current (dormant) Sam & Max webcomic, without a cartoon to promote, has continued the artist's move into animation territory, albeit through an illustrational, almost concept drawing approach, maybe inspired by his time working at Pixar (he has a writing credit on Cars).

I can't say I like it much; finally, Purcell's work seems frozen by its own composition, his character art somehow both distractingly frantic and utterly inert. What's Max even doing in panel #1 above? Is he screaming? His jagged word balloon and its mechanical letters suggest otherwise. Is he pointing (incorrectly) to his neurons? Flashing a gang signal? Mugging for the reader? It'd make a nice dvd cover -- and indeed, cover art and single-page images are all the 21st century Purcell work included in this book -- but it doesn't lend itself to very interesting or even intuitive reading, and that's setting aside the clunky, annoying, mandatory-for-reading 'animated' elements of the strip.

(needless to say, the project then went on to win the 2007 Eisner for Best Digital Comic; did I mention it's only 12 pages long?)

But I'm off-topic. The stuff in this book is slick, and it's slickness that sets Purcell's work apart from comics with similar subject matter.

Sam & Max wasn't a new thing for comics. Its violent, wordy funny animals subject matter hearkens back to many old pieces of animation, yes, but even its specifics -- its cheerily obtuse heroes, its its romantic soak in urban squalor, its fascination with cornball Americana -- have comics roots in the likes of Bill Griffith's newspaper strip Zippy, or Bob Burden's b&w Flaming Carrot Comics.

Burden, like Purcell, did one of those Gumby comics with Art Adams at Comico (Gumby's Summer Fun Special, 1987), and he continues to write the very irregular Gumby comic today; it's a very weird book. Not because weird stuff happens (although it does), but because it's charged with this aging man's anxieties, while seeking to act as this licensed character kids' comic. It's Gumby, yeah, but it makes use of this peculiar melancholic iconography and set of themes so that it seems more an appropriation of Gumby for personal, even gently political ends. It's like those stretches in Flaming Carrot where the wild 'n violent zany hero would wander around dying factories in his steel town home, spitting poetry. Only... Gumbesque.

I can't imagine Steve Purcell making a comic like that, not that he needs to or anything. He's a showman on the page, and every line of Sam & Max is ready to entertain as many as readers possible. The dog and the bunny crack wise at great length, like the vaudevillians that inspired the old Looney Tunes. They're never saying anything that you can't read the first time. There's the occasional political(ish) joke, but little discernible political point of view. The mayhem is lively, but the stories' rambunctious stylings underscore how nobody's ever really hurt, even when people die for plot purposes. It's got the kind of edge Mom might roll her eyes at, but not take away from you; it's cutting, like safety scissors.

But there's still some great lines after all these years, and I mean that in both ways. It's hard work making good, disposable, undemanding comics entertainment, and that's what Purcell does in this book. That I now own two versions of this collection is a testament to my fondness for the material, even as I look back and realize there's nothing much hidden in there that went over my head when I was 14, save for jokes about rollover bars or flamboyant west village gadabouts. The depth I see now is only in Purcell's developing visuals, and their ways of keeping things moving.