Zak Sally has earned "cartoonist's cartoonist" status in that I hear his name being mentioned in awe by many of his peers, yet he doesn't seem to get the same kind of critical notice that other artists receive. Sammy The Mouse is on its way to becoming his career-defining masterpiece as a sprawling, hilarious surreal ramshackle of a comic that feels more at home in its new, smaller, collected edition than in its original format as part of the Fantagraphics/Coconino Press Ignatz line of books. I've reviewed individual issues elsewhere, so what follows are some more rambling, bullet-point observations.
1. The comic at times is almost painfully intimate. Reading it, there are times that I felt that if I were given the proper pair of glasses with the right sort of filtering, I'd be reading a direct transcript of portions of Sally's life. This is despite the fact that the art takes its cues from Floyd Gottfredson, George Herriman, EC Segar and to some extent Dr. Seuss. The more surreal aspects of the story only serve to emphasize the verisimilitude of its emotional content. As I said in a previous review, there's an immediacy in this story that's a new development in Sally's storytelling, which used to keep more of an emotional distance.
2. Though the original Ignatz editions were quite beautiful, this literally handmade edition is a perfect match for the intimacy of the story. Sally printed each copy on his own press, and if the spot colors (shades of blue and brown) bleed a little at times, it only adds to that sense that the reader is holding a bizarre artifact that was made by human hands.
3. Sally's lettering is highly underrated. When Sammy is bullied into letting the drunkard bird Feekes into his house, Sally's gigantic scrawl for Feekes so perfectly captures the personality of this kind of drunk that is so familiar that it almost induces a headache just to read it. By the same token, when Feekes hilariously tells him he shouldn't have let him in if he didn't want company, Sally has Sammy say in tiny, all lower-case letters "i am realizing that." These tiny details are what make the book so effective. Feekes is my favorite character, the kind of intrusive drunk that everyone knows in bar communities. You're not really friends with him, but you feel obligated to interact with them.
4. The dialogue between Sammy and his seizure-prone friend Puppy-Boy at the bizarrely structured Baby Bar (it literally looks like a baby) feels like something out of a real life incident: "Let's really try not to drink too much." "Okay." "I'm serous this time, Sammy." "That tastes good. I like it". "Yes." "I think I would like another." "I agree with you."..."Just bring the bottles." All during this deliberately clipped dialogue, both characters have a sort of thousand-yard stare where they both know exactly what's going to happen but can't quite say it out loud.
5. The city where everyone lives is a sort of demented Seussian nightmare: crazy angles, buildings looking like they're toppling over, strange wires, and a sort of eternal gloom thanks to the coloring. It's like the city built where the Lorax was trying to protect the trees.
6. There's a lot going on in this story that is unexplained, yet this is all secondary to the daily struggle of Sammy. We don't know who the voice in the ceiling that tells him to do things is, or if it's connected to a similar voice that Puppy-Boy also hears. We don't know the agenda of the bizarre, skeletal creature with pointed teeth who fires a gun in the air, other than that his machinations are everywhere and they seem to involve Sammy. We don't know if the gigantic furry creature that takes Sammy home after a bender is real or a hallucination. We don't know why Sammy's voice insists that he go out and do things rather than stay at home, though I'm guessing this is a metaphor for both restlessness and finding ways to battle depression. The fact that Sammy is as bewildered by all of this as the reader is part of Sally's intent, but the reader will eventually receive the kinds of answers that Sally deems fit, even if they are cryptic.
7. Sally's comics have always been visceral, but this takes it to a new level. The image of the finger of god smiting Sammy's forehead and giving him the worst hangover of all time is a hilarious one and an apt description of this sort of experience. The scene where Pat the bunny bartender (another children's book reference!) holds Feekes down after the bird had ranted at him and buries a nail in his head is simultaneously absolutely hysterical and truly disturbing.
8. The second-chapter invasion of Miss Linda into Sammy's home, demanding they go on a picnic despite his hangover, induces a different kind of cringing. Sammy claims not to know her, and the reader is never clued into as to whether or not this is true. She may well be someone Sammy met one night on a bender and totally forgot, or she could also be a busybody who pushed herself into his life. Either way, her tone-deaf quality manages to make some valid points to Sammy, until he finally (and unexpectedly) gets her angry and she stomps off. The scene where she asks him "HOW'S YOUR HEADACHE? IS IT BETTER? HOW ABOUT NOW?" is another pitch-perfect comedic scene that makes great use of lettering.
9. The third chapter in some ways is even more horrifying than the first two, given that no one rousts Sammy out of his house this time. Instead, he has an argument with the voice in the ceiling, telling it that he's going to clean his bathroom. The voice begs him to reconsider until Sammy walks into the horror that is his bathroom and starts to parrot the voice's every suggestion to get out of the house. It's funny how much this book is a dark reflection of Gottfredson; Sammy even receives a treasure map from Puppy-Boy and the voice tells him to make sure to bring a shovel. Gottfredson's adventure comics had an easy, bouncy kinetic quality that kept everything in motion, whereas Sally presents these kinds of adventures as almost a sort of death march, alleviated only (and just slightly) by the numbing effect of alcohol.
10. As I wrote in an earlier review, "Sally really gets at that feeling that’s a combination of claustrophobia
and agoraphobia, the awful sensation that the only thing worse than
staying inside is going outside." At the same time, he gets at the sensation of trying to be creative and work with others. The only thing more painful than doing something or creating is not doing something. Hence the liberal applications of alcohol and the later self-recriminations. This book is not autobiographical in the sense that's it's not literally about true events, but it's entirely autobiographical in that it depicts the way it felt (and feels) to be an artist, to be consumed by a "project", to self-medicate one's emotional pain by drinking, to negotiate a world full of people whose methods of communication are entirely one-way, and to alternately try to address and flee from moments of authenticity. Taking his cues from an earlier generation of artists gives the book to date a timeless look for a timeless dilemma, making a personal story that much more accessible. I can't wait for volume two, which he will also publish through his own La Mano publishing house.