Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1 Review And Spoilers

Pink and Hairy

Written by: Mark Russell
Pencils by: Mike Feehan
Inks by: Mark Morales
Colours by: Paul Mounts
Letters by: Dave Sharpe
Price: $3.99
Release Date: January 3, 2018

The Hanna-Barbera comics continue to bemuse, frustrate and entertain in more or less equal measure. By now, you'll be familiar with the concept. DC takes a fondly remembered franchise from your childhood and reimagines it in a hopefully entertaining 'edgy' way in an effort to breathe some new creative life into it. Whether the concept actually needed new creative life is neither here nor there. This is the 21st century. The past is simply a resource for a never-ending parade of pastiche, nostalgia or subversion. I rather liked Snagglepuss as a kid. A minor character, to be sure, but he had an instantly recognizable look and demeanor and, voiced by the incomparable Daws Butler, a warmth and vulnerability that was all rather appealing. What does Mark (The Flintstones) Russell do with all that? There's only one way to find out…

The comic starts off with a well-dressed couple finishing off their dinner in a swanky restaurant, before heading off to see a play. This is the play My Heart Is A Kennel Of Thieves, written by our eponymous hero who is introduced as a suave Tennessee Williams-like playwright – an interesting (and not insignificant) twist on the original Snagglepuss' repeated desire to become an actor. Snagglepuss is given something of a hero's welcome by the press, his journey from rural Mississippi to Broadway hailed as a uniquely American story of success. It is, of course, revealed to be a bit more complicated than that. Snagglepuss' beautiful lioness wife is later revealed to be an actress providing cover for his homosexual double life. More of that in a moment.

The play is a Williams-esque kitchen sink melodrama of broken promises, crushed dreams and simmering sexual tension. The whole thing is rendered faintly absurd by the fact that all the actors, anthropomorphized cats and dogs as well as humans, are wearing artificial dog ears and snouts. I'm honestly not sure what to make of this other than to accede the obvious point that it ties into the play's title which is roared out by the lead character (a broken mother played by a pink anthropomorphized cat) as the performance's final line. That this is received with rapturous applause by the mixed audience of humans and animals might be some kind of satirical comment on the gullibility of 'high brow' audiences, but that thought may itself be simply a comment on my own philistinism. Oh, well…

The theme of audience, actors and the levels of deception made possible by the relationship between them is established and will take a decidedly dark turn later. First, though, we see the mask of Snagglepuss' public persona slip as he says farewell to his phony wife and heads for 'The Village' and the gay bar (named, rather unsubtly, 'Stonewall') in which waits his Cuban lover Pablo. After sharing a kiss, the pair sit down to have a drink while the TV plays televised HUAC hearings in the background. This then leads to a discussion of government oppression with Pablo relating the pre-Castro dictator Batista's crackdown on homosexuals which culminated in his then lover's death. It's here that, not for the last time this issue, we encounter Russell's use of history to suit his political agenda. I'm no expert on Cuban history but even I know that, although Batista was a corrupt plutocrat who turned the island into a decadent playground for rich industrialists and crime bosses from the US, Castro's revolution was not exactly a golden age for homosexuals either. (This issue is set in 1953, the year the revolution started.) That said, Russell's writing is generally good here, both his dialogue and Feehan's art engendering a fair amount of sympathy for Pablo and a certain trepidation for Snagglepuss that the oppression he only dimly grasps is about to be visited on him.

We get a very nice, touching and wittily scripted meeting between Snagglepuss and one of his heroes, Dorothy Parker, before we briefly return to our anonymous couple who, if the husband's wonder at the technological marvel of television is anything to go by, appear to represent America's insatiable appetite for spectacle. There follows a cameo from Huckleberry Hound and a scene in which Snagglepuss visits a trendy party that, weirdly enough, does nothing to dispel the suspicion that McCarthy might have been on to something in investigating Hollywood for Communists after all.

The book then takes us into decidedly murky territory as our couple, having been told that they've arrived too late to witness the execution of Julius Rosenberg, manage to catch the second showing of Ethel's execution. The notion that death is a spectacle America has long enjoyed is an entirely valid one and well worth making. Here, though, Russell wears his allegiances a little too openly. By giving Ethel the final words of "Please! I didn't do anything!", he implicitly presents her as wholly innocent, a victim of an unfeeling state apparatus caught up in the grip of anti-Russian hysteria. There are a number of problems with this. Firstly, both the Rosenbergs went silently to the electric chair. They left a letter to their children in which they protested their innocence and their unfair treatment by the authorities. The last recorded words of Ethel Rosenberg were allegedly when she was led from her cell: "I have nothing to say. I am ready." More pertinently, it's now agreed by most historians that the Rosenbergs did indeed pass information to the Russians although there's also agreement that they should not have been executed. As Alan Dershowitz puts it, they were "guilty – and framed". Portraying Ethel without regard to those inconvenient nuances is, to borrow a phrase, somewhat problematic.

It may seem a little pedantic to argue about the use of history in a comic book featuring an anthropomorphized pink gay lion, but, when a comic is being as overtly political as this one, it's worth trying to keep it honest. Russell's tale is clearly meant to be grounded in a real-world setting, as the appearances of Dorothy Parker and the Rosenbergs suggest. That authenticity is undermined by this moment.

Finally, we're introduced to our one-dimensional antagonist Gigi Allen who has been charged with 'ferreting out' 'subversives' in show business. I feel we're heading into dangerous territory here. The sour-faced (and Ms. Allen looks like she regularly sups on a diet of raw lemons and prune juice) do-gooding killjoy is a well-worn trope in popular culture. While it has more than a little truth to it, it is also a rather simplistic way of dealing with differences of moral (and political) perspective. It also tends to open up the way for further simplistic tropes. I predict that Ms. Allen will be revealed to be a secret lesbian at some point in issue 5.

The issue ends with the ominous revelation that Snagglepuss' secret life has been discovered and the reader can only imagine the problems that will bring in the rest of the series. Whether I'll still be reading it at that point I'm not entirely sure. Recasting the good-natured, cave-dwelling, doomed to failure pink cat as a Southern homosexual playwright made good in New York probably looked good on paper to someone (and the notion that a pink, softly-spoken, gentle-mannered cartoon lion might be gay has been around for a good while now), but it's difficult to see how a story this determined to cast itself as a tragedy of the right-wing oppression of liberal artistic and sexual freedom could ever be entertaining. 

Perhaps there exists in the writer's mind some notion that, in the current Trump-dominated year, a work like this would be 'edgy' or 'relevant'. Whether you see it as that or not ultimately depends on your politics, but for me, there is nothing remotely subversive or challenging about this at all. In addition, the nods to the original character (which boil down to the cover, his color, an acknowledgment of – and distancing from – his Southern roots, and a couple of largely throwaway lines) are so weak as to be virtually non-existent. Not for the first time with a Hanna-Barbera title, I find myself scratching my head wondering just who this comic is for.

Bits and Pieces:

Some lovely artwork aside, this somewhat ponderous issue plays fast and loose with history and, more relevantly, an interesting character who deserves better than being transformed into an icon of suffering for one's (liberal) art. If you want a genuinely touching portrayal of a gay writer set roughly around this era, read Andre Parks' and Chris Samnee's gorgeous Capote In Kansas. If you want a powerful examination of McCarthyism, go watch The Crucible. If you want something to confirm your liberal political beliefs or indulge your Trump Derangement Syndrome, watch CNN or read the Washington Post. If you want a decent Snagglepuss story, go look for it on YouTube.



  1. I guess if they had made Snagglepuss orange skinned and full of hate you would have liked it better.

    1. thanks for the intelligent comment, Mr. Suckazz. I think you missed the point of Jeremy's review. Read more than the ending blurb next time!

  2. Hahahaha, right wingers are such clowns!

    1. btw, Jeremy is British and I am not even sure he cares much about American politics as much as you think. I don't know, though, because he's never talked to me about it at all. Funny thing is, he points out a comic that is 500% better with similar subject matter, but that means nothing?

  3. Hahaha.

    I kind of expected this, to be honest. My politics are fairly right-wing, but that doesn't mean I can't appreciate a well-told tale from a left-wing creative team, even if the tale in question has an overt political message. For me, personally, I don't think Russell does a good enough job of evoking the charm or vulnerability of the original cartoon character and, although I know that the whole point of these Hanna-Barbera comics is to recast them with a more contemporary sensibility, I think there has to be at least *something* of the original character present in the re-imagining for it to work.

    Dastardly and Muttley is immeasurably better in my view, precisely because it keeps its eye on what made the characters so appealing in the first place while passing comment on contemporary politics in a way that is entertaining rather than overbearing. Russell's political touch is way too heavy here. Particularly given the main character, it should really be an awful lot lighter.

    If you've not read 'Capote In Kansas', though, you really, *really* should. It's beautifully written and drawn and it got to me emotionally in an extremely powerful way. I can't recommend it enough.

    Also, while I'm here, allow me to put out a theory I have about where this comic might be going. It's set in 1953, but the character first appeared (I think) in 1959. Is Russell actually writing a prequel comic here? A comic in which the urbane, successful, gentle-hearted playwright is subjected to the kind of persecution and trauma that could turn him into an insecure, cave-dwelling pink mountain lion? It's... possible, I suppose. But I can't honestly say I think it's a good idea. We shall, of course, have to see. :)

    Btw, which Hanna-Barbera character do you think would make a suitable vehicle for criticism of the current President? I'm not sure, but I'm inclined to think someone like Captain Caveman myself. :)

  4. Captain Caveman could work from a visual standpoint. A character with such distinct and absurd hair, that it is instantly recognizable and a defining feature of the character. Some of the most infamous and influential in modern history have had extremely memorable follicle features...nothing sears a figure in the public consciousness better than absurd features!