Saturday, July 13, 2013

Recommended WebComics: Sam & Fuzzy

Last week, one of the more innovative and imaginative webcomics out there, Sam & Fuzzy started a Kickstarter to collect the intimidating backlog of seven years of bad jokes and stories into a comprehensive two-album volume.  Back when the comic was still middling along getting by with marker artwork and wacky scenes.

And then it met its goal in less than half a day.  (More like a third of a day, but 1/3 doesn't quite roll off the tongue that easily)  And support continues to pour in.  Evidently, there are lots of fans out there who want to share their joy of the early comics and what the strip has evolved into for computer-monitor allergic comic fans.  For years, fans had been clamoring for the release of the early comics into a dead tree version, since reading the early stuff online can be something of a pain, and it takes awhile to get to the "Good stuff".  But once that starts to happen, it becomes a veritable pageturner on par with the second half of Church & State.  But what is it about this long-running webcomic that made online devotees so ambitious about wanting to share their joy with the world?

The uphill battle for spreading buzz about Sam & Fuzzy is somewhat understandable since it started out as a simple gag-a-day comic between a man and his demented talking teddy bear.  But somewhere between the taxi jobs and demonic talking refrigerators, it had suddenly morphed into an epic about a man on the run from the Ninja Mafia who'd been chosen as the rightful successor, ultimately culminating with an EPIC confrontation at the top of Sin Music Tower.

One of the things that Scott McCloud said he was excited about webcomics was that everybody online had potential to create their own personal Cerebus.  And nowhere is that dream more explicitly verified than in Sam & Fuzzy.  Much like how Cerebus' High Society was released first since it was better quality stuff, and only went back to reprint his early stuff once sales and demand proved strong enough.  (Incidentally, it may seem obvious today, but when Dave Sim first published High Society in telephone book format, comic retailers put down his repackaging, since it meant they wouldn't be able to sell back issues of his issues anymore)

Summarizing up a comic as esoteric as Sam & Fuzzy is pretty difficult, since there's no clear story summary that would do it justice.  Rather, it's an experience to be relished.  It plays off of various archetypes, starting out as a wacky sitcom like setup (A man & his talking teddy bear!) but then evolves into a Fugitive-like scenario by being on the run with a rock band, and becoming increasingly drawn into an underworld of a mysterious society just hidden from reality.  Sam has shades of a reluctant John Constantine with Peter Parker luck.  Fuzzy is the annoying chorus sidekick mascot who's just as much of a hindrance as he is a help.  Fuzzy is an anthropomorphic talking bear who has disturbing displays of homicidal tendencies, nonsensical non-sequiturs and sometimes surprisingly prodigious insights.  And yet, for all his annoying traits, he somehow has managed to stay friends without Sam (or anybody else for that matter) hacking him up in a state of gleeful maniacal cackling.

The webcomic didn't start to show shades of becoming ambitious until a 4-day Christmas special that showed the extent an expanded version of the comic could aspire to rather than restrict itself to the usual 4-panel format.

So what do you do if you have a cult comic filled with wacky endearing characters, but it's laden with an improbable origin that sounds completely insane taken out of context?  (It doesn't help that it's insane even WITH context)  You create a new jumping-on point for new readers.  That way, once readers see the creative energy and humour evident in the comic, they'll be naturally curious to go back and find out how this zaniness all started.

HOW Sam became Ninja Emperor isn't that important.  Only the fact that he's Ninja Emperor is relevant, and the little clues that surface from time to time only give a small sampling of the history that lies within.  In the same context that Cerebus' past as a Veteran Mercenary and Tax Collector was hardly relevant to his becoming Prime Minister and Pope, so too does Sam's past as a Taxi Driver and bookstore employee seem like minor footnotes.  They're interesting bits of trivia on a resume with far more impressive qualifications.

It's not mandatory to read the early stuff in order to understand the later comics, but it certainly clears up some backstory and some inside jokes that makes more sense in context.  In this instance, it's easier to dive straight into the new starting point and then go back and read the early stuff when you know all the good things that'll happen later.  It makes for a much more rewarding experience.  Chances are that if you go straight to the beginning, you'll suffer from repetitive burnout as experienced from this comprehensive review that does a much better analysis of the mechanisms behind Sam & Fuzzy.  It's been described as Cerebus Syndrome gone right.

Much of Dave Sim's bad rep comes from his outlandish constantly changing worldview of religion and don't even get him started on women.  His misogyny is the stuff of legend and would be considered unbelievable if portrayed in fiction.  The ironic part is, Cerebus had some of the strongest portrayals of women in comics, and had a high female readership until that infamous tangent in issue #186 that turned off a lot of his faithful readers.

By comparison, there's plenty of admirable women within the pages of Sam & Fuzzy, and even those females aren't entirely faultless.  They're no generation of Mary Sues or Shrinking Violets.  They're capable, smart, manipulative and as cruel as the next guy.  Oh, and they're funny as well; did I forget to mention that?
If there's an ugly divorce involving a secret mistress looming in the horizon, we're all in big trouble.  Baring any sudden affairs in the unforseeable future, we should be enjoying the antics of Sam & Fuzzy for a long time to come.

Fortunately, the only conspiracy nut is regulated to Malcolm, whose insane insights can be laughed at for the world to see since there's no way they could possibly be taken seriously.  Right??  Right??!!  If the creator ever shows signs of believing the words that come out of his conspiracy nut's mouth, that's a warning sign to slowly back away.

While there are superficial similarities between Cerebus and Sam & Fuzzy, (they're both black and white independant comics created by Canadian cartoonists) the difference between the two could not be more pronounced.  Cerebus is a dense intimidating read that takes time to absorb, and its sense of humour may not translate easily to an audience today, which can be offputting to new comic readers.  Sam and Fuzzy is a light breezy comic that despite its long-running storylines, the author is having fun making things up as he goes along.  I would say that Cerebus is for comic veterans ONLY, and should only be attempted by those brave enough to take the plunge.

That still won't stop me from doing another side-by-side comparison of the two comics, since those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.  Even if creator Sam Logan never read Cerebus, some of the similarities (and deviations) are somewhat surprising:

Cerebus has a keen mind to immediately improvise his surroundings to suit his needs, even as all odds continue to conspire against him.  If a plan is mentioned, you can feel free to ignore it, since it will almost certainly fail to come to fruition due to a technicality.  (This is one of the most frustrating things about Cerebus)

Sam has a tremendous ability of being able to improvise to the current situation under tremendous strain from repeat experience with weirdness.

As soon as he's appointed Ninja Emperor, Sam takes the reins of power immediately - purely for altrustic reasons.

As soon as Cerebus is appointed Pope, Cerebus lets power go to his head immediately and abuses it to the full letter of the law - for purely selfish reasons.
He's also more vocal about his reservations.
Cerebus confronts a flying being known as The Regency Elf  who's somewhat ditzy, and only presents herself to certain people.

Conflicted women are continuously plagued by a floating Conscience Cat whose presence can only be seen by a select few, and whose existence remains somewhat dubious.

Caricatures of musicians Mick Jagger and Keith Richards showed up in a "filler" side story.
If anybody asks about the inherent weirdness of Cerebus,
 just tell them drugs were involved.
You won't be lying.
Of all the famous dead celebrities to choose from, Sam & Fuzzy had a guest appearance of The King.

Cerebus takes on a job at a pub to take on a mysterious (yet cute) menace that's occupying the basement.

Sam & Fuzzy take on a job at a wine restaurant with a dilemma similar to above.

Cerebus was confronted about his species' identity in a bar, after which no one ever questioned or found him looking unusual ever again.

Fuzzy had cat-burglar Hazel do this for him.

In a "lost" episode of Jaka's Story, it's revealed that Lord Julius has a staff of Like-a-Look body doubles posted everywhere all with his mannerisms.
What's worse than two Grouchos in a room?
Don't answer that question.
Early on, there's a time-travelling Fuzzy with a Sombero who occasionally pops up, and when a bunch of Fuzzy Robot Clones shows up later, one of them gains sentience, and differentiates from the real Fuzzy by wearing a Sombero.

The culminative climax of Sam & Fuzzy takes place in an office building ascending towards the stratosphere.  During which all prospective players deal with varying levels of threats on every floor with hilarious banter and tension throughout.
That smashing sound would be Sam being dangled out a window.
At the climax of Church & State, Cerebus finds himself hitching a ride on a black tower of faces rising towards the heavens.  Sandwiched between two lengthy monologues lasting 130 pages, the last word Cerebus utters is a barely audible "No".
He actually said "no" ten pages earlier.

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