All through the late 1950s, Mort Walker and I worked together three or four days a week, however long it took, doing the artwork for the daily and Sunday Beetle Bailey strips. The rest of the time I worked in my own home, writing gag ideas for both Beetle and Hi and Lois. At that time and on into the 1960s, we were the only writers for both strips. Each week we wrote ten gags apiece and on Monday mornings we showed each other our gags, graded them and discussed them. We never did rough sketches of ideas unless we thought they could actually be used, so out of twenty gag sketches it wasn’t hard to select the fourteen we needed for the two strips each week.
We both had a fairly thorough knowledge of comic strip history, so just for fun, just for each other, we began doing gags about comic strip characters. We quickly saw how much fun it was to have comic characters from other strips, other times, interact with each other. The idea soon came up: What about having a guy who ran his own comic strip as a business? Mort, who enjoyed alliteration as much as anyone (Beetle Bailey, Sergeant Snorkel) came up with the name: “Sam’s Strip.”
But what should this character look like? One day Mort was doodling around and I was looking over his shoulder. He drew a face that looked roughly like the short character, Mac, in Tillie the Toiler. I said that he didn’t look different enough, didn’t look unique. We both stared at the paper for a minute or two. I said, “Draw a line across the middle of his face. Let’s see what that looks like.” Mort penciled a line from Sam’s ear to his nose, cutting off the whole lower half. Now he looked different and that’s the way, for better or worse, he stayed. Later on, in Sam and Silo, I lowered and curved the bottom line of the face to get more room for expressions. Since Sam needed someone to talk to, and since Sam was sort of fat, Mort created a thin guy (the old Laurel and Hardy concept), who never had a name until Sam and Silo started seventeen years later.
Mort and I split the gag writing, and I did all the drawing, except for the lettering, which Mort did, just as I did the lettering for Beetle. I always admired Mort’s lettering enormously. (Some very good artists can’t letter at all.)
We had no trouble selling the strip to King Features, which distributed Beetle and Hi and Lois. We all wondered, briefly, if there would be any problem with copyrights, using all those characters with impunity as we planned to, but no one ever minded, not even the Walt Disney Company, which today threatens lawsuits if anyone uses one of their characters without permission (or maybe paying for the privilege). In those days, other cartoonists were flattered, and even Disney would write to us and ask for the original.
When Sam’s Strip started, on October 16, 1961, there were no copy machines, or no good ones, anyway. All the Sam’s Strips were drawn from scratch, laboriously penciled and inked, and research took a great deal of time. I took pride in copying an artist’s work exactly, even Tenniel’s Alice in Wonderland drawings. But doing this strip took way more time than drawing a normal strip. The week we did a comics convention, with dozens of old comic characters in each strip, it took me three weeks to turn out one week of dailies. It was fun, and it felt like an accomplishment, but it was exhausting. Some fellow cartoonists were surprised to discover that I wasn’t cutting and pasting.
“What?” I said. “Cut pages out of books? I wouldn’t do that.”
People have said that Sam’s Strip came along too soon, that readers weren’t ready then for such a radical departure. It certainly was too soon as far as drawing aids were concerned. In 1961 there were no shortcuts, which made things hard on the eyes.
Some editors wrote to say that they thought the strip was brilliant, while others said they felt their readers weren’t knowledgeable enough to understand it.
“What was there to understand?” we wondered. When an old comic strip character, like Krazy Kat or Happy Hooligan, comes along, someone yells, “Hey, there’s an old comic strip character!” So we never felt that only a cartoonist could understand and love it. Still, it was always good to get complimentary letters from people like Charles M. Schulz, whose own Peanuts had been in existence for only ten years at that point.
Later, other comic strips would occasionally do Sam’s Strip type of inside gags, but not very often. That’s the kind of heavy labor most cartoonists try to avoid. During its brief existence, Sam’s Strip gave Mort and me deep satisfaction, and if anybody didn’t like it, that was all right, and if anybody, on the other hand, really liked it, that was all right too.
- Continue with “My Time with Sam’s Strip” by Mort Walker.
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