Review by Frank Plowright
Steve Purcell has for many years been a successful games developer, screenplay writer and animated film director, with a Toy Story short to his name, but has never shed a fondness for the madcap characters he and his brother created in childhood. Sam and Max, originally considered freelance police, are a classic contrasting buddy duo of an ultra-violent naked rabbit, Max, and hound in a suit Sam, whose cases echo the anything can happen world of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. First published professionally in 1987, Purcell keeps returning to them as comics, a couple of hugely entertaining video games and even an excellent animated series.
It was in comics that Sam and Max first appeared, and this relatively slim collection gathers their entire output. The success or lack of it when applied to surreal absurdist comedy is dependent on a creative imagination, and Purcell possesses this quality in spades. Sam and Max themselves are endearing enough to sustain sympathy as their presence inevitably exacerbates already insane circumstances. “Setting fire to oil on troubled waters since 1987” could be a series motto.
Purcell arrives as the complete cartoonist from the opening story. He modifies his style a little over the years, but this is one accomplished starting point, with great cartooning, impeccable storytelling and strong character design. It’s helped by some visually striking accessories, most prominently their second hand DeSoto police car, complete with markings and red flashing light. Purcell’s anarchic imagination isn’t confined to the stories, as these are punctuated by board games and other activities, including the notorious fizzball, basically softball with unopened beer cans and axe handles.
The plots? Irrelevant. They’re merely a vehicle for the memorable comic dialogue, often brilliant deadpan commentary among chaos, ridiculous characters and the hilarious imagery. There is a very occasional lapse into incoherence, but always followed by a rapid recovery as Sam and Max deal with a volcano god, pirates, giant insects, giant rats and visit the moon along with so much more, all handled with customary good cheer, observational quips and psychotic violence. As Purcell applies the learnings from his other careers he reaches the point where he can sometimes deliver a full dose of comedy mayhem in a mere seven panels as per the 21st century web strips. There’s an odd demarcation about these being presented in colour while the earlier material is reduced to black and white, but the content is key, and it’s a hilariously wild ride in either format.
The road taken with Sam & Max has long since been co-opted into mainstream superhero comics, with Deadpool the most obvious example. In any sane world Steve Purcell would have parades in his name. Sam & Max is magnificent.