I’ve always been a devoted reader of Beetle Bailey comics, comic books, and paperbacks, and recently I’ve been reading some of the Beetle offshoot-comic book SARGE SNORKEL (I’ll review one here in the coming months). While most people have heard of the Beetle character, his military colleague (at another publisher) SAD SACK is not as well known, although the phrase “Sad Sack” is used by people who have no idea it was once related to a famous comic.
According to Toonopedia, Sad Sack dates back to World War II, when it premiered in LIFE magazine and dealt with the realities of wartime military life and had a certain gallows humor to it as well as suggestive situations. To give you an idea of its roots, the title referred to “Sack Of Shit”! It appeared mostly in military-distributed publications, but when that material was reprinted for the general public in book form, its popularity skyrocketed. It became a comic strip in newspapers, it became a movie starring Jerry Lewis, etc. Harvey Comics eventually purchased the character rights from its creator, beginning an aggressive expansion of the Sad Sack comic book line. As Harvey is best known for Casper, The Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich, you can be sure that the trenchant analysis of military life and jaded fighting-man humor was replaced by slapstick kiddie antics.
From the 50’s through the 70’s, SAD SACK-related titles were common at Harvey, a publisher that seemed to believe in milking a handful of their own characters for multiple comic books rather than developing new items, although Sad Sack never had as many spin-offs as Richie Rich, which according to Toonopedia, had as many as 50 (!!!!) different spin-off publications----that’s right, DIFFERENT spin-offs. Take a look at the page we’ve reprinted of a month’s worth of Harvey Comics. Of the 20 magazines listed, 18 are Richie Rich variations! I’ve never found Richie Rich that funny or appealing (although the worst Richie Rich comic would be better than that frightful movie with McCauley Culkin....or as my children used to called him, “Cauley McCulkin”), and I don’t ever remember buying a Richie Rich comic....ever! I have owned some people have given me, but even recently, when a dealer I get cheap comics from offered me as many different ones as I wanted in excellent shape for seventy-cents each postpaid, I passed.
Sad Sack is a much more worthwhile comic than Richie Rich, but it lacks the bite and the insight into human character that Beetle Bailey offers. There’s a lot of workplace wisdom in Beetle, so that it works for folks who’ve been in the service but it also resonates with anyone who’s worked with a regular crew of varied people on a job. That’s why Beetle is timeless. Sad Sack also has a military cast of characters, a “Sarge” who is like Sarge Snorkel, and I find it funny in the sense that a Police Academy film is funny, but it’s really just sight gags and physical humor, and the gags tend to go on for too long.
Maybe I should be pointing out that I’m talking about the Harvey Comics version of Sad Sack. I am not really familiar with George Baker’s military-era strips, just having read ABOUT them and having seen a few online examples. I’m sure they are NOTHING like this at all.
(EDITOR'S NOTE-Having read various Harvey Comics while waiting my turn at the barbershop, I can tell you that the comic book version and the original were vastly different. When I was about ten I took a collection of World War II-era SAD SACK comics out of the library after reading the Harvey books thinking they were pretty much of the same Harvey kiddie fun caliber. Wrong again...the original version of SACK was very sexy like the seventies and eighties BEETLE BAILEY comics and of course filled with gags dealing with uppity officers, feces, subhuman wartime conditions and the sadistic sarge...I even remember one where Sack is having a sexy dream where some curvaceous cutie is taking her clothes off, and at the moment of truth a couple of large "CENSORED" bars appear across the gals private parts much to Sack's disgust!)
The gags going on for too long is also symptomatic of a page-killing tendency I see in this mag. There are a few full page promos for Casper at charitable events, with pics of a member of the Harvey family in a Casper costume (there’s also a full page throwaway of Casper promoting the Cub Scouts). Then there’s a full-page comic promoting a Richie Rich board game, and of course, a two-page Sad Sack prose short story, which is not the best format for him. That they did not kill those two pages with military humor or military-related stories as they would have done in a Charlton war comic tells you that military folks were NOT the audience here, but kids who could have just as easily spent their dimes and quarters on Richie Rich or Casper.
I actually like the Sarge here (after all, it’s HIS comic book), and the Sarge/Sack dynamic does echo that of Sarge Snorkel and Beetle, but without the subtlety and also aimed at a 10 year old audience.
If you like slapstick comic books and can find a Sad Sack cheap (mine cost 60 cents), give it a try, but for a much better experience and something you can read and re-read and which is funny while reflecting the human condition, go for a Beetle Bailey product. You can still find the paperback collections cheap. We at BTC love them. In fact, last weekend, when I was out bar-hopping and catching live bands, I had a Beetle paperback in my back pocket for the down period in between sets. Even though I’d already read it ten times, it still satisfied.