Even as Scene But Not Heard is confined to rigid set of what’s usually 16 panels per page in this 6” X 9” book, Sam Henderson’s hilarious strip swirls and sputters uncontrollably, percolating with riotous energy and wordless pandemonium. The 128-page collection mines back issues of Nickelodeon Magazine, to which the New York-based cartoonist began contributing in 1993 under comics editor Anne Bernstein. Henderson’s work ran in the magazine until 2009, when the nationally distributed Viacom-owned kids publication abruptly folded. While he freelanced for Bernstein and subsequently for co-editors Chris Duffy and Dave Roman, the Scene But Not Heard creator also snagged a full-time day job as a writer and storyboard director on the immensely popular television series SpongeBob SquarePants beginning in 2001 (Duffy would go on to helm the print comic property), and earned an Emmy nomination for his efforts. Sandwiched between contributions from Craig Thompson, Art Spiegelman, Ellen Forney, and more, Henderson’s Scene But Not Heard was the longest-running strip in Nickelodeon Magazine’s 159 issues.
A single-toothed red bear and a bald, phallic-shaped man are the sole figures fiddling about in Henderson’s pages. And the only copy that appears within these often four- or five-color panels is the strip’s title and Henderson’s name — Scene But Not Heard‘s bear and his manic, flabbergasted cohort are left to their overtly expressive features. Minimal scene-setting is upstaged by panel-spanning grins, aggressive fist-shaking, the works. If the characters aren’t at the mercy of Henderson’s bottomless stable of gags (or his intermittent difficulty with proportional consistency), they’re in total control of what happens next. An early strip has both characters quarreling (silently) about the bear’s disregard for punctuality, an episode that concludes with both of them directly engaging with the page’s structure by pulling apart the thick black panel frames. It’s funny enough, but Henderson tunnels a bit deeper by allowing the two of them to have a look what happens next, as they’re peering into the panels to the left, right, and below, having dissembled the lines that traditionally maintain the narrative sequence. Later, an unmanageable vacuum cleaner is to blame for swallowing up panel lines and disrupting any sort of comic storytelling convention. When armed with cans of paint, the bear gives himself a makeover and blends into the background, merely to poke and prod at his short-tempered counterpart under the cloak of invisibility.
Sam Henderson’s humor stings most when these monochrome, everyday observations or prop-driven gags are dutifully spun into absurdist folly. It’s reliably enough of a pisser to have had me chortling alongside the poker-faced stiffs on my cramped subway ride to work, but the classics are here, too. The wacky Scene But Not Heard “a man goes to the doctor” strips or those involving flies in one’s soup, which appear a couple of times over the course of the collection, tap into a more universally recognizable piece of joke book history. They nod directly to the venerable Catskill Mountains resort hotels of upstate New York, where contemporary standup comedy took root decades ago in colorful quick-fire setups dealt onstage by young Jewish-Americans that frequently centered on a physician bearing some really grim news for his patient. In bouts of the batty violence that’s vanished from animated television since I was a kid, Scene But Not Heard’s pranksters aren’t too proud to pay tribute to the frequent hostility that’s all-too-familiar to enthusiasts of Tom & Jerry or Chuck Jones’s Bugs Bunny cartoons (Henderson has cited the latter as influential for him). There are grotesque air pump mishaps, occasional headlessness, and a reliably detachable bear’s nose. One of Henderson’s gags has his hairless pink gent taking on a sculptor role, methodically chipping away at a slab of stone that’s as motionless as his bear friend, who sits to the right of the panels, the inspiration for the carving. When the sculpture goes south because efforts to duplicate the bear’s ear prove fruitless, the man resorts to chiseling down his chum’s actual appendage in order to match the flawed stonework. Ouch.
The off-the-wall stuff, as well as the decidedly not-for-kids fare that’s fleshed-out for his now-two decade old The Magic Whistle, is the kind of thing Henderson scrawls into a sketchbook in the middle of the night, when half-formed ideas read like chunks of solid gold. “In my partial sleep haze, it seems like the most brilliant idea ever thought of by anyone; when I look at it later, half the time it doesn’t make much sense,” he wrote in a 2012 post for The Comics Journal. The Scene But Not Heard book features this sort of process insight, too. Brief but valuable back matter includes an insidery overview of production stages on Henderson’s end, with a page of pencil sketches, a depiction of roughs with an editorial review, and more. The book’s preface takes the form of a diary comic from The Hypo‘s Noah Van Sciver. He cites “The Henderson Generation,” and attributes the direction of his career path to the day he first pored over the Nickelodeon Magazine strip as a nine-year-old. With the Scene But Not Heard creator cast as a heinous, pus-spouting ogre in Van Sciver’s illustrations and the suggestion that the “impact” of Henderson’s work for cartoonists everywhere could only yield a barren love life and premature balding, a lead-in better suited to this nutty digest is difficult to imagine.