Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Trade Waiting - Sammy the Mouse by Zack Sally

One of the most beautiful things about the medium of comics is the idea that the only budgetary constraint is the creators own imagination. As such, creator’s can destroy and rebuild worlds on a whim and the only costs involved are the time it takes and the ink and paper that are used to create. This is quite possibly why the superhero genre, with its big ideas and frenetic action, rules the roost in the world of western comics. A problem with this is a sense within the community that everything else is ‘indy’ and therefore viewed with a certain amount of contempt from the mainstream readership. (This goes both ways; many of the independent reading hipster crowd tend to do the same to the mainstream crowd and non comics readers view all comic fans with contempt, regardless of indy or mainstream.) Where am I going with this? It can be argued that many books seen as indy aren’t actually that at all; only in comics would the genre’s of crime, humour, fantasy and more be considered independent. Which brings us to Sammy the Mouse by Zack Sally, a comic that truly has the right to call itself independent whilst using characters and concepts that are the most mainstream of all. Is it any good? Find out after the jump.

Sammy the Mouse
Zack Sally
Published by La Mano 21 Books

What would happen to the characters that you grew up loving if they became older with you? Stuck in a world that, in childhood is one of wonder and beauty, but seen through adult eyes becomes sinister and jaded, what would become of the personalities that inhabit it? Cartoonist Zack Sally feels he has the answer, and that answer is alcoholism. Sammy is, as his surname suggests, an eerily familiar mouse who just wants to be left alone. This never happens as he is constantly harassed, often goaded by an unseen narrator, to go on some form of adventure by acquaintances; seemingly rich duck Feekes, and strange, seizure having dog, Puppy Boy. More often than not, adventures involve drinking heavy quantities of alcohol in their local bar. (Which is, obviously, a giant porcelain looking baby with an entrance that is ‘round the back’ if you get the meaning.) The adventures in question are usually anything but adventurous.

For a so called ‘funny animal book,’ Sammy the Mouse leaves you with an incredible sense of melancholia once complete, but not melancholic in an Acme Novelty Library naval gazing, “my life is so awful and meaningless” kind of way. Unlike the absurd humour of Tony Millionaire’s The Maakies, Sally’s use of familiar characters that we all know and love and having them respond to alcoholism in different ways is mildly unsettling. Feekes is the angry drunk, willing to abuse and shout down friends and enemies alike all the while maintaining an air of aristocracy even though he can’t afford to buy himself drink. Puppy Boy is the drunk that continues to be so even when death is staring him in the face. (The first time we meet Puppy Boy he is face down in the gutter post seizure.) Sammy is the drunk that just wants to be left to his own devices regardless of whether that involves being rude or offensive to others, and has an air of superiority that distances him from the other characters. On top of all this there is a frankly horrifying and mysterious weapon wielding, half razor toothed baby, half monster that lurks in around the pages of the book with no explanation (within this volume anyway,) as to his (or its) purpose.

Although it is never explicitly mentioned something that permeates around the edges of Sammy the Mouse is the sense of loneliness and isolation that all the main characters experience. None of the main characters that inhabit these pages can be considered happy, and none apart from Feekes, who is pretty much a professional vagrant, have anything resembling a job. When Sammy meets someone who genuinely is happy by their very nature, a fake moustache wearing gopher looking lady, it takes Sammy by surprise and he wants nothing more than to be back around familiar surroundings; surroundings he often wants to get away from. Another way that Sally portrays the effects of alcoholism is through the situations that Sammy finds himself in. Nowhere else is this more evident than when after a heavy drinking session, Puppy Boy convinces Sammy to join him to go and look at something beautiful. Unfortunately to get there Sammy has to climb up what looks to be hundreds of steps, literally crawling at points just to get there. Anyone who has had one too many in their time can surely see the similarity to this and the long walk up the stairs to your apartment/bedroom after a heavy night. Not only that, Sammy decides to put his head down to have a nap and wakes up somewhere entirely different, definitely another effect of over inebriation. Having said all that, the book also can be laugh out loud funny at times. A scene of particular note is the one where a giant hand, (possibly Sally’s, or maybe our own,) parts a cloud to poke Sammy square in the face was like a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch and raised a guffaw from this particular reviewer.

Zack Sally is a creator that has a complete handle on the world he is creating and the characters that inhabit it. He captures the virtual non existence of characters that live on the fringe of society incredibly well whilst intelligently not making them too stereotypical. He is fearless in his narrative choices, never explain the how’s or why’s and often letting story threads dangle and peter out, adding to the sense of drunkenness that pervades within the book. He also manages to create a certain sense of dread within the confines of the pages without using too much explicit violence or language, a skill that is underrated in a world where tension means the latest Saw film and horrific displays of graphic violence. (If you want that sort of thing in your funny animal books go and buy Al Columbia’s shocking, schizophrenic, and completely brilliant Pim and Francie: The Golden Bear Days.) That’s not to say this book is one for the children, it’s anything but, it’s more that the violence is handled in a way that is fitting of an old Loony Tunes cartoon rather than an adult comic book. His art style is simple and easy to follow yet has an energy that only a creator completely comfortable with themselves has. Often characters look like they have been drawn with a shaky hand while the backgrounds, (particularly the architecture,) are lush and full of detail, again adding to the sense of inebriation within the book. The book is coloured completely in light blues and browns, giving it a completely distinctive look.

When mentioned earlier in the article that this book is a truly independent creation that wasn’t hyperbole. Originally serialized in Fantagraphics’ Ignatz comic, Sally started a Kickstarter campaign to get the collection off the ground. Not content with just doing what is an admirable task in and of itself, Sally then bought an offset printer, taught himself how to use it, and then proceeded to print every copy of this collection in existence. Let me repeat that, every copy of the book is hand printed by Zack Sally himself. Honestly, can you name anyone outside of the mini comics’ scene doing this? Probably not. This makes each and every copy of the book totally unique and leads to a couple of beautiful mistakes as well such as some pages being more vibrant than others and the odd instance of the plates not being aligned correctly. Some would hate this approach but this gives the book itself, not just what is contained within the pages, verve and personality. Sally doesn’t even bother using a straight edge to make the pages uniform and when closed the varying widths of the pages are noticeable and to be quite honest, fantastic.

Verdict – Buy It

A strange, yet ultimately rewarding fever dream of a story that uses the familiarity of childhood to explore the dark side of human nature and addiction.  Not only that but by buying this (fantastic) book, you are putting money directly into the creators pocket. In the days of fans supposedly rallying against the business practices of the big two they could do worse to put their money where their mouths are and buy this.

Next Week: A book that has people doing heroic things in. Promise.

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Matthew Derman said...

I wasn't totally sold on getting a copy of this until the final paragraph about Sally hand printing every copy himself. That is just an awesome and impressive task for a creator to undertake, and fully deserves support. I got some shopping to do...

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