Last year, comic book writer Mark Russell ruined my childhood — and I couldn’t have been happier.
Growing up, I watched The Flintstones every morning before going to school. They were an easy sell for me: I loved dinosaurs (still do), and wanted to live in Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty, Pebbles, and Bam Bam’s world, where dinosaurs were part of everyday life. I even altered Fred’s “yabba-dabba-doo” to incorporate parts of my last name, and would call it out.
This loving relationship changed when Russell and artist Steve Pugh published The Flintstones comic book in 2016, and gave the modern Stone Age family an existential crisis.
Fred is now a war veteran and questioning his own worth in a civilization obsessed with consumerism. Wilma’s more complex too, creating art (handprints) that embodies her tribe, her life, and her experiences. And informing all of it is the sad reality of how life in Bedrock involves reducing living, breathing things to their purpose, like the sentient “Bowling Ball” and “Vacuum Cleaner,” who spend most of their lives in a dark closet.
The Flintstones was one of the smartest and best comic books of 2016, and it maintained that quality through the remainder of its run, which ended in mid-2017. But the end of The Flintstones was not the end of Russell’s commitment to delving into the hidden depths of old cartoon characters: Russell is back, this time with artist Mike Feehan, with the comic book I’m most looking forward to in 2018, Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles.
In Russell and Feehan’s hands, Hanna-Barbera’s audacious pink mountain lion is given new, Flintstonian shading: This Snagglepuss is more stylish, more fuchsia, more unapologetic than his original cartoon iteration. He’s a successful, adored playwright, smooth and confident even if the world around him is on fire. He’s also gay, and living as a closeted homosexual mountain lion in 1953 is awful.
Yes, that combination of words might seem silly on the surface, but Russell has an uncanny ability to ground his narratives with a dark kind of dignity. The series, which mixes surrealism and historical fiction, questions our understanding of the McCarthy era, and whether we realize just how horrifying it was.
“People don’t consider what they’re living in as dystopias because they don’t realize what the reality of other people’s lives are,” Russell told me. “I think [Snagglepuss ] is fighting for the right to create and the right to live an authentic life — and he’s not just fighting for himself. He’s fighting for that right for everyone.”
Snagglepuss lives half of his life in secret because the House Un-American Activities Committee has become drunk with power, investigating and prosecuting anyone and everyone they deem subversive. The Snagglepuss Chronicles subtly explores both the effects and causes of the insidious grip it held on our culture.
In one of the first issue’s memorable sequences, a fictionalized Dorothy Parker muses on nostalgia, and the potential danger it holds.
“Why do you insist on meeting here, anyway?” she asks Snagglepuss, who’s asked to meet her at the Algonquin Hotel — the spot where all his literary heroes used to meet.
“Nostalgia, I guess,” he replies.
“Look what nostalgia did to Lot’s wife,” Parker snipes.
Parker’s biting words invoke our habit of glossing over the suffering of the generations that came before us in the name of nostalgic appreciation. They also suggest that the happy-go-lucky nature of the cartoon Snagglepuss was perhaps just a facade, a glossing-over of the suffering that Russell’s iteration of the character brings to the surface.
Feehan’s brilliant art imbues that suggestion with a whiff of anxiety. He pays a tremendous amount of detail to emotions, evoking a slight menace behind the characters’ wide eyes and forced smiles. There’s a malevolent, gnawing humor to The Snagglepuss Chronicles that actively challenges the assumption that that could never happen in our world. It did. And it could happen again.
With Snagglepuss, Russell and Feehan portray a bleary, terrifying world — but it’s not hopeless. Pulsing beneath the sadness is a pronounced empathy, a focus on humans’ capability to be brave enough to fight for what they love and who they are. Underneath his sardonic shell and stylish words, empathy is what really defines Snagglepuss — and it’s what he’ll need to survive.
Snagglepuss’s suffering is just beginning. In the coming issues, he’ll be faced with an unavoidable choice between having to fight for what he believes in and the world he loves, or living a life of secrecy and fear. After being provoked and watching the HUAC attack his friends, it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to live quietly.
Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles will be released online and in print on January 18.