The Webcomic Overlook #136: Sam & Fuzzy
Long ago, in the halcyon days of webcomic reviewing, the esteemed Eric Burns-White once coined a term that is apt for both print comics and, now, the rather mature webcomic genre. He called it Cerebus Syndrome:
The effort to create character development by adding layer upon layer of depth to their characters, taking a character of limited dimension (or meant to be a joke character) and making them fuller and richer. The idea is to take what was fun on one level and showing the reality beneath it. ‘Cerebus Syndrome’ refers to Dave Sim’s epic, sometimes tragically flawed magnum opus, Cerebus the Aardvark. Cerebus started life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian starring an Earth-Pig born. Over time, it grew extremely complex, philosophical, and in many ways much much funnier. Then, Dave Sim went batshit crazy and Cerebus went straight to Hell, but that’s for another day. People saw how Cerebus’s humble roots could lead to glorious heights, and as cartoonists get bored with what they’re doing, they decided to pull a Cerebus of their own.
Boredom is generally the key to a Cerebus Syndrome attempt. After a while, even a successful webcartoonist gets tired of fart jokes and sight gags and wants to make these characters more than they’ve been.
It is extremely hard to take a light, joke a day strip and push it through a successful Cerebus Syndrome. Dave Sim did it in stages, and at least in the early days of the transformation brought massive amounts of Funny to cover it over. Done perfectly, one only realizes in hindsight that the strip has turned out to be quite different than it used to be. Done sloppily, the Cerebus Syndrome fails, and the webcomic enters First and Ten Syndrome. Unfortunately, a failed Cerebus Syndrome is an excruciating process for the webcomic’s fans to endure.
Personally, I would’ve called this “Funky Winkerbean Disorder,” and I may yet do so as not to infringe on Mr. Burns-White’s proprietary terminology. But there you go. As we enter the third decade of webcomics, this phenomenon becomes more and more apparent. The most infamous example of Cerebus Syndrome is probably the “Loss” strip from Ctrl+Alt+Del. It’s hardly the first to flip the switch from “wry sarcasm” to “maudlin,” though. The same thing can be seen in MegaTokyo, Sluggy Freelance, Questionable Content, and every webcomic David Willis has ever worked on.
There are times, though, when someone pulls the transition off just right.
When Sam Logan’s Sam & Fuzzy starts, it’s the comic that’s metaphorically about farts and sights that Eric is talking about. But the modern version, the ones that current fans seems to have embraced, is less reliant on random wackiness and is more concerned about telling long-term, cohesive stories. Sure, it’s hardly complex or philosophical… but there is an Earth-Pig. Actually, a Fig Pig. And… I think I may have lost my train of thought here.
Sam & Fuzzy started eight years ago in May 2002. Currently, it’s over 1300 strips long. Long story short: it’s a very long webcomic. This is daunting for new readers. New readers like me. Still, many people have posted online how Sam & Fuzzy was their favorite webcomic, and, admittedly, the artwork was enough to whet my appetite. (You know what really got me interested? I noticed the ninjas were referenced in Matt Wilson’s Bonus Stage webtoons.)
When I hit the “Start” button, I noticed that you’re not set immediately to page one. Instead, you’re linked to a page that displays the following message: “Guess What? You can read it even if you haven’t read the old ones. Or anything else! EVER!” (I know it’s in writing, but I distinctly remember having “Loud” registered in my brain when I read that. What I’m saying is: lay off the sugary drinks a little, Sam Logan.) This was simple, direct, and reassuring, much like the “Don’t Panic” cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Unfortunately, my stubborn nature kidnapped and imprisoned my better angels. I scoffed and said, “Thanks but no thanks, webcomic creator Sam Logan. As a reviewer, it is my duty to read this comic in the most obsessive-compulsive way possible: start at page one and read every single strip in chronological order until I reach the end. Otherwise, how do I know that I’ve truly had a fulfilling Sam & Fuzzy experience?”
This turned out to be not such a good idea. Sam & Fuzzy‘s early years are repetitive and predictable. It borrows heavily from earlier source material: something you may know as Invader Zim. Also, Sam & Max, perhaps. But ESPECIALLY Invader Zim. Fuzzy is the posterboy for everything Hot Topic: he’s a “cute” teddy bear that’s also “violent” and “unhinged.” Oh my God… so random! (Essay question: is it really so random when every other webcomic features the same exact character?)
And then there’s Sam, who looks like Sonic the Hedgehog‘s ugly brother. Judging from the guest strips (which I will get into later), even the guest artists, who I assume are all fans of this webcomic, have a hard time trying to figure out whether Sam is a human being or a furry. A lot of the earlier strips demand us to care about his romantic life. Sam is such a spineless sad sack that half the time you don’t care if he ever gets the girl… who, for the most part, all look the same. Most girls to appear extra bubbly to a frightening degree. They all have gigantic mouths with wide grins that, to me, are less “cute and approachable” and more “forced and borderline psychopathic.” At any moment, I expect one of these ladies to bite Sam’s arms off.
While the humor isn’t terrible, it does boils down to the same basic routine:
Sam: Things are finally going Sam’s way!
Fuzzy: Cool. Now check out this severed head/pyramid scam/murderous device I found! LOVE ME BECAUSE I’M RANDOM!
Sam: I don’t know why I’m friends with you.
Sam’s friend: I don’t know why you’re friends with him.
If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Plus, there seems to be an aggressive attempt to create the next internet meme… half of which can probably be attributable to that ubiquitous dancing hamster gif. From page 1 to 430, the comic features haunted refrigerators, taxi-driving superheroes, and time-travelling with funny Mexican hats. Now, 16-year-old me would’ve totally dug it. However, 30-something me finds it kinda tiresome. Maybe it’s because a lot of these jokes rely on the novelty of the weirdness, and when you’re a middle-aged fogey like me, you’ve seen it done a hundred times already.
Finally, at one point last month, I threw in the towel at page 430. Very briefly, I’d considered throwing it into that pile of comics that defeated me just by being too long and too repetitive. That recommendation to start at Volume 5, though, kept haunting me. “You can read it even if you haven’t read the old ones. Or anything else! EVER!” So, after getting increasingly impatient to get to the good stuff, I went for as a second pass. I decided to release my better angels from their dimly lighted gulag and skip forward to the volume entitled “Sam & Fuzzy Fix Your Problem”.
Ah, what a difference 600 pages makes.
We don’t really need to be familiar with the long, seven-year history behind Sam & Fuzzy, because we’re introduced to a brand new character. Devahi, a young, struggling woman of indeterminate Asian origin, is struggling with her finances and is looking for a job. As a last resort, she spots a “Help Wanted” sign (actually “Help“) and finds herself employed with Ninja Mafia Services (N-M-S for short) as a filing clerk. That’s when she, like the new readers, are introduced to Sam and Fuzzy.
N-M-S was basically a fraternity of assassins, and Sam turned out to be the last remaining descendant to take over the title of Emperor. Sam, being an all around nice guy, decides to transform the N-M-S from a ruthless conglomeration of villains to a far more helpful service. Unfortunately, going legit means less money, and the N-M-S has had to fire it’s sprawling staff on ninjas. It’s now been pared down to a bare-bones start-up, only without the venture capital.
So, OK, what’s really different here? First of all, Mr. Logan thankfully jettisons his standard four-panel structure, which restricted the flexibility of the story he was trying to tell. This is still ostensibly a humor comic. However, the punchline is not forced into a series of over-explanatory word balloons and awkwardly exaggerated facial tics. Instead, jokes are allowed to breathe. The comic can pause for a second before the punchline, and the improved artwork lets us linger on the better rendered reactions. By ditching the four-panel format, the comedy is genuinely funny now and not nearly as desperate.
Second, Sam Logan has pulled off a neat trick: he’s turned Sam & Fuzzy from a gag-a-day strip to a solid comedic adventure comic without betraying the personalities of his two characters. Even our generic comedic foil, Fuzzy, is given a backstory: in something that could’ve easily become awkwardly melodramatic (yet surprisingly isn’t), we see that Sam was once partners with a super-thief named Hazel. (Another bonus point for Mr. Logan here: the ladies look more attractive than as previously depicted.) Fuzzy, though, is still the wacky, unhinged sidekick, though this time we see that his personality, especially his unquenchable curiosity and his nigh indestructibility, is recontextualized as a huge asset.
The successful transformation gave me a newfound appreciation for Sam & Fuzzy. It stoked my interest: how did a comic about a stoop-shouldered schlub turn from a guy worrying about holding down a job to one about a guy who had somehow taken over the Ninja Mafia (which had been sort of a tossed-off joke in earlier comics)? This lead me to Volume 4 (“Noosehead”), which then caused me to fill in the gaps that I’d abandoned from Volume 3 (“Love and War”), and … voila, mes amis … before I knew it, I’d read the entire run of Sam & Fuzzy.
Reading Volume 5 first means that you will, unavoidably, be spoiled. Volume 4, for example, starts off Sam going into hiding, and you have to guess which of the “new” characters he is. Unfortunately, that puzzle has been unraveled by the time Volume 5 rolls along. Thus, you’ll end up missing out on what I assume was a very fun guessing game.
It’s not that big a deal, though, because in my opinion, Volume 4 was the most enjoyable story arc of all. The groundwork was laid in the closing pages of the previous volume. Old jokes are being re-imaged into major plot elements. Sam, for example, has been framed for the death of the Ninja Mafia Emperor, who was being possess by the demon-possessed refrigerator (ooh, potential internet meme critical mass). Previously domestic character have been elevated into roles of top secret assassins, and the Ninja Mafia’s profile has been raised from being a bunch of dorky characters to a serious criminal organization.
Volume 4 raises the stakes by tripling the cast of characters and substantially decreasing the roles the previous cast (notably Sam’s ex-girlfriend Alexa and the crew of the X-Per-S Taxi Cab company). The heavy metal band Noosehead get starring roles. Despite looking almost generic, the Noosehead crew turn out to be more interesting and have far more character depth than the previous cast. There’s Sid, the singer/songwriter who’s getting burnt out writing about angst; Nicole, the sexy back-up who’s keeping an affair with one of the roadies a secret; and Malcolm, a bespectacled fellow who spouts random conspiracy lunacy like “The Hunter in White!” and “The Man with Two Faces!”
It’s a very simple adventure format: Sam and Fuzzy running from both lawmen and outlaws to make it to the Ninja Temple. The story kicks into high gear when they and a former ninja with a robotic arm add new people to their merry traveling band. There’s Gertrude, a pigtailed gal who’s obsessed with gaining what she believes is her rightful throne of Ninja Empress and blames Sam for all the misfortunes in her life. My personal favorite is Mr. Blank, a masked white ninja of an elite warrior caste who has a hidden agenda in store for Sam. You start to wonder how the group is going to stick together and how the story’s going to wrap up.
It’s fun. It’s breezy. It’s everything you can ask for in an adventure comic. Sam & Fuzzy features a lot of clever, long-term storytelling that isn’t seen very often in webcomics: sometimes, mini-arcs often start in medias res, hooking you in for the short term until you find the answer to, for example, why Sam is stuck in a burning building. There are memorable villains (the bizarre Mr. Sin and the power-hungry Mr. Black) and crazy twists and turns (like when the crew suddenly run into a town full of people who look like Fuzzy). Sam Logan must’ve kept a meticulously maintained notebook full of every plot development that ever happened in Sam & Fuzzy, because the story is full of crazy callbacks that help deepen the mythos he’s creating.
As silly as everything gets, though, Sam & Fuzzy maintains a screwed-up internal logic. I mean, sure, it is kinda jarring how the people in the world are shocked and skeptical about strange occurrences (namely the existence of ninjas), yet don’t bat an eye at a talking teddy bear. That doesn’t matter, though. What doesn matter, is that it’s all compelling and it leaves you hungering for more. By the time “Noosehead” closed, I had this strange urge to know about these characters and to catch up with what happened to them and if they’re on new and exciting adventures… then I remembered that I actually had read Volume 5 already.
Which, to my surprise, made me want to read Volume 5 all over again.
So what’s the right way to read Sam & Fuzzy? If I could do it all over again, I’d start with Volume 4 (my favorite), yet there were elements in Volume 3 that are essential to understanding the setup. I can’t suggest starting with Volume 3, either, because that’s the point where I personally quit the comic out of frustration.
Tell you what… if any of the above review made you want to check out Sam & Fuzzy, I’d go head with Sam Logan’s personal recommendation. Start with Volume 5. If you love this kind of screwball adventure (and if you’re are fellow Bonus Stage fan like me, you know you do), you’ll instinctively want to check out the earlier volumes anyway just because the entire thing is so damn fun. To coin a phrase from a popular candy commercial, there’s no wrong way to read a Sam & Fuzzy.
Minor complaint, by the way: the stories that I really, really want to read most about are Gertrude and the whole gang at Noosehead. I wonder: is it possible for Sam Logan to commission a couple of spin-off series follow their adventures? I know I’d love to read them. I have a feeling I wouldn’t be the only one. You could have a potential franchise on your hands, webcomic creator Sam Logan!
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Postscript: One of the most interesting things about Sam & Fuzzy are the crazy cross-section of webcomic artists who do guest strips. There are strips by Rene Engstrom (of Anders Loves Maria), Lady Yates (of Earthsong), and Tim Buckley (of CAD). Surprisingly, the most embarrassing one was the one drawn by Questionable Content‘s Jeph Jacques. Was there any point to it beyond, “I wanted to see your female characters withough their clothes on”? Seriously, that strip is almost as creepy and gratuitous as the one Mookie did for 8-Bit Theater.
Posted on October 11, 2010, in 5 Stars, action webcomic, adventure webcomic, comedy webcomic, The Webcomic Overlook, WCO Big Review, webcomics and tagged Sam & Fuzzy, Sam and Fuzzy. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.