The Magic Whistle #10
There’s an early scene in the movie Dirty Rotten Scoundrels that I’ve always admired for its subtlety. Well, it’s not really a scene, it’s more like an action. But it starts with Steve Martin riding in a train car reading an issue of Mad Magazine. Michael Cain enters the car and sits down. Martin, who wants to talk with Cain, first pulls out a bookmark and inserts it into the page he’s reading in Mad before closing the magazine up.
Yeah, that’s it. It’s a quick, easy motion by Martin. He doesn’t whip out the bookmark with great flourish and neatly tuck it in just to make sure everybody in the audience sees him do it. Nor does Michael Cain give Martin an exaggerated look or ask him about the bookmark. It’s just a quick, easy motion that subtly raises this question in the audience’s mind: “What kind of retard needs a bookmark to read Mad Magazine?” This little action says so much about Martin’s character without saying much of anything at all.
I was reminded of this scene recently because here I am the other day riding the bus in Los Angeles and reading a copy of Sam Henderson’s Magic Whistle #10. As you can see from the cover posted above, it features two very crudely drawn men. One guy, who after carving out the other man’s ass, is taking a bite out of it. I was unable to finish reading The Magic Whistle, which is a rather thick compilation of strips, in one sitting. So, when I had to get off at my stop, I pulled out my bookmark, stuck it in the middle of the comic and got off the bus.
It wasn’t my first thought, but I eventually came to wonder if somebody on that bus saw what I did and said: “What kind of retard needs a bookmark to read a comic about a man eating another man’s ass?”
Now, I probably really didn’t need the bookmark. I could just as easily picked up the book the next morning, flipped through the drawings until I found some I didn’t recognize and started reading again. Using the bookmark, though, is just a matter of convenience and my fellow bus riders be damned what they think of me because I probably know something that they don’t: Sam Henderson is a comedic genius.
Alternative Comics has been publishing The Magic Whistle since 1998 and this partial online bibliography, which seems to cut off at the year 2000, shows a prodigious output of comics over the course of 12 years. Yet, in the greater comics world, it doesn’t seem that Sam has received the proper amount of respect and attention as other cartoonists with a similar output. I’ve come up with a couple of theories of why this is:
1) The crude artwork throws people off. Other cartoonists who work in a crude style, e.g. Peter Bagge, usually belie an understanding that they can in fact draw in a more sophisticated style, but are only choosing to work crude. While I believe that Sam is of similar capabilities, i.e. he can hint at sophistication when he chooses to, but for just about all of his work he distinctly chooses not to.
Compare, for example, the 1997 strip “A Lame Story That’s Got a Peel” reprinted here in MW #10 from Zero Zero #17 and the new 2006 strip “A 22-Page Story About Telemarketing and Sex Parties.” If Sam hadn’t written in the book that “A Lame Story” was from nine years ago, there is no other indication that these two strips hadn’t been produced back-to-back this year while looking at them from a purely technical standpoint. Nine years later there are no unique perspectives used, no detailed backgrounds and the characters are all still drawn in Sam’s trademark blocky, flat two-dimensional style.
2) Sam don’t do serious. Again, most well-regarded humor cartoonists; e.g. again Bagge, Clowes, Crumb, Waterson; either inject a notion of sincerity in some of their humor cartoons or do at least one purely “serious” cartoon in their careers. Maybe there’s one still lurking out there in Sam’s future, but so far his comics are nothing but sheer wall-to-wall and balls-to-the-wall silliness and stupidity (and if Sam were illustrating this review, he’d draw a wall full of scrotums and somehow make it both childlike and cute). There isn’t any hint of sentimentality in any Henderson-drawn comic panel ever. Yet that doesn’t mean Sam isn’t any more of a trenchant social satirist than the names I put in at the top of this paragraph, it just makes that talent harder to spot.
3) Sam doesn’t produce comics that fit in easily describable packages. So far there hasn’t been too many serious “graphic novel” style collections of his work. Most famed cartoonists work on one or a few different characters that can be stuffed together in a thicker package, e.g. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat or autobio stories, Bagge’s Buddy Bradley, Clowes’s Ghost World.
While Sam does do recurring characters, most of them are not as obvious for packaging because they either appear in wildly different tales without a shred of continuity; e.g. He Aims to Please; or they are entirely one-note characters, such as Gunther Bumpus, the man who gets his fat ass stuck in a cat door. Yet, Sam is able to take something that should be just a one-page gag, like Gunther Bumpus, and twist the situation in wildly inventive ways to create many entertaining strips. I don’t know exactly how many Gunther Bumpus stories Sam has done in total, but each one seems as fresh as the last even though the majority of the joke is just to show Gunther’s fat ass stuck in a cat door.
4) I have found (via this page and a quick Internet search) that while Sam has many devoted, loving fans most them are completely unable to say exactly why they love his work. This would include me, which I’m trying to make up for with this article you are reading now. What is it about Sam’s work that makes it so hard to describe and to explain why it is what he does is funny?
I don’t know the answer to that and rather than try to explain why The Magic Whistle #10 is funny to anyone, I have instead, of course, written this rather long-ish article to make up for it. But all I gotta tell you is: The Magic Whistle #10 is a staggering work of comedic genius, filled with several long stories (between 7 and 22 pages), plus one and two page gag strips, plus several one page panel collections, such as “Cartoons I’m Too Lazy to Send to the New Yorker.”
“Under the Sea,” “A 22-Page Story About Telemarketing and Sex Parties” and “A Lame Story That’s Got a Peel” (even though this one’s a reprint) are three, surreal epic tales that would be enough bang for the buck if they had been the only stories collected in this issue. That all of these other strips have also been included in the issue is like putting icing on the icing on the cake.