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The creators of The Flintstones comic on bringing existential dread to Bedrock

DC Comics made the Flintstones sad. These geniuses are the culprits. 

The Flinstones
DC Comics

The most emotionally devastating comic book in recent memory features a man coming to grips with his obsolescence, questioning humanity’s squandering nature and gross consumerism, and coping with the scars of war.

His name is Fred Flintstone.

Created by writer Mark Russell and artist Steve Pugh, The Flintstones is obsessed with the human frailty that permeates the colorful, funny, Yaba-daba-doo Time Bedrock that many of us grew up with. It uses Bedrock’s first family and Hanna-Barbera’s gag-filled prehistoric vision to tell a basic truth about human nature: that a civilization’s first steps to survival involves someone else’s doom.

It’s all heavy stuff, and given the recent trend of cartoons and comic books going dark and grimy, the Flintstones’ existential crisis could easily be a gimmick in the hands of anyone but Russell and Pugh. The two imbue the comic with a stunning thoughtfulness and humanity that makes this melancholy swerve work for the modern Stone Age family. The Flintstones is a comic that aches and breathes, and that seeks to give us clarity about our own lives.

Pugh and Russell’s run is being released as a collected volume this week, and I recently got the chance to talk to the two about the creative process, the book’s rare glimmers of happiness, and how they determined that best approach to a cartoon known for its prehistoric puns was inescapable existentialism.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Abad-Santos

Mark, I read in another interview about your intense dislike for Flintstones vitamins. Did you make this book so sad because you hated the Flintstones vitamins so much?

Mark Russell

Pugh/DC Comics

No, I didn't even really take into account when writing the book, believe it or not. I did have to take advantage of the opportunity of writing a Flintstones comic to make a jab at Flintstones vitamins, which you might have seen in issue 2, when Fred looks directly at the reader and he says, "Vitamin pills are a scam."

Alex Abad-Santos

You said they tasted like batteries.

Mark Russell

I found it very gratifying to put that in Flintstones comics. Yeah, basically what you're paying for is expensive urine.

Alex Abad-Santos

On a more serious note, one of the reoccurring themes of the comic is wanting to feel significant in a world where you're terminally insignificant. How did you guys realize that was the theme that you wanted to go with the Flintstones?

Mark Russell

As a writer, I feel like I don't choose what I'm going to write about so much as it chooses me. I write about the things that bother me, and one of the things that bothers me is how we're continually dehumanized by the minutia and the pettiness of the world around us. So that's something I didn't really set out to make a comic about, but it's something that sort of imbues the comic that I'm writing, because it's something that weighs on me.

Steve Pugh

Visually, it was kind of up to me to back Mark up in that approach. Probably the best visual representation of that is Fred himself. He's a huge man, huge barrel-chested ex-army guy, who 20 years earlier could take anything that the world threw at him. But now that world is moving on, his physical strength and his power is almost meaningless in the new situation in which he finds himself. Civilization is now sort of edging him to the side, because all the things that made him able to cope with the world are the things that are making him not part of it any more.

Pugh/DC Comics

Mark Russell

I think that one of the fundamental features of civilization is that it tends to reduce people to their economic functions, and that's something I think is more clear with the animal appliances, that even their names are just what their function is in the house, like “Lamp” and “Coatrack” and “Bowling Ball.” Those are the only names they know each other by, and it's basically just because when you're living in an interconnected societal economy, that's how people tend to see you and what you therefore are usually reduced to — your economic function.

Alex Abad-Santos

Another theme of the book is the consequence of consumerism. At first, you’re like, "Oh wow, this turtle's so cute, because he's holding ice cream," and then after Fred and Wilma go to the mall and they start buying the power goat lawnmower, you start realizing these animals have emotions too, and they just kind of get tossed off.

Mark Russell

I think that consumerism, basically what it is is a cute dystopia. I think that most dystopias you see in literature are gray and dark and usually very conformist. The United States, and I think in most industrial countries, we don't recognize ourselves as dystopias because we're colorful, we're marketed to, things are bright and shiny. Our dystopia looks more like a Taco Bell than a concentration camp.

Alex Abad-Santos

How is that reflected in The Flintstones’ art?

Steve Pugh

It's something I learned as I went through the book, how to pitch especially the animal appliances, how cartoony to make them and how realistic to make them in different circumstances, and enable them to be able to emote enough to empathize with them.

And as far as the human characters go, it was important that they sort of not realize what they're doing to these animals. These are good people doing bad things to other living creatures, but they don't get it yet. If somebody kind of took them aside and explained what they were doing, they'd be horrified. But because the society they're working in doesn't perceive these values, they're completely oblivious to the chaos they're causing.

Alex Abad-Santos

That comes through in Issue #3, with the aliens Spring Breaking in Bedrock, this whole idea that the aliens are treating Bedrock’s civilians the way Bedrock’s finest treated the people who came before them.

Mark Russell

I think it's one of the themes of The Flintstones overall, that every civilization we see is built on somebody who was murdered or kicked out of the land they were occupying. There's this uncomfortable family history to every country, every civilization on Earth. As we become more civilized we pride ourselves on being more ethical people, but the old things, like imperialism and conquest, take on different forms. They don't really go away. Instead of actually militarily occupying the land and kicking out the occupants, we simply go there on spring break and trash the place.

Alex Abad-Santos

Fred's a war veteran in this series, and it seems everyone has their own sort of damage. Does that tie back to the concept of our “uncomfortable” family history?

Mark Russell

I wanted to do something with the Water Buffaloes [the organization Fred and Barney belong to], but in the old 1960s cartoon, the Water Buffaloes were just sort of a gentleman's club — you know, like the Rotary or the Lions — and it didn't really feel very relevant to me. What did feel relevant was a lot of vets returning home from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and how we really haven't created anything for them to come back to. So that to me felt like a much more relevant use of the Water Buffaloes than going back and sort of visiting this Mad Men-era social club for gentlemen who just want to get away from the wives for a few hours.

Pugh/DC Comics

Alex Abad-Santos

In one of the issues, Fred and Barney’s friend — a Water Buffalo down on his luck — actually is excited at the idea of getting back to war again.

Mark Russell

Yeah, again, it's about them having been reduced to this role that they play, as opposed to being celebrated or given appreciation for just being the human beings that they are.

Steve Pugh

Mark came up with the cool conceits way before I was brought on board, and when I read the script about the Water Buffaloes being veterans, it was one of those ideas that's obvious once somebody's thought of it. You see it on the page and you think, "Of course, that's beautiful, that's perfect," but it took Mark to think of it, and it works really, really well. It's a little pin in the map that you can hang a lot of the other stuff around.

Alex Abad-Santos

Steve, when Mark tells you that he wants to take the Water Buffaloes in this direction, what’s your thought process? How do you tackle that idea?

Steve Pugh

Mark doesn't put in a huge amount of visual data. He lets me kind of run with the ball. What I have to do is read the dialogue, read the characters, and then build things to support that. I call them gags. They're not gags, but these set pieces. It's implicit in the way these characters are relating to each other, so I can tell roughly the age and the demeanor and the body language of these characters just from what they're saying, almost, and for the most part we've managed to stay in sync. I haven't made too many errors, I hope, or he hasn't mentioned if I have.

Alex Abad-Santos

I'm not a visual person, I can’t draw, so it's hard for me to think about things spatially or know where to even start visually. But when you said “body language” — that clicked.

Steve Pugh

Some artists really, really want everything on the page, almost like an Alan Moore-full description of the situation. I'm fine with that not being there. The main thing for me is I understand the motivation of the characters. If I know what they're feeling about a situation, then everything else is fine. But sometimes you get a script where it's not really obvious if the character's happy or sad or indifferent about what's happening to them, and then it's a nightmare, because a lot of what I do is based on body language and facial expression. But it's never a problem with Mark's scripts. They always have the meat of the character in there.

Mark Russell

Sometimes I'll send a script off and the artwork will come back different than what I envisioned, but it's always better than what I had imagined, so I've learned to give Steve as little direction as possible and let him surprise me with what he comes up with.

Steve Pugh

Great lesson. Write that down, Alex.

Alex Abad-Santos

The comic’s also deeply skeptical of nightly news and journalism. Where does that come from? Is that a dig at how we present stories over time?

Mark Russell

It's about trying to figure out what people are going to watch and give it to them, as opposed to actually thinking about stories — and you know, it's a very human thing. We all do it. We're more about getting the interest of other people than we are about thinking deeply about the actual problems.

The problem is that we're always chasing other people's approval. In a lot of ways in life we're playing a game of Family Feud, where we're trying to guess the most popular answers as opposed to the correct ones. That's sort of the cardinal sin that Bedrock News makes, and where journalism goes wrong, is they're trying to figure out what people want to hear as opposed to telling them actual facts or the truth about problems in Bedrock.

Alex Abad-Santos

The book also has a skeptical and perhaps grim view of religion and morality.

Mark Russell

I don't think it's a grim view of religion. I think they're just — it's trial and error. They're trying to figure out what people need from religion, and the bottom line is we all approach the universe incomplete and with different holes inside of us that need filling by spirituality. And so they're going through a period of trial and error where they're trying to figure out what's going to serve people's spiritual needs.

It doesn't diminish the efforts to try to find something that people can latch onto that makes them feel connected to the universe, by virtue of them getting it wrong once in a while. It's just that this is what happens. We get it wrong, and we're trying to figure out what other people need. The problems that institutions have is trying to present an institutional solution to what is basically a personal need.

Pugh/DC Comics

Steve Pugh

There is also the aspect that you brought in of the two forces at play in Bedrock, where you've got the science guy and you've got the religion guy, and they're both trying to win over the crowd. They're both trying to find their way, and they're both relatively honest about what they believe. The science guy doesn't really know what's going on, but he's really trying to find out, and the religious guy, he's really trying to find his way. You know, he wants people to be good. He wants people to care about each other.

There's no intent to ridicule science or religion as bad things, but where they are in the story in Bedrock, in prehistoric times, they're really out of their depth. They're just finding their way on the start of their journeys.

Alex Abad-Santos

Maybe I’m leaning on the words grim and skeptical too much. But there's definitely an idea in the book that you should be questioning what you’re presented.

Mark Russell

I think in the end what we're saying is that everybody's really just guessing. It doesn't mean they're bad people if they get it wrong, but they're ultimately guessing. The fact that there's an authority, whether it's in the church or science or in politics, telling you something doesn't absolve you of the duty of thinking for yourself.

Alex Abad-Santos

The book has often been described as melancholy, but in a lot of interviews I've read with you guys you always say something to the effect of, "There are funny and joyful parts in it.” So what is the most joyful part in The Flintstones?

Mark Russell

I think for me, I really like the friendship between Bowling Ball and Vacuum Cleaner.

Alex Abad-Santos

That they both live in a dark closet?

Pugh/DC Comics

Mark Russell

Yeah, they're basically domestic appliances that don't have a lot to look forward to in life, but they find each other. They find great solace in their relationship, and I think that's ultimately what we all do. Everything we have that's worth having ultimately comes from other people.

Steve Pugh

I like Pebbles and Bam-Bam goofing around, but I do … Hmm. I know they're in there, because I remember going, "Oh, that's nice."

Mark Russell

I think the relationship between Fred and Wilma is also very positive and genuinely loving, and is a good sort of humanizing part of the story.

Alex Abad-Santos

What about the gay couple, Adam and Steve? I feel like you guys were sitting on that one for a little bit, and in Fred and Wilma’s marriage issue it feels like you both got to say, "Yes! We get to make this joke."

Steve Pugh

There's a little thing when they meet Fred in the street, I think one of them's like ruffling his hair or something. I really enjoyed that. Yeah, you're right, that was joyful. It was a really nice moment, you know, between friends who've known each other a long time, and genuine affection between people.

Pugh/DC Comics

Alex Abad-Santos

The flashback when you figure out what Adam and Steve mean to Fred is kind of a big deal, too. You think that it's just the obvious joke, and then it goes a bit deeper and it pays off.

Steve Pugh

That whole marriage issue was lovely. I mean, there were some terrible moments in it, but there were real nice people having nice things. Well, let me think, did nice things happen to them? I'm looking it up as I'm talking. Yeah, that was fun. That was joyful. I know it sounds weird, but you forget this [certain parts of the comic book], because this has been like a year between, a whole year for us. Why don't we do director's commentary for each issue?

Alex Abad-Santos

You should.

Mark Russell

I'm fine with that.

Steve Pugh

We can put it out as a series.

Mark Russell

Sitting in the dark, eating sandwiches while reading our comics.

Steve Pugh

Yeah, the guy who did the Battlestar Galactica TV series did that. He just sat on the sofa, watching his own TV show, drinking a glass of whiskey, talking about it. Sounded all right.

Mark Russell

That's a good gig.

Steve Pugh

Sorry [for getting sidetracked]. Thanks for taking an interest in us. It means a lot. We were surprised how much people cared about our book, and it's great.

Alex Abad-Santos

Why are you surprised? It's a great book.

Steve Pugh

Good books don't always get attention.

Alex Abad-Santos

A lot of my friends who are into comic books, they always tell me, "Oh man, you have to read The Flintstones." And I'm like, "I know. I'm reading The Flintstones, but it makes me really sad," and they're like, "I know, I'm sad too."

Mark Russell

It acknowledges the shared, sad humanity between you.

The Flintstones Vol. 1 will be available in comic book stores on March 22 and all bookstores on March 28.