Sam & Max had been my favourite comic since I’d first read it back in 1988 and I often wondered where it had gone to and what Steve Purcell had been up to since last visible. Borderline obviously didn’t pay anything, and I wasn’t motivated enough to interview comics creators that I didn’t give a toss about. However, I was motivated enough to track down Mr Purcell and ask him a load of questions over a succession of progressively more random emails.
Steve was a great sport, answering all of my questions and supplying me with previously unseen artwork to accompany the interview. I was always a little sad that it got stuck in the first ‘pay-per-view- issue of Borderline, meaning that the readership was probably 76 instead of over 100,000, and I always intended to make the interview available somehow on the web. Here it finally is, only a couple of years later…
MAD ABOUT MAX (& SAM)
IT’S been years since Steve Purcell’s Sam & Max bestrode the comics world like a comedy colossus. We asked Borderline’s most expendable writer, Steve Miller, to see what he could find out. Here is his report.
I’M standing outside a tenement building in New York. The rain slapping into the back of my neck stings like a squadron of angry bees besieging my barber rash. Whenever I look up at the building, the rain falls from the brow of my cap into my eyes. Mummy. I’m not crying, honestly. I’m here because I’m looking for Steve Purcell. Back in the late eighties / early nineties, Purcell’s Sam & Max: Freelance Police was the funniest damn thing in comic books. Its infrequent appearances always rattled with manic sociopathic humour, ludicrous set pieces and some great slapstick. It was no surprise when it was turned into a hit computer game, and a subsequent cartoon series. But it all seems so long ago now. Apart from a one page appearance in an issue of Oni Double Feature, we’ve not heard from Sam & Max in five years.
The door to the building isn’t locked, and though the hallway smells of old root beer, it’s still drier than outside so I edge in. According to the address board, the people I’m looking for are on the second floor, so I make my way up the stairs – unchallenged. I can hear the sounds of violence coming from the first office, and, knowing what I do about “Flint Paper: Private Investigator”, I don’t hang about there for too long. The writing on the next door reads “Sam & Max : Freelance Police.” I take a deep breath and push the door open.
It’s bad. They’re both here, throwing darts at a dartboard that has a photo of George Bush pasted over it. At least, I think it’s George Bush. There’s not a lot of the picture left so it’s difficult to tell. And they’re not taking turns; it’s an arrows free-for-all. God forbid anybody should get in the way.
They both look at me when I enter the room. I blabber on about how I’m looking for Purcell, and can they give me an interview, but they just look at me some more. Max is baring his teeth. I explain that I have lots of money and that doesn’t seem to work. Lastly, I offer them a bag containing the finest junk food that England has to offer, milk chocolate that isn’t milk chocolate, jelly tots, and chocolate eggs containing small voodoo dolls of football players. They’re mollified. At least, Sam seems cool. Max is stuffing his face with the food. Max, you’re not supposed to eat the footballer dolls, little buddy.
SM: It’s been five years since we last heard from the two of you.Where have you been?
Sam: We’re out there. Defending soft, pasty punks like you from the gun toting, proudly ignorant rabble.Knuckle-dragging troglodytes who would just as soon peel you like a grape as give you a howda-ya-doo.
Max: Soft, pasty punks?
Sam: Did I start this off on the wrong foot?
SM: Did the TV show mean that people recognised you more, and did it affect your ability to function as Freelance Police?
Sam: Did you see who they got to play us? My guy’s nose was enormous. He was always waving his arms. Waving his arms.
Max: I liked mine. He brought sensitivity and layers of meaning to my persona.
Sam: In real life you’re only one layer – mostly chicken skin.
SM: I heard rumours that the two of you were either a) living in tax exile on a luxury resort in the Cayman Islands, or b) had blown all of your TV money on a failed dot-com venture. Care to comment on either of these rumours?
Max: What’s tax?
Sam: Shhhhhh! …The dot-com world is decades ahead of the general public. We’re like termites trying to make sense of the atom. Crude, streaming animation displayed in a tiny window is the next generation of entertainment for the people of tomorrow. I have seen the future and it is called www.doodie.com!
SM: What part of your job (Freelance Police) gives you the most satisfaction, makes you tingle to the tips of your fuzzy paws?
Sam: I like kicking doors in. Sometimes a surprised naked person scurries past. Always embarrassingly entertaining.
Max: I like when they beg right before the indian burn.
SM: And what part of your job is most likely to make you mad?
Max: One perp got a shiv into me as I was throttling the living bejeezus out of him. I hate that.
Sam: The last thing that feisty little rascal saw was Max’s tonsils.
SM: Lastly, to Max, just where do you keep your gun?
Max: Bring me a fluoroscope and a set of taxidermy blades and I’ll put on a horror show that will curl your eyebrows.
Sam: Ooh, yeah. Don’t ask that. He means it.
I’m horrified by the vision this description grants me. Plus, I’m a little worried that Max might turn on me when he realises there’s no chocolate left. So I thank them for their hospitality and lurch out of the building, clutching my stomach and
trying desperately to think nice thoughts. Jennifer Aniston’s hair, cute little kittens making daisy chains, that sort of thing.
Still, fun interlude though that was, I still have no idea how I’m going to find Purcell. For starters, I have no idea where he might be. Or what he looks like. It looks like my only option will be to make something up. Deciding that I need some time to think this through, I’m distracted by the neon glow of the Stuckeys at the end of the street, and am easily drawn in by its siren lure of pancakes, free coffee refills and really comfy vinyl seating. Once my eyes get accustomed to the faded ’60s glamour inside, I realise there is only one other customer. He’s sitting at the bar. He’s arguing with the waitress about getting an extra egg on his all day breakfast. I then realise that, in a nod to convenient visual shorthand, he’s wearing a self-adhesive name badge, and it says “Steve Purcell”.
Talk about lucky. I explain to him where I’ve come from and that I’d really like to ask him some questions about Sam & Max. He looks unsure but I offer to buy him the extra egg, and he’s all smiles and happy go lucky Californian charm.
SM: Where have you been and what have you been doing for the last 5 years?
Steve Purcell: I’m out there, defending soft and pasty punks… no, wait. Actually, I’ve stayed pretty busy doing a bunch of freelance concept and writing work. I went to Industrial Light and Magic to work in the story department on the ill-fated Frankenstein digital feature. While it lasted it was a lot of fun and when it ended I continued working with them developing ideas for feature films, until about a year ago. Since then I’ve been working at Pixar in the story department for John Lassiter’s next feature, Cars. Recently LucasArts announced the sequel to
Sam & Max Hit the Road and so I’ve started working with Mike Stemmle (from the original game) on that project as well.
SM: Some of our readers might not be aware of the general history behind Sam & Max. Could you do a quick Readers Digest Condensed version for them?
SP: They started when I was a kid. My little brother Dave and I were drawing our own cheesy comics. He drew the first Sam & Max comics and would leave them around the house unfinished. I would find them and draw the rest of the stories in a mean parody of his style, right down to the dialog. That’s where Sam & Max’s self-referencing way of speaking began. After a while I would do my own
stories. Dave didn’t care about the characters and gave them to me for my birthday. Years later I did a series of Sam & Max strips in the Art School newspaper. They weren’t very good, and were always drawn at the last minute before deadline. A few more years down the road, in the late 80s, Steve Moncuse – who was having good fortune selfpublishing his own comic Fish Police
- asked if I wanted him to publish a Sam & Max book. I spent four months drawing it and it came out to a positive reception. While I was working on the second one I was hired by LucasArts to animate onscreen and create package illustrations
for their computer games. Sam & Max became sort of known around the company. When LucasArts wanted a comic strip for their fan magazine they hired me to do a series of color “Sunday” strips that would parody their latest game release. In 1993 LucasArts licensed Sam & Max for a game of their own. It was produced in less than a year and made Entertainment Weekly’s top ten list. A couple more years and Sam & Max was optioned for a TV series. It was on for one season on FoxKids, won a Canadian Emmy award for best animated series and was a Top Ten rated kids’ show for the season. Now their latest hiatus is over and Sam & Max are going to be in a new LucasArts game.
SM: And could we have some brief biographical detail: where you grew up, where you live now, how many inches of rainfall you get per year, whether you have a particular message for the teacher in fifth grade who said you would never get anywhere?
SP: I was born on the East Coast, road-tripped to California with the family when I was about eight years old and grew up here. I graduated from an old art school in Oakland and lived in that town for about ten years starting out my freelance illustration career doing painted covers for primitive computer games. I now live
in a little Victorian town north of San Francisco called Petaluma (where George Lucas filmed American Graffiti). I have a wife and two boys and live in an old, old house. We get just enough rain and as for my fifth grade teacher, she actually liked me. However, my sixth grade teacher, Miss Taylor, didn’t think I would amount to much. My message to her? Cheer up!
SM: Even though it’s been so long since any big Sam & Max activity, the characters still retain a lot of affection from fans, as can be seen from the various internet sites. Does this surprise you?
SP: It does surprise me and it’s great. I always appreciate the effort that goes into that stuff. I get emails from people who tell me they saw the TV show in Guatemala or something. Or people sending pieces of art that they did. I actually think it’s amazing that there’s any lingering interest at all.
SM: You said you’re working at Pixar. Are you allowed to expand on this and tell us more about what you are doing, and if we watch the credits of Monsters Inc. really slowly, are you in there anywhere?
SP: I pretty much said all I can say about the new project, Cars, except that it’s coming out in 2005. I had just started as Monsters Inc. was coming out so I had nothing to do with it except soaking up all the good will from everyone else’s years of hard work on it.
SM: The two major adaptations of Sam & Max, the video game and the TV show, were both very faithful to the characters and didn’t really change anything major. Is this because you managed to retain much control on both of the projects, or do you think it’s because the characters are so well realised that there’s not a lot that needed changing?
SP: I think it helps if something exists previously as a guideline for developing something new. That didn’t stop FoxKids from asking early on in my talks with them if Max could be a girl. I never had “control” but maintained a lot of involvement in both projects, which seemed to be appreciated.
SM: In one of the issues (the Comico, one I think) you advocated a line of Sam & Max plush toys (women love plush toys). Are you sad that these never appeared? Was there ever a possibility? And is there anything else that you would have liked to see during the great Sam & Max boom of the mid ’90s? Action figures,
SP: Some of that stuff might actually have a chance to happen with the new game down the road. When I wrote that editorial, toys were still a mass-market proposition. If the TV show had another season there was a major toy company ready to jump in. Now there are toys of almost everything in tiny editions of a few thousand, but really nice stuff. I’ll definitely be taking another look at making that happen.
SM: I know that you were friends with Mike Mignola and Art Adams. Do you still keep up with their comics, and are there any other comics that you still read?
SP: I met Mike in art school – he was reading my cheesy strips before we actually met, and we had a teacher in common who would tell each of us about the other one. Mike’s stuff was always very professional and design-oriented. Much more so than most students’ stuff would be. He always knew he wanted to do comics and once he started (the year we graduated) he never stopped. There’s a very clear progression you can track from his early stuff to now. He’s working on a movie of Hellboy and I don’t know anyone that’s worked harder or deserves it more. I still follow his stuff and it continues to amaze me. Arthur’s stuff I always appreciated as well but he works on a lot of different kinds of things so I don’t run across his work as much. I try to catch up if I see him at a convention. As for other comics, I don’t follow too many. I still like Jim Woodring and just started checking out some Dave Cooper. I prefer that weirder stuff.
SM: Is there any Sam & Max in the pipeline, or do you have any other comics stuff in the works? I’ve got three firm orders over in the UK if that’s any help.
SP: I have this book that’s about a third drawn and inked. I know what I have to do to finish it and it’s mostly just setting the time aside and seeing it through. It seems more likely to happen with the momentum of the game but I’ve learned to stop promising it by a certain date because I tend to disappoint. I have
another epic scale adventure I’d like to do as well; Sam & Max Plunge Through Space. It was the story that I based my action game pitch on and would be about 60 pages or so. Maybe if I start tonight…
SM: None of the companies that previously published Sam & Max appear to exist any longer (Fishwrap, Comico, Epic, Marlowe). Are you gunning for one of the big companies next, and conversely, do you think that perhaps a big company might shy away from the property because they fear the curse?
SP: Yeah, you’re probably right. I’m lucky that I have supreme control of such vast powers to destroy these foolish publishers. Come and publish me DC! Dark Horse! If you’ve got the belly for it!!
SM: Is there any chance that there might be a reissue of the trade paperback from another publisher? In colour this time!?
SP: I’d like to do it and I’d like to paint all the pages too. I started selling some of my original pages and regretting it (because there are not that many and I got sort of attached to them). Then I came up with the brilliant plan that I could take my copies, print them on bristol board, paint them and then I’d have original
pages again. Of course there’s that publisher’s curse thing, so it probably will never happen.
SM: Is there anything in particular that helps you to kick back? Any particular music, television, beer, a baseball team?
SP: I like soundtracks by Carter Goodrich and Thomas Newman. I love Aimee Mann and Coldplay and Johnny Cash. If I work in my studio late at night I like having all the horrible dating shows playing in the background. They remind me to appreciate being married.
SM: Do you have any children? And are they big fans of the characters? Or would they be scared, as Max’s terrifying head is a universal symbol of something or other?
SP: Russell is three and Ian is one. Ian’s too little to ask but Russell watches the cartoons and has some kind of concept that I’m connected to them. “I like your Sam & Max shows, Dad.” He’s not afraid of too much and rode on the Disneyland
Haunted Mansion with me. That’s my boy!
SM: Do you have a favourite moment from any of the Sam & Max stories? For me, it’s probably some of the throwaway gags, like when they’re walking up the stairs, Max says, “The guys probably wonder where I get my good looks”, and Sam says quietly “From a shark?” That cracks me up every time I look at it.
SP: I always like the obscure jokes that I put in for myself, especially if I think they’re just for me but somebody else got them too. I like the songs because I’m always sort of reaching when I make up a song. They all have music and can actually be sung. I like the jokes that connect to my childhood memories like the
road trip stuff. One of my favorite moments that still makes me smile is when Sam is trying to restore Max to his skin in Bad Day on the Moon; Sam says, “Max doesn’t have DNA. I think he’s considered a mineral.”
I’ve got a heap of questions left to ask, but our waitress, Betty, returns with the breakfast for Steve, and I think it’s probably time to stop. I’ve got the interview I came for, and there’s at least one scoop in there. It’s just a shame that I can’t lose the vision of where Max keeps his gun.