Great Graphic Novels: The Collected Sam and Max: Surfin' the Highway, by Steve Purcell

GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) -- Mark

The Collected Sam and Max: Surfin' the Highway by Steve Purcell

NewImageThe Collected Sam and Max is a touching Holocaust narrative in which Purcell depicts the Jews as Sam the dog, and the Germans as a rabbit-esque creature named Max. Just kidding. It’s about a vigilante animal duo who excel at violence and friendship.

This pair of anthropomorphic “freelance police” have been running amok in our culture for twenty-five years now, hijacking a slew of different media formats for the enjoyment of mankind. Many fans were first introduced to the twosome by way of LucasArts’ 1993 point-and-click PC game, Sam and Max Hit the Road, which is widely considered one of the greatest things to come out of the golden age of interactive adventure. Four years later they earned an even bigger following by starring in their own Saturday morning cartoon. But anyone wishing to experience the essence of Sam and Max must look to their comic book roots because their early appearances are pure Purcell -- Steve that is, and thanks to the magic of independent publishing he had total creative freedom.

Readers of this edition will find that the events are a bit less cohesive than say, the Watchmen series. This collection of stories not only comes from different issues, it also spans five different publishers, not counting a dozen strips that were created for the LucasArts newsletter.

Regardless of the sponsor, every tale finds Sam and Max roaming through a surreal world where enemies lurk at every turn: muggers in the alleys, terrorists in the skies, and an angry volcano god in the volcano. Even their office telephone is demon-possessed. Fortunately, dealing with constant adversity is a sport for Sam and Max. Their bouts with bad guys are casual yet vicious, offering readers the same sort of satisfaction that can be gleaned from a Death Wish film. Their take on justice may overreach sometimes, but Purcell summed it up in a recent interview, “The moral ambiguousness is [...] a spoof on heroism derived from overzealous violence.” So there.

While guns, teeth, and claws are their solution to baddies, Sam and Max rely on camaraderie and humor to deal with the chaos they live in. The dialogue is brilliantly written and laugh-out-loud-able, and their relationship is surprisingly touching. Purcell says people are lucky in life if they can find this sort of friendship in which “You share a unique set of inside jokes and phrases and can endlessly amuse each other.”

The writing and the visuals work together seamlessly because Purcell is both writer and illustrator, and he develops the jokes and the art at the same time. The artwork is gorgeous. Close-lookers are rewarded with hilarious details that rival the gutters of Mad Magazine. Purcell also has a masterful grasp on the aesthetics of fun, seasoning his stories with stuff like breakfast cereals, tourist traps, Bigfoot, Christmas morning, oversized Mardi Gras heads, and an unforgettable homage to Stuckey’s roadside convenience stores.

Now that I’ve written all this, I see that Amazon is showing the book to be out of print and not exactly cheap. (The same goes for the more handsome anniversary edition.) It wasn’t my intent to taunt the Internet with something that’s not easily accessible, although the high secondary market value supports my point that The Collected Sam and Max is truly awesome.